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Integrating Spirituality and Religion into Eating Disorder Recovery
Contributor: Nikki Rollo, Ph.D., LMFT, CEDS-S – National Director of Reasons Eating Disorder Center
Integrating spirituality in eating disorder recovery is an essential part of any treatment model that takes a whole-person approach. Considering the totality of who you are is vital to establishing a good foundation for moving from disorder to wellness.
Research shows that having a regular spiritual or religious practice is associated with decreased anxiety and depression levels. Additionally, higher levels of spirituality are associated with lower levels of eating disorder symptoms. Overall psychological well-being can be enhanced by tending to a sense of spiritual connectedness.
Your spiritual journey matters. Whether you identify with a particular religion from your upbringing, have a new religious affiliation, or feel you are a spiritual person, it is important to incorporate this aspect of yourself in treatment.
How Eating Disorder can Separate You from Spirituality
Yet, the eating disorder so often can create a disconnection from these beliefs and practices. Individuals living with an eating disorder often describe a sense of loss and emptiness connected with their sense of spirituality and connection to God, a Higher Power, or the universe.
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The eating disorder itself can become a religion, an identity, a way to be saved from something painful or traumatic. Eating disorders are characterized by rituals around food, exercise, and body, and are accompanied by guilt and shame. Along with these feelings, restriction, control, and penance may also fuel the maintenance of an eating disorder.
One may even find themselves pursuing a particular body shape or size with religiosity or fervor. While disordered eating patterns foster a disconnection from spiritual connections that once mattered deeply, these patterns also may engender a false sense of comfort or safety from parts of the world that feel scary or overwhelming.
Eating disorders often affect one’s sense of identity. Reclaiming or discovering spirituality can strongly support the cultivation of self-worth and self-compassion in eating disorder recovery and beyond.
Healing from an eating disorder includes exploring how to nurture the soul and expand one’s sense of meaning and purpose. Life-affirming experiences are key to surviving an eating disorder and living an expansive and flourishing life. Spiritual or religious communities, rituals, or practices can serve as meaningful pathways toward these important life-affirming moments.
What is Religious or Spiritual Wellness?
A sense of connection to religion or spirituality can be a fundamental dimension to a sense of wellness. Tending to one’s inner life can positively influence healing from body- and eating- based shame.
The journey of integrating spirituality into recovery is a personal one. It is your own and must resonate with your unique religious or spiritual history and desired path forward. Gomez and Fisher identify four domains of spiritual wellness: personal, environmental, communal, and transcendent (Gomez and Fisher, 2003). Consider exploring questions about each of these domains as you consider your spiritual path:
Personal: How we relate to ourselves specific to our own sense of meaning and purpose
Ask Yourself: What are my values? Can I tell the truth about what matters to me?
Environmental: A sense of awe or mystery regarding the material physical realm
Ask Yourself: What aspects of nature bring light to the dark parts of my lived experience? Being near water? A special tree? Animals?
Communal: Love, friendship, and a sense of connectedness to other, self, and the world
Ask Yourself: How do I connect in my faith community or community at large? What people are important to me? How do I connect to myself? Are there specific practices or rituals that help me feel more love and gratitude? What acts of service or kindness align with my spiritual well-being?
Transcendent: A sense of the divine, connection to an absolute energy, or sense of mystery and attention to dreams
Ask Yourself: What connects me to something deeper or beyond? Meditation or prayer? What are my dreams telling me?
How Spirituality is Incorporated into Eating Disorder Recovery
Spirituality can be incorporated into the recovery process in many different ways. Here are just a few examples of ways to weave spirituality into the recovery journey:
Therapy in an Individual and Group Setting
- Exploring themes such as loss/emptiness, meaning, purpose, abandonment, and hope
- Learning to speak your truth as you get clear on your spiritual identity
- Sharing important rituals or pathways for connecting with God, the divine, the universe, Mother Earth, or a goddess
- Quieting the mind through meditation or prayer
- Incorporating spiritual exploration into a relationship with the body
- Bringing the mind and body together to heal any perceived split between the two
- Creativity as a pathway to the inner world
- Healing from painful religious or spiritual experiences through art
- Exploring religious or sacred music that opens one up to a sense of the beyond
- Discovering how music can transport us to contemplative spaces where we can connect more deeply with our sense of purpose
- Lyrical analysis of sacred music
Individual Inner Work
- Spending time in contemplation and listening
- Prayer, chanting, or meditation
- Reading scriptures or spiritual books
Inclusion of Community and Building Spiritual Resources
- Collaborating with religious leaders or spiritual guides
- Support groups such as 12-step or faith-based offerings
- Developing a support system of like-minded people who can accompany you on the journey
Finding the Sacred in Daily Living
Spirituality can also thrive in our daily lives whether or not you’re in eating disorder recovery. Aspects of our day-to-day experience, when given mindful attention, can serve as resources to support your recovery. Often, connection to spirituality in this way requires slowing down, getting curious, and staying open to subtle experiences.
Consider the sunset. It occurs every day. What if you went outside to look at it, really look at it, with a mindful breath and present awareness? Now imagine you did the same the next time you were washing dishes or preparing a meal.
“The sacred is in the ordinary…it is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends, and family, in one’s own backyard…travel may be a flight from confronting the scared–this lesson can be easily lost. To be looking elsewhere for miracles is to me a sure sign of ignorance that everything is miraculous.” ― Abraham Maslow
References: Berrett, M. (2018). The Competency of Compassion: A Cornerstone of Healing and Recovery. ED Catalogue.  Boisvert, J. A., & Harrell, W. A. (2013). The impact of spirituality on eating disorder symptomatology in ethnically diverse canadian women. The International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 59(8), 729.  Cook, C. C. H. (2013). How spirituality is relevant to mental healthcare and ethical concerns. Royal College of Psychiatrists.  Lewica, M (2009). The Religion of Thinness. Gurze Books.  Marsden, P., Karagianni, E., & Morgan, J. F. (2007). Spirituality and clinical care in eating disorders: A qualitative study. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 40(1), 7.  Nedelec, J. L., Richardson, G., & Silver, I. A. (2017). Religiousness, spirituality, and substance use: A genetically sensitive examination and critique. Journal of Drug Issues, 47(3), 340-355.  PARGAMENT, K. I. 2011. Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy, New York, Guilford  Rowold, J. (2011). Effects of spiritual well-being on subsequent happiness, psychological well-being, and stress. Journal of Religion and Health, 50(4), 950-63.
About our Sponsor
Reasons Eating Disorder Center offers a full continuum of care for patients struggling with anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder, and co-occurring issues such as trauma symptoms, substance abuse, bipolar, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or depression.
About the Author:
Nikki Rollo, Ph.D., LMFT, CEDS-S – National Director of Reasons Eating Disorder Center
Nikki has a Ph.D. in Depth Psychology, with an emphasis in psychotherapy, and is a licensed marriage and family therapist in both California and New York State. She is also a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist- Supervisor. She has worked in various aspects of eating disorder treatment over the past ten years, utilizing her experience as a clinician and passion for the idea that relationships are healing to inform her efforts in program development, training staff, admissions, business development, and clinical outreach aspects of her work.
Integral to her clinical philosophy is her personal practice of yoga and meditation, including completing a Yoga teacher training with an emphasis on trauma-sensitive mind-body movement. She is the founding chair of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals, San Diego Chapter, and has served on several chapters over the past eight years. She currently serves in the role of National Director of Program Development, where she is responsible for developing the Reasons philosophy and ensuring consistency across all programs through oversight of clinical and operations, as well as development and expansion efforts.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Reviewed & Approved on November 3, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC
Published November 3, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com