A year ago when I started writing this column, I was eating ‘unconsciously’ – I never cooked, never planned ahead and rarely ate a balanced meal. I had constant negative, self-loathing conversations with myself about weight I’d gained, my lack of self-control and my food choices. But berating myself only made matters worse – I comforted myself with more food.
As I’ve tested new ways of dealing with my emotional eating, I’ve found most of the research and strategies I’ve used have had elements of mindfulness to them.
The word ‘mindfulness’ has been bandied about for a while now. But can it help those of us who use food as a form of comfort to eat in an ordered fashion?
Dr Barbara Mariposa explains that, ‘the essence of mindfulness is the awareness that arises out of intentionally paying attention to what is happening right now with an attitude of open acceptance and compassion.’ Eager to find a way to truly accept myself and my actions without judgment, I signed up to Mariposa’s Mind Mood Mastery Course.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, and how much I would have to share with the group. Luckily, I enjoyed a mix of one-to-one seminars and group participation. Sessions included exploring brain ‘plasticity’ and how the brain can change its programming and actual physical circuitry if we take different actions and think different thoughts.
‘The way your brain is now is a direct reflection of how you’ve been using it over the years,’ explains Mariposa. ‘When you practise mindfulness, research shows that areas of the brain associated with learning, memory, focus, decision-making, emotional regulation and intelligence change, and these aspects of functioning improve. With continued practice, the amygdala [the part of the brain that regulates stress response] can become smaller and less easily triggered, too.’
We had weekly challenges such as auditing our thoughts, expressing gratitude and learning to forgive, which we then discussed in the sessions.
The key to making changes in the brain, Mariposa says, is mindful meditation (sitting in quiet stillness, focusing on your breath, with your eyes half-closed, for 10 to 15 minutes daily).
The idea of mindful meditation wasn’t something that I found easy to get to grips with. Spending 15 minutes a day sitting and ‘doing nothing’ actually made me quite agitated! On paper, slowing down my thoughts and centering myself sounded like the perfect antidote to my fast-paced lifestyle, but I always felt like I needed to be doing something.
It’s a work in progress, but I’m now practising it on my commute – with no phone signal or internet, there isn’t much else I can do underground.
However, what has resonated most for me is that, as Mariposa explained, ‘mindfulness strengthens our ability to disengage from the autopilot patterns, and to exercise greater personal choice.’
I’ve found that the things I was most resistant to taught me more about myself and this deeper understanding has led to an improved level of acceptance. It’s not a cure-all tool, but now, with increasing frequency, I’ve been able to acknowledge any negative thoughts and feelings – and walk away from the fridge.
Amerley Ollennu is Psychologies' Beauty and Wellbeing Editor. Find her on Twitter @AmerleyO
Watch Karen Ruimy's new video Meditation – connecting with the inner child on LifeLabs
Photograph: plainpicture/Kniel Synnatzschke