Warning: “informative read” aka kind of boring but really good insight #ifimaysaysomyself….
Anorexia Nervosa is physically visible as a disease of bodily malnourishment, and can be easily spotted in a struggling individual. Physical markers like shockingly low weight, gaunt face, cold hands and feet, inability to focus, among others, are easy to spot. However, the deeper seated malnourished inside the mind hides more than only the body shows. The psychological turmoil faced by those suffering ranges from abuse, trauma, pain, lack of control, a poor or non-existent self-worth, and more. Overall, the suppression of pain has been cultivated by the anorexic, in order to survive a life circumstance. Of the many causes, the reaction is the same, and can be expressed as an inability to stay within a symbolically thin window of tolerance. Mindfulness, and reconnecting with the lost sense of self as one learns to reacquaint themselves with safety in their own presence is key in healing from Anorexia Nervosa.
Trauma, regardless of the avenue experienced, is something many of us face in our lives. Through evolutionary coping mechanisms that instill a survival instinct, we engage in dissociation as a protective means to attempt to find peace and to live on. An eating disorder manifests in this way, by means of coping and controlling external stimuli when feeling out of locus of control. The Anorexic feels forced to dissociate from their body, to not live inside it, but to hover on the outside, where they feel safely disconnected from the source of trauma and pain. This is a very wise way in which to survive pain and threat, and is defined as the Fight or Flight response. The Fight response directly speaks to a feeling of emotional overwhelm, panic, feeling unsafe, angry, racing thoughts and anxiety. This can be named the state of “hyper-arousal”, and is a state of coping where we have left our window of the tolerable level of trauma experience in our lives, and are in overdrive of engagement. By contrast, hypo-arousal, the “flight” response, is where the individual numbs themselves, disconnecting from painful thoughts, engaging in feelings of shame and diving into a deep, isolating depression. It should be noted that both states cultivate a sense of isolation, as an Eating Disorder originates from feeling unsafe in one’s own body. And so, by receding from contact, the Anorexic is seeking to blanket themselves away from harm’s way.
Conversely, the happy window of tolerance that is to be cultivated for a physically and psychologically healthy individual is one that can be described as a condition where one finds it easy to carry on with daily life in a state of well being. When this window is in an appropriate range, life’s challenges are easy to cope with. When the window shrinks through dissociation, receding, numbing and when survival mode kicks in, many events are triggers into dissociation from the body, and the coping mechanisms harnessed are engaged. For anorexics, this being self-starvation.
Although the causes range drastically of why trauma occurred that shook the person so much that they found life to be unsafe, the idea of suppression and dissociation are always present. This is why the healing process must include a reintegration of the self back inwards. Emotional resilience results from a deep sense of connection with one’s needs, and is in a healthy state of balance within a range of tolerance when the boundaries of one’s limits are known, and able to be recognized in the present moment. Physical markers by form of body signals are shown, such as a rapid pulse, body temperature, observing racing thoughts, cold or hot flashes, restlessness or a sense of apathy. When these informative feelings surface, it is important to acknowledge them, and to reflect upon their source. This is the beginning of cultivating a sense of mindfulness back into the body, when the Anorexic has made it an innate habit to shut off the mechanisms of feeling emotions. By using meditative and mindfulness techniques, the healing journey can begin, and slowly, compoundedly, the Anorexic will gain awareness that the coping mechanisms that once saved them are no longer needed, as the threat is gone. In this way, the window of tolerance will widen, when occurrences are no longer seen as threats to one’s safety. A deep sense of ease will be reinstilled into one’s life, fuelled by an unwavering sense of self-knowledge, self-trust, and calamity to face life’s challenges. As this process takes place, the coping of self-starvation will slowly be weaned. Techniques like yoga, meditation, Qi gong, reflection, journaling, focusing on the breath, psychological therapy, and art expression are all means though which grounding self-knowledge provides a healing space to recover from loss of self, and from a life outside one’s shrunken window of tolerance.
Anorexia Nervosa is a debilitating illness, whose cause has a multitude of trauma. However, manifestation in dissociation from one’s body, and a loss of sense of self are all present and necessary in order for the disease to form patterns in the Anorexic. By becoming aware of the self through methods like Yoga, Mindfulness, Meditation, Qi Gong, talk-therapy, journaling, reflection, art therapy and more, an Anorexic is able to widen their window of tolerance and learn to feel safe in the world. As this regrounding process takes place, the window of tolerance widens, and one can slowly learn to end the coping cycle of self-starvation. The hope of recover is something that every hurt person needs, and getting support through this process is integral to a wholesome recovery. Pain is not a feeling that is enjoyable to experience, but by observing it and trusting in the self to overcome it, life becomes more safe. It is not that we tolerate more pain; it is that fewer of life’s challenges cause us to lose our ground, as fewer are experienced as pain. Knowing thyself is the gift of liberation, and there is hope.
“Mindfulness And The Window Of Tolerance”. St. Michael’s Hospital Mental Health (2017): n. pag. Web. 7 Mar. 2017.
Melanie Sakowski is a Holistic Nutritionist, a Yoga Instructor, a Triathlete and an Eating Disorder warrior on a healing journey in Toronto. She believes in the power of self-connection through mind-body work in a holistic view of wellness, and looks forward to helping others heal from trauma through a multifaceted approach to wellness.