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Connecting with Yourself: Spirituality and Eating Disorder Recovery

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Recovering from an eating disorder is complex and multifaceted; in addition to treating the physical manifestations such as malnutrition, bone disease, tooth decay, and low blood pressure, there are also psychological and psychiatric issues at stake.

Added into the mix is the recovering individual’s sense of self and connection to their well-being.  The last bit may be the hardest part of eating disorder recovery. 

One of the complicating factors of recovery from any kind of mental health disorder, from substance abuse to anxiety to treatment for an eating disorder like bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa, is designing a comprehensive plan which involves medical health, emotional wellbeing, and spirituality as part of a unified method of treatment.  

Because the medical, therapeutic, and psychiatric aspects of recovery have the benefit of established, evidence-based and scientific methodologies honed over decades, there is a road map for treatment that can be to some degree used for a variety of individuals. On the other hand, spirituality is a personal journey for every individual.

How can spiritual emptiness trigger eating disorders

With a baseline of proper medical and psychological treatment ensuring the individual’s safety and the beginnings of recovery, eating disorder treatment centres can go beyond simply treating the symptoms presented by the eating disorder, and instead concentrate on their entire wellbeing. 

Therapists and psychologists working with eating disorder clients have noticed a common factor in eating disorders’ development – a feeling of spiritual emptiness. This is filled by obsession over body size and shape, as well as compulsive behaviors such as binging and purging. There are comparisons to be drawn between religious obsessions such as atonement and a person with anorexia nervosa’s obsessive quest to achieve ‘perfect’ thinness or weight loss. 

People of every race and culture have a need to understand their place in the world. If that understanding is missing, they may turn to religion or another spiritual group.  However, a spiritual search for meaning can focus on anything that fills the hole they feel spiritually, even if that means transferring those feelings to an unhealthy obsession.

This is often compounded by the ways we are mediated – the constant barrage of images and video of thin, beautiful models on TV and Instagram can influence people who are feeling spiritually empty and provide them a ‘goal’.

Wellbeing experts in the eating disorder treatment field generally agree that the disordered behaviors imposed upon themselves are often a result of people’s desire to reach these unattainable beauty standards. Essentially, the part of each of us that needs a sense of spiritual connectedness can be corrupted by distorted weight and body goals. 

Spirituality is both personal and universal

Eating disorder treatment centres that include spiritual well being as part of their curriculum do not normally associate themselves with any one organised religion. Although religious, faith-based healing programs have had some success, most modern quality ED recovery programs allow for the wide variety of personal understandings that meet clients’ spiritual needs. Of course, individuals in treatment who have religious faith are encouraged to maintain that faith as a part of their spiritual recovery,

Spirituality is a personal journey that everyone takes part in, in which you discover your connection to yourself and what your place in the world is. Because it’s a universal journey that is yet also deeply personal, it has to be part of a comprehensive eating disorder recovery. 

As a metaphor, if someone was being treated for high blood pressure, would the doctor simply prescribe a pill and call it a day? Or would he also recommend a combination of exercise and sodium reduction to treat the overall causes of the disease? 

Since a spiritual emptiness can lead to disordered behaviours and is often a complicating factor in their treatment, any quality eating disorder treatment center will incorporate spiritual awareness as a central part of the treatment process.

*** Image credit: Freepik


Peter Wallace has been an advocate for mental health awareness for years. He holds a master’s degree in counselling from the University of  Edinburgh.

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