Weight gain or loss is most often associated with diet and exercise, however weight and body shape are influenced not only by physical health, but by mental health as well. Our brains and bodies work together, such that challenges in one may result in changes in the other. These outcomes can interact, and at times in a way that cycles and grows into bigger problems.
Psychological research studies show the mind-body connection can actually be harnessed to help address weight issues. A recent study from Rogers and colleagues published in the Journal, Obesity Reviews, indicated that mindfulness based treatment helped to improve eating behaviors, weight, and physical health.
Keep reading to learn more about the mind-body connection, how it may be affecting your weight or body size, and how mindfulness can support healthy body weight.
How does the mind affect the body?
Thoughts, feelings and beliefs can have an effect on the physiology of our body, affecting our hormones, metabolism, immune system, cardiovascular system and brain function. Consider anxiety or stress as an example: when we experience stress, our bodies enter fight flight mode, releasing stress hormones into the bloodstream. When stress becomes chronic (as opposed to acute stress that may result from a single episode) our bodies stay in this state of heightened awareness and levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, remain elevated.
Research has shown that stress, especially this kind of prolonged stress (https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321407.php), can have negative effects on the body and brain. Eventually our bodies become exhausted and certain body systems become out of balance. Cortisol levels can spike and eventually become depleted, and the brain systems that regulate hunger and sleep can become disrupted.
How does my body affect my mind?
The reverse relationship is also true whereby physical health can have an impact brain function. Following the example above, consider chronic stress that results in weight gain. This change in body mass can lead to other physical changes such as inflammation and increased levels of blood insulin. Research is now linking such bodily changes to feelings of depression.
Changes in weight, particularly weight gain, can also result in poor body image as our culture rewards thinness and shames most other body types. Dissatisfaction with our bodies may make us less comfortable with activities we once enjoyed, such as exercise or simply being social. We may become less inclined to go out and as a result spend more time alone, move less, and eat more. This can become a vicious cycle and a cause of considerable suffering.
Luckily, there are many solutions that can help you to address both the physical and emotional aspects of weight-related issues. Research has found that people who feel constantly stressed can find relief through mindfulness.
What is mindfulness?
Humans do have this amazing capacity to live in two places at once—operating in the real world while simultaneously residing in their thoughts and minds. While this can serve us in certain situations where multitasking is necessary, it can also increase stress levels.
Mindfulness skills can help you “get out of your head” and engage with the present moment. When it comes to weight issues, particularly shame around body size, mindfulness can help us to stay in the moment, be with whatever it is you are doing and not engaged in the cycle of negative thoughts that police how we view our own bodies.
One benefit of mindfulness is that it doesn’t cost anything, doesn’t require you go anywhere, and can be used just about anywhere and at anytime. Using the skill of observing, you can take a few minutes to notice what is around you. You might observe the space you are in with your senses- what are you seeing, hearing, tasting, or touching? If you spend a few minutes just observing, you will notice that there is a lot going on outside of your own mind. You may come to appreciate “the little things” around you- there are a lot of them! From the dust on a windowsill to the shape of a cloud to the pitch of someone’s voice, there are countless details we can begin to notice through mindfulness.
You can also try techniques such as deep breathing and meditation. These techniques take a little more time and you will probably want to do them in a quiet, calm place. Many find deep breathing approachable because it involves something we all do and do constantly- breathe. When we take deep breaths, we slow down. You may notice your chest rise and fall, you may count the seconds it takes to inhale, and the seconds it takes to exhale. It allows us to become present with one of the most fundamental things of life and helps us achieve calm.
Mindfulness and Weight
To help address weight issues, you can apply mindfulness skills to eating and mealtime. Slow down and notice your food before consuming it. Notice its colors, textures, smells, and tastes. As you focus more on the food in front of you and less on your to- do list or on things that happened last night or what’s to come later in the day, it will change the way you experience eating. You may enjoy your food more, eat more slowly, and likely, eat less. When we slow down we are able to notice the cues our body gives us that say- “Hey, that’s enough!”
Becoming more aware of the cues our bodies give us is helpful in general. It allows us to notice when we are hungry, how hungry we are, and when we are satiated. Are we hungry out of boredome or is our body actually ready for more calories? This can often reduce stress around eating as we learn to eat not when our mind says it’s time, but when our body does.
Studies show that mindfulness interventions can help us improve eating behaviors, eating attitudes, and maintain healthy body weight.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
Known as ACT for short, it can be summarized as accepting whatever comes to pass and making a commitment to simply move forward. For example, if I decided to fast one day and halfway through the day I end up eating a donut that a colleague brought into work (the eternal struggle!), I have a couple of choices. I can throw in the towel, consider the fasting attempt ruined and have another donut OR I can see it for what it is- a donut, a misstep- and continue with my fast from that moment. This kind of shift away from the all or nothing mentality can help us to avoid food binges and maintain a more balanced approach to eating.
The attitude of ACT also allows us to practice self-compassion. Research shows that when using mindfulness to manage weight problems, it is helpful to be gentle with ourselves by acknowledging that everyone has missteps, that it is okay, and that we can get back on track. We don’t have to punish ourselves every time we have that second donut, that third helping of pasta, or one too many handfuls of chips.
The Final Bite
Mindfulness can be a great tool when looking to reduce stress around eating and establish healthy eating patterns. We can employ the techniques described above to make mealtime more enjoyable and to give our bodies what they need when they need it. You can try these out as part of your self-care regimen or consult with a healthcare provider to determine which tools are right for you.