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Compassion for Disordered Eating

Reoccurring weight gain due to disordered eating is a problem for many people. Losing weight permanently involves addressing a number of challenges that may go unnoticed, but if not addressed, will lead to another unsuccessful attempt to reach desired weight loss goals. The factors that usually go unaddressed include sustaining motivation, self-efficacy, self-esteem and psychosocial problems (Teufel et al. 2011). Most people are already aware of the need to limit the non-nutritive carbohydrates and to start an exercise regimen. When these actions are only effective for a while, it is usually psychosocial stress that undermines a well thought out weight loss strategy. The stress could be problems with one’s self or from others. Despite good intentions to keep to the plan, negative emotions start to increase and positive emotions seem to evaporate away. Many in this situation have limited coping strategies for stress. Emotional eating works to relax the nervous system, but it is only short-term. The sense of defeat and frustration it causes usually means the weight loss plan will be abandoned.

Self-efficacy has been studied as an important factor for turning health goals into action (Teufel, 2013). Self-efficacy as theorized by psychologist, Albert Bandura, is a person’s belief in their own ability to succeed in carrying out a task or goal. When a person knows they have the coping skills to handle the unforeseen stresses that can sabotage health goals (high self-efficacy), they have a much better chance of exerting control over problems and moving ahead.

Researchers now suggest that compassion-based mindfulness be integrated into cognitive behavioral therapy to teach the coping skills needed to handle stressful negative emotions that interfere with a health goals (Cassin, 2018).

Compassion had been thought of by researchers as; an action, a feeling, an emotion, a motivation, and a temperament (Strauss et al. 2016). More recently, researchers have discovered that compassion is actually a positive state that naturally occurs when a person is relaxed and feels safe. When a person is relaxed, compassion is experienced as a sensitivity to the suffering of self and others and therefore is a motivation to help alleviate or prevent this suffering (Porges, 2017). Cultivating compassion with mindfulness can help people who suffer from high levels of self-criticism, shame, and self-directed hostility to increase their positive feelings such as warmth and reassurance. The existence of these positive emotions (high self- efficacy) are necessary to continue making good healthy choices that nourish the self and promote better relationships with others.

Biofeedback therapy is also a cognitive-behavioral intervention that has been proven effective in improving self-efficacy in people with various disorders and symptoms (Teufel, et al. 2013). Biofeedback can be integrated into mindfulness treatment as a non-invasive way to help a person learn relaxation skills. A person relaxes by receiving visual or acoustic feedback of their own physiological processes as they relax in real time. Finger temperature, nervous system, heart, and muscle activity are shown as instructions to soothe and calm. An experience of the state of compassion for self and others emerges as a person begins to view themselves in a new way for the first time. The ability to relax and live in a state of increased compassion and positive emotion becomes a powerful coping skill for increased confidence in meeting weight loss goals. If dysfunctional eating patterns can be triggered by how we feel about ourselves and how we feel perceived by others, a mind-full compassionate attitude can be the best defense against negative feeling states. Psycho-education, breathing meditations, recognizing non-compassionate thoughts, compassionate letter writing and compassionate visualizations are also therapeutic for psychological strength and stability (Cassin, et al., 2018).

Lauren A. Salani, LCSW, BCB, Board Certified in Biofeedback Therapy. Senior Fellow of Biofeedback Certification International Alliance, Member of Association of Applied Biofeedback and Psychotherapy, Member of National Association of Social Workers. Stress Relief Services at Atlantic Executive Center, 107 Monmouth Road, Suite 104 West Long Branch, 732.542.2638,


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