Rooted in Wisdom; Honoring the Body in RecoveryFebruary 25, 2022
What if I told you that you are not broken, that you do not need to be fixed? What if I told you that your eating disordered thoughts and behaviors are rooted in wisdom? That the thoughts and behaviors came into existence as a way to protect you, to help you find a sense of safety within your body and the world around you? How might this change your view of yourself, your relationship to your body and your approach to recovery? What might recovery look like if we viewed the messages our bodies are sending us as being rooted in wisdom rather than rooted in disease and pathology? How might eating disorder treatment become more effective and inclusive if the body was viewed as a source of wisdom and included in recovery?
It has never really made sense to me, as someone with lived experience with an eating disorder and a yoga therapist working with people in recovery, that most traditional approaches to eating disorder treatment do not involve the body in recovery. This is not to say that there are not some treatment programs that are offering yoga and other body-based (somatic) practices. There are, and that is wonderful to see. However, they are typically viewed as an add on, an additional activity that clients participate in. The guiding principles of these therapeutic modalities that encourage us to get in touch with our bodies, to become aware of physical sensations and emotions, and then use that information to guide us are not woven into treatment as a whole. Not only are the messages from our bodies left out of most aspects of treatment, but they are also often dismissed and ignored.
Traditional/current approaches to treatment focus on identifying and labeling thoughts and internal experiences as disordered and working to reframe or override these experiences. Much emphasis is placed on fighting against the “eating disorder voice,” which is viewed as the source of all thoughts and emotions that cause one to engage in eating disorder behaviors. For some people this is an effective approach, to wage battle against an enemy in an attempt to win recovery. For others, including myself, viewing our thoughts as wrong, a lie, and an enemy we must fight against, felt disempowering and further exacerbated an already growing lack of self-trust and self-worth. In addition to viewing thoughts as the enemy, traditional approaches encourage ignoring or overriding sensations or emotions felt in the body. People are told that their emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations are not real, but a manifestation of the eating disorder and to disregard them in order to follow through with certain aspects of treatment. This approach to ignore and suppress the messages from the body strengthens the mind-body disconnect that many people with an eating disorder experience and only serves to lead to further dissociation from the body. Eating disorders are often developed in response to stressful and traumatic experiences that affect our capacity to cope, self-regulate, and feel a sense of safety. Over time, these experiences cause a physiological change in our nervous system that engages the fight, flight, freeze and/or fawn responses. When this occurs the part of the brain that identifies with emotions and physical sensations is dominant and the pre-frontal cortex, our “thinking brain,” goes offline. Often people with eating disorders are “stuck” in one of these responses and the sole use of traditional cognitive (top-down) approaches to therapy becomes ineffective as the thinking and rational part of the brain cannot be accessed.
What if I told you there was another way to treat eating disorders? Research has shown that body-based (bottom-up) approaches are integral to not only helping to identify states of nervous system dysregulation, but also in creating physiological changes needed to help to regulate the nervous system and bring the body back to a place of safety. When considering this knowledge, you can begin to understand why actually listening to and working with, rather than against, the messages our bodies are sending us is an integral, and often missing, component to treatment and recovery.
It was only when I started to practice yoga, at the suggestion of a dear friend, that I began to see the importance of incorporating the body in recovery. Yoga provided me an opportunity to ask, “what is my body trying to communicate to me?,” rather than viewing the strong emotions, thoughts, and sensations as something to suppress or ignore. Further training in trauma-informed approaches to both yoga and eating disorder recovery allowed me to see that eating disorder thoughts and behaviors are our body’s attempt to regulate our physical and emotional state, our nervous system. Research shows us that many eating disorders develop as a response to chronic stress, anxiety, depression, and traumatic experiences that cause our nervous systems to become dysregulated and bring us out of our window of tolerance. When out of our window of tolerance, our symptoms are further exacerbated and the nervous system does its best to find ways to cope, to bring us back to a sense of safety and ease within our bodies. Those who develop eating disorders discover that changing their relationship and behavior with food and/or exercise calms and soothes the nervous system, bringing them back, or closer into, their window of tolerance.
When viewing eating disorders through a trauma-informed lens, we see that eating disorder thoughts and behaviors are used to help one move away from overwhelming thoughts, emotions, and sensations and back to a place of safety and ease. This viewpoint allows us to see that these behaviors were originally rooted in wisdom as our nervous system was doing its best to identify ways to regulate strong emotions and sensations. From there we can help people start to investigate and identify the unique purposes these behaviors serve and ultimately work toward developing healthier ways to cope and meet these needs.
When viewing recovery from a trauma-informed lens we also acknowledge the importance of bottom-up, body-based, approaches in regulating the nervous system. Practices such as yoga not only encourage us to notice, rather than dismiss or override, the messages we are receiving internally from our bodies, but they also provide us with tools and skills to regulate the nervous system and bring us back to that place of safety, calm, and ease. The practice of yoga can help us to:
*Become aware of changes in our bodies (muscle tension, increased heart rate, shifts in breathing, digestive upset, brain fog) that alert us we may be moving into dysregulation and out of our window of tolerance. Helping us to better identify when we need to practice regulation skills and potential triggers to becoming dysregulated.
*Learn postures (asanas) that help us to feel relaxed, safe, strong, and empowered.
*Identify breathing techniques that can reduce fear, anxiety, and overwhelm. As well as ones that can help us when we need to feel motivated, positive, and energized.
*Within a safe environment, practice challenging poses to increase distress tolerance, our ability to be with strong emotions and sensations and widen our window of tolerance.
*Incorporate yogic philosophy, including ahimsa (non-harm), that helps us to cultivate self-compassion and bring kindness into our relationship with food and our bodies.
Every day, people in eating disorder treatment are encouraged to ignore, suppress, push through strong emotions and sensations in the body such as fear, anxiety, fullness, hunger, pain, and discomfort. They are taught to dismiss those experiences as being the eating disorder, not rooted in reality, but in disorder and delusion. However, these emotions and sensations are not only very real and felt deeply in the body, but are signals from the body that we do not feel safe, and our focus needs to shift to find a way to bring that sense of safety back.
What if rather than encouraging the ignoring or overriding of sensations, someone acknowledged them as being very real? Asked us to describe what we were feeling, what sensations we were noticing in the body, and then not only honored the reality of those emotions and sensations but also offered ways to both be with and move from the strong and uncomfortable sensations to a place of more calm and ease? Might that make it easier to engage in treatment and nourish one’s body? Might less people be labeled as “resistant to treatment” if their internal experiences were honored, validated, and then also provided with tools (such as yoga) to regulate their internal state? I believe the answers to these questions to be a resounding yes.
I wholeheartedly believe that yoga, and other body-based practices, are an integral component to eating disorder recovery. I have seen it both personally and professionally. It is in Seeing this Change in how eating disorders are viewed and treated that I am inspired to continue to Be the Change and advocate for the inclusion of the body in recovery. To view the body as a source of wisdom that will guide and support us on the recovery journey. I hope you will join me in Being the Change in working toward a place where our bodies are seen as a source of wisdom to be honored and an important guide in recovery.
Nikki is a certified yoga therapist, holds a master’s degree in education-counseling and has additional certifications in trauma-informed yoga and embodied approaches to eating disorder recovery. Through her local work in Madison, WI and virtually around the world, Nikki offers individual yoga therapy, groups and classes specializing in eating disorders, body image, trauma, and addiction recovery. Nikki is on the Leadership Team of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition and is the editor of YBIC’s ongoing column that highlights how the practice of yoga can play an integral role in the healing in our relationship with food and our bodies.