The Challenge of Eating Disorders: A Teacher Learns a New Mindfulness Technique

“She’s brought a cup with her. This is not unusual. Clients often bring food or drinks they’re required to finish—but when Mariko reaches inside the cup, I hear the brittle clicking of ice and look closer. There’s no beverage. She pulls out a piece of ice and, without a word, curls up on her side, cradling the cube tenderly in her palm.”

By Jacob Molyneux, senior editor

Illustration by Anne Horst for AJN.

Illustration by Anne Horst for AJN.

We hear a lot lately about mindfulness and its benefits in the workplace for dealing with stress, increasing productivity, and the like.

It’s been pointed out lately that mindfulness has become a tool with many uses, some more in keeping with its role in various spiritual traditions than others. Such traditions seem to use meditation practices in order to cultivate compassionate awareness of the varieties of suffering arising from the impermanence of everything from pleasant and unpleasant feelings and the weather to the lives of our loved ones.

This month’s Reflections essay in AJN is by a mindful movement teacher at an eating disorder treatment center. Eating disorders can involve mental and physical suffering that’s unrelenting and self-sustaining. Many clinicians and therapists find patients with eating disorders very challenging to work with. The essay, called “Distress Tolerance,” tells the story of an encounter in which the patient teaches the teacher a surprising new mindfulness technique. Here’s the opening:

How are you?” Asking this question always feels ridiculous, especially with someone undergoing eating disorder treatment, but I say it automatically.

“Average,” Mariko responds quietly, tucking a strand of limp, jet-black hair behind her ear as she bends to select a yoga mat and two pillows.

“Average” is code for something much worse. Though she is in group treatment, it’s just us today. Her group tends to be small—and volatile. I blink in surprise as she chooses her spot, unrolling her mat quite close to mine.

But read the entire short essay, which is free, to learn what this chilly mindfulness technique might be and also about the author’s thoughtful adaptation to an initially challenging therapeutic situation.

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Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.

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