Mindfulness and Hunger Awareness | Counseling | Therapy

Mindfulness and Hunger Awareness

Shannon Oliver-O'Neil , LCSW — Therapist, director of intern program, director of rhode island office

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Mindfulness and Hunger Awareness: Mindful Breathing Inventory Exercise

Many people have difficult relationships with food and their own bodies. When we fall into the habit of judging our bodies, our choices, and even our desires (for cheese, for chocolate, etc), it becomes easier to disconnect than to stay present. One way this may manifest is as binge eating - eating large amounts of food in a short period of time. Binge eating at its core demands that we stop listening to our bodies - that we attempt to bury any bad feelings (anxiety, guilt, shame, loneliness, to name a few) with food, even to the point of physical discomfort. Binge eating is an attempt to gain control through dissociation and is reflective of the disconnect between our minds and bodies.

One framework that can reground ourselves in our bodies is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of existing in the present moment without judgement. How does this look in real life? Let’s say you come home from a stressful day at work completely drained and ready to binge. Without mindfulness, you may think to yourself “I’m stressed, let’s eat.” You might help yourself to a favorite food until you are so full you feel ill. Then you may spend the rest of the night feeling sick and beating yourself up for “giving in”, “being weak” or any other mean names your internal judge might come up with.

With mindfulness, you can come home from that same stressful day and do a Mindful Breathing Inventory that tells you “I’m stressed. I’m also already full.” In the time you’ve done a Mindful Breathing Inventory, your stress levels drop enough so that you can use another strategy to cope with stress - venting to a roommate or partner, drawing or writing in a journal. Mindfulness allows us to be present with unpleasant feelings (stress, shame, anxiety, etc) without judging or attempting to silence them. Mindfulness allows us to fully experience moments of pleasure, and to tolerate moments of discomfort.

Mindful Breathing Inventory

Preparation: Stand up so your lungs and diaphragm have plenty of room to expand as air moves through them.

  1. Stand with your feet planted under your hips, and your weight distributed evenly over your them.
  2. Take a breath in and roll your shoulders back down your shoulder blades, opening up your chest and lungs, and releasing any tension you may carry there.
  3. Place your hands on your stomach and inhale - this should fill your lungs and diaphragm with air, pushing out your stomach and moving your hands. Exhale and see if your stomach contracts again. If your stomach doesn’t move you might be breathing shallowly and from your lungs. This can make you lightheaded. Try to take a deeper breath and imagine filling your whole torso with air.

Breathe: Shift your focus from judgement or active thoughts to your breath.

  1. Make a “breath square” by inhaling, holding, exhaling and holding breath for five counts each. It can be helpful to silently count the following: inhale-2-3-4-5, hold-2-3-4-5, exhale-2-3-4-5, hold-2-3-4-5.
  2. It’s likely that as you breathe, ideas will drift in and out of your brain. Acknowledge them but don’t follow them- return your focus to the breath and the counting. Put the thought on a shelf, and give yourself permission to come back for it later.
  3. Repeat this “square” 5 times. You’ll know you’ve executed the exercise when you are able to breathe without judging it or yourself. This practice takes time - it can take even experienced yogis years to fully anchor their focus in breath.

Take inventory: Shift your focus from breath to your body. Check in with each part of your body, paying attention to all sensations.

  1. Start at your head - does it hurt? Feel light headed? Feel good? Feel tight? Are you carrying tension in your face or in your jaw? As you exhale, release any tension you might be carrying in your head.
  2. Move down to your neck and shoulders. Are they stiff? Are your shoulders resting or creeping up towards your ears? Is your neck elongated? Is your chin tucked down toward your chest, cramping up your neck? As you exhale, release any tension you might be carrying in your neck and shoulders.
  3. Focus on your heart and chest - how fast is your heart beating? Is it in time with your breath? As you exhale, notice how your heart rate shifts.
  4. Move down to your torso and belly. What sounds, if any, is your stomach making? Do you feel relaxed? Stretched tight? As you inhale, notice how your stomach and diaphragm expand. As you exhale, notice how your stomach and diaphragm contract.
  5. Shift to your butt, thighs and lower back. Are they in line with your spine or angled forwards or backwards? Are they clenched? Relaxed? As you exhale, release any tension you might hold in your butt and thighs.
  6. Continue down to your calves and ankles. Are they tight? Can you wiggle them side to side? How does it feel to lift your heels up and down, engaging your calves and achilles tendons? As you exhale, release any tension you might hold in your calves and ankles.
  7. Finally, arrive at your toes. Notice how they lay on the ground - are they gripping the insides of your shoes or the ground? Is most of your weight in one part of your foot, or evenly distributed throughout? Can you wiggle your toes? As you exhale, release any tension you might hold in your toes.
  8. As you take stock of your body, your brain might start to think about why your body feels a certain way (“I always get a tension headache at work” or “I’m tired”). Acknowledge these thoughts but don’t follow them any further - return your focus first to your breath, and then your body inventory. Give yourself permission to put these thoughts on a shelf to come back to later.

It will take you a while to be able to fully focus on your breath and your body, without interfering thoughts. You may need to take a week or two practicing the only the breath part of the exercise before you are ready to move on to body inventory. Don’t be discouraged! Yogis dedicate their lives to meditative practice, and even they can take years before they are able to complete these exercises.

You will know you are doing the exercise correctly when you are unable to wonder if you are doing the exercise correctly - your focus will be so fully on breathing and checking in with your body that you won’t have any left over to have thoughts like “is this right?” Or “this feels weird” or “I probably look silly.”

Go Deeper - Hunger/Satiety Inventory

When you feel comfortable with the Mindful Breathing Inventory Exercise, use it to check in with your hunger. As you proceed with body inventory, pause in your stomach and explore.

Are you hungry?

  • Where do you feel your hunger? In your stomach? Where else?
  • Do the sides of your tongue salivate when you are hungry?
  • What are you hungry for? Do you want something filling? Sweet? Salty? Bitter?
  • How much hunger do you have?
  • Is your stomach making noises? Do you feel lightheaded?

Are you stuffed?

  • Where do you feel full?
  • Where, if anywhere, do you feel tightness in your body?
  • What sounds is your body making?
  • How fast is your heart beating?

Are you sated?

  • Where, if anywhere, do you feel tightness in your body?
  • Where have you released tension?
  • What sounds is your body making?

Practice this before and after eating to explore what your body feels like. This exercise is rooted in curiosity instead of judgement. If thoughts like “I can’t believe I feel so full” or “I can’t believe I’m hungry for that” come up, set them aside on that shelf for later examination. As before, this will take time. Practicing these skills daily will help you rebuild connection with your body and your emotions.

If you are having trouble practicing mindfulness, or are seeking options for stress management other than binge eating help is available - call 267-324-9564 and speak with a therapist today.

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