People are healthiest when their mind, body, and spirit are integrated, creating an internal sense of wholeness. These parts of the self are meant to be connected to each other, and to function in harmony with each other and the whole. Unfortunately, eating disorders often bring about an internal fracturing of mind, body and spirit. It may feel like you have been trapped in your mind by eating disorder thoughts that disconnect you from your body and spirit.
Recovery involves reintegrating the mind, body, and spirit, so it is important to address all three components of the self as part of the treatment process. Medical and nutritional stabilization restores the body, and psychotherapy and psychopharmacology heal the mind, but what about the spirit? Connecting with and healing the spirit happens through the practice of spirituality.
What is Spirituality?
Spirituality encompasses all of the ways that we connect with our deepest, truest selves, and all the ways we connect beyond ourselves to whatever we consider sacred or transcendent. Some people identify that as God, while others find it through their ideals or a sense of ultimate purpose. We might find it in the beauty of the natural world, or the shared energy of our common humanity. We might experience it through the creative force inside us, or love for one another. There are as many experiences and expressions of spirituality as there are people.
Since we all possess a deepest self – what we might call a spirit – spirituality is universal. It is our vital life-force. Many of the things we seek or long for in life are part of our spirituality: a sense of meaning and purpose, belonging and connection, hope, joy, peace, a sense of identity that feels authentic, and a sense of agency or control over aspects of our lives.
Spirituality, Eating Disorders, and Recovery
Eating disorders may initially seem like a way to fulfill these longings: they offer us an identity and purpose, and promise worth, meaning, acceptance, control, and peace. Unfortunately, eating disorders never keep these promises. At best, they disguise and distract us from our authentic spirits. At worst, they alienate us from our true selves, and from the life-force in and around us.
Spirituality offers an antidote: not only a path to healing, but ultimately, to fulfillment. Spirituality reconnects us with our authentic selves. It provides a lasting sense of inherent worth, and frees us to connect with, rather than compete with, others. It allows us to feel like we belong and are at home in the world, and in our bodies. It fosters a sense of meaning and purpose, and directs our energies in creative rather than destructive ways. For things that are in our power, it gives us the strength to exercise healthy control in ways consistent with our values. Where things are not in our power, it gives us faith and trust to accept, and let go of our efforts to control. It lends us courage and strength when we are struggling, and gives us a way to expressing joy and gratitude when all is well. Spirituality is the language of the heart, where body, mind and spirit are joined.
Spirituality is a Practice
To experience these benefits, we have to actively practice spirituality. Although it is shaped by what we think, and in turn shapes what we feel, spirituality itself is primarily something we do. Different spiritual practices resonate with different people, and at different points in life. It may be helpful to experiment with different practices to discover what feels most meaningful at this point in your recovery journey. A few examples of the many possible spiritual practices include:
- Prayer – Communicating with the transcendent by speaking and/or listening
- Meditation – Focusing attention and awareness either on one’s internal experience (thoughts, feelings, sensations), or on a word or symbol chosen to represent something sacred or transcendent.
- Mantras – Silently repeating a word or phrase that represents one’s spiritual beliefs or intentions throughout daily tasks.
- Inspirational Texts – Reading and reflecting on spiritual texts, such as scripture and the writings of spiritual teachers (which can also be used for meditation and mantras).
- Table Blessings – Giving thanks for each meal, where it came from and those who prepared it.
- Yoga – Uniting body, mind, and spirit through a sequence of mindful movement, incorporating breathing and meditation.
Of course, with any practice, there will be times when it feels like we’re just going through the motions. Sometimes the practice won’t lead to feelings of peace and comfort, or may even make us more aware of our distress. However, if we keep practicing anyway, we open ourselves to more frequent experiences of transcendence, connection, peace, and even joy. And as an added bonus, we prime ourselves to more fully and deeply experience these moments when they arrive.
Actively practicing spirituality strengthens us to do that hard work of recovery from eating disorders like anorexia, and helps us focus on the reasons it’s worth it. It becomes a source of comfort and sustenance along the way, and brings us into fuller contact with life, in all its messy, vulnerable, sometimes painful, but beautiful richness.
To learn more about spirituality and spiritual practices see the following:
- Overviews of different spiritual approaches, practices and beliefs:
- News and articles related to spirituality:
You can also learn more about eating disorders and spirituality:
About the author:
Natalie Hill, LICSW, is the lead clinician of the adult PHP and IOP at the Braintree Clinic, where she provides group, individual and family therapy, facilitates a training program for masters-level interns, and plays a supportive role in clinic operations. Ms. Hill’s professional interests include Narrative Therapy, upon which this post is based, and innovations in Eating Disorder treatment. She is the author of the blog Practice Wisdom.