Support our Nonprofit Magazine!
Before you start reading... There has never been a time when our community and content was needed more. As a nonprofit online community and magazine, we provide FREE articles, videos, and other content that is available worldwide, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Due to the global pandemic, we’ve had to put events, collaborations and business sponsorships on hold, leaving us to rely exclusively on online donations from our community (aka YOU!) We want to be here to support you all through this pandemic and beyond, which is why we are asking you to consider donating whatever you are able. A single (or monthly) donation of just $5 will make a difference and will help keep our nonprofit running so we can continue supporting you and others.
In both eating disorder treatment and other healing spaces, I have often been encouraged to “listen to my body.” My providers and peers have asked me to identify physical sensations that correlate with particular emotional or bodily phenomena; most often, the focus is on identifying and responding to hunger, but I have also been advised numerous times to identify where I feel emotions such as sadness, grief, anger, and anxiety physically in my body.
Listening to My Body Through Physical Sensations
I do not mean at all to dismiss the value of being more aware of physical sensations occurring in one’s body.
There have been many times when it has been helpful for me to identify the physical sensations that accompany various emotions. And of course, responding to the physical sensations of hunger can be a major component of eating disorder recovery.
However, I sometimes feel that an emphasis on identifying and responding to one’s physical sensations can lead to a dismissal of or trivialization of emotions, feelings, and needs that are not physically discernible.
Many conventional approaches to eating disorder treatment focus on teaching patients to identify physical sensations of hunger and responding to that, rather than emotional or mental hunger.
The physical body (i.e. the organs from the neck down) is seen as the “true self” that needs to be closely monitored; the mind (i.e. the brain) is seen as a nuisance and interference that distorts the needs and desires of this true self.
For me personally, this has perpetuated some of the same rigid and obsessive thinking that contributed to my eating disorder in the first place. The physical sensations I felt became something I needed to monitor, analyze, and discern. On the other hand, I felt that my emotional and mental desires for food were not valid.
The Story Does Matter
I remember one group session in which we learned that it was important to discern our physical cravings for food from our mental or emotional desires for food.
If we wanted a burger because our physical body (i.e. organs below the neck) craved one, by all means, we should go ahead. But if we wanted a burger because we just heard our friend or family member rant about how McDonald’s is making everyone fat and disgusting and bringing about the destruction of America, and we wanted to rebel against that by eating a burger, that means that we didn’t actually want the burger–only our minds did.
To me, this felt incredibly invalidating. Were my anti-diet culture, anti-sizeism values not a legitimate part of me that could influence my desires for food and hunger levels in a valid way?
Similarly, when recounting traumatic experiences of abusive body shaming and food shaming, I have been asked to focus on where the emotions feel in my body.
“The story doesn’t matter,” I have heard clinicians and peers say. When analyzing the ways that patriarchy, white supremacy, and other forms of structural oppression may have contributed to my experiences, I have been told that I’m “stuck in my head.” “You’re making this too cognitive,” some of my peers have said. “You need to be more embodied.” This has felt invalidating and dismissive of the cultural and interpersonal factors that play a role in my experience; while those factors may not always be physically felt or measurable, they are very real.
Embodied cognition, i.e. the idea that our minds/mental and emotional processes are inseparable from our physical bodies, has been tremendously helpful to me during my recovery.
Learning about this idea has taught me that my thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations are interdependent on one another, and that no one of these components defines me or represents my “true self” any more than the others.
The physical sensations of hunger can make me quite irritable and anxious emotionally; it is similarly possible for the emotion of irritability or anger to cause physical hunger. It is also quite possible for me not to feel a physical sensation accompanying every thought or emotional reaction I have, and that is perfectly valid as well. Just because I cannot locate an emotion or thought within a physical part of my body does not mean that the thought/emotion is not originating from me/from my body. Although abstract thought processes and emotional processes sometimes cannot be physically felt or measured, that does not make them any less real or embodied; they are still bodily processes that require (usually) a beating heart and breathing lungs to occur.
Embodied cognition has taught me that “listening to my body” or “getting in touch with my body” doesn’t have to involve constant hypervigilance and surveillance over my physical sensations.
It can involve recognizing the validity of all my thoughts, emotions, and sensations and responding to them in a way that aligns with my values and needs. It is my hope that future eating disorder treatment approaches can take a broader view as to what constitutes the body and the self–one that leaves room for the validity of the cognitive and emotional as well as the physical.
Pass it on:
SITE DISCLAIMER: The opinions and information shared in this article or any other Content on our site may not represent that of Libero Network Society. We hold no liability for any harm that may incur from reading content on our site. Please always consult your own medical professionals before making any changes to your medication, activities, or recovery process. Libero does not provide emergency support. If you are in crisis, please call 1-800-784-2433 or another helpline or 911.