Do you have trouble just saying NO to your sweet tooth, or your Inner Couch Potato when s/he really wants to skip that exercise session you've got planned? Well, maybe NO isn't really the word you should be using.
Trying saying OM instead.
That's the advice of some psychologists who have been studying the potential benefits of meditation for people who are trying to lose weight.
A couple years ago, Jean Kristeller, PhD, a psychology professor at Indiana State University, and Ruth Quillian-Wolever, PhD, clinic director and clinical health psychologist of the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine, conducted a randomized clinical trial using mindfulness meditation as an intervention for weight gain and obesity, particularly for binge-eating problems, and found that the approach was helpful. That research is described in this book chapter (link goes to a downloadable PDF).
More recently, this study found evidence of actual physical changes in the brain associated with meditation, which may help explain how it helps.
The meditation techniques used in these studies are variations on Buddhist vipassana meditation (aka mindfulness meditation), the basic goal of which is "to see things as they really are," without attaching negative or positive judgments to them. The practitioner of this form of meditation sets out to "empty" her mind of all the busy thoughts that constantly intrude and demand attention, usually by focusing on the breath or a mantra. When thoughts inevitably show up, the idea is not to resist or stop them--it's simply to notice them and allow them to go on their way without getting caught up in them emotionally, or passing judgment on them.
This is helpful because thoughts themselves are not the problem--it's usually the act of judging our own thoughts that gives them the power to distract us or affect us emotionally in problematic ways. For example, if you're trying not to have a certain thought, and one comes along, the "normal" reaction is to get upset with yourself for not being able to stop it, and then start thinking about why you have this problem or what you can do about it. This is what actually turns a simple, harmless thought into a problem, and gets us headed off on the wrong track. If, on the other hand, you simply note that you're having a thought, without thinking of this as good or bad, it will typically pass on through quickly, without getting you upset or emtionally involved, and allow you to get right back to your focus on simply observing what's going on.
Practice of this kind of meditation helps you develop the skill of observing yourself without either passing judgment, or feeling like you need to act on every thought or feeling that comes along. It helps you create a little bit of space between you and what happens to you, and between you and your own actions. Learning how to stay in this " mindful space" between the doer and the deed can be pretty crucial when it comes to healthy eating and exercise. When you can allow thoughts to come and go without getting wrapped up in them, you're much better able to get out of your negative thought patterns and habits and get into your actual here-and-now bodily experience--including your natural sensations of hunger and fullness. Laboratory research on regulation of eating shows that individuals with eating problems are generally less aware of experiences of hunger and satiety cues, including taste-specific satiety and feelings of fullness.
At the same time, the ability to notice and experience urges, impulses, thoughts and feelings without feeling compelled to push them away or act on them can free you from the need to eat emotionally in order to control or manage these experiences. You can probably imagine how much easier it might be to handle an urge to grab a piece of candy out of the office candy bowl if your first reaction is to simply notice that you're having the urge, instead of either mindlessly reaching for the candy, or immediately getting caught up in worrying whether you'll be able to resist it, wondering what's wrong with you that you can't just ignore it, or getting upset that your coworkers don't seem to care how hard it is for you to resist the little treats they bring in. Without all the mental turmoil, that urge will come and go in a few seconds--it's the turmoil your mind generates after you make the judgment that having that urge is a bad thing that actually turns it into a problem.
As always when it comes to changing the way you see things, using these meditation techniques to develop the skills discussed above will take practice over time. But according to the research, people often start seeing positive results in gaining more control over impulsive or compulsive behavior within a short time.
Personally, I've found meditation very helpful. My favorite form is "walking meditation"--usually in the form of hikes in desert hills--which really helps me quiet down all the "noise" in my mind and just focus on being where I am and how it feels to be walking there. It's a great way to nip depressive thoughts and feelings in the bud.
Do you have any experience with meditation? Has it helped you get a better handle on “mindless” eating?
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