Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa (AN) are serious psychiatric illnesses with the highest death rate among all known psychiatric conditions. People with anorexia nervosa often have terrible eating habits, incredibly low weight, and an intense fear of gaining weight. Sadly, many people—including celebrities—and we ourselves may have a loved one struggling with this illness.
While there’s no one-size-fits-all treatment for eating disorders, researchers at Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Medicine find that mindfulness meditation may be effective in treating anorexia nervosa.
Their findings, published in the journal BJPsych OPEN revealed that the practice alone reduced obsessive weight concerns and anxiety common among anorexic patients. They attributed this to the decrease in activity in certain brain structures involved in anxiety such as the putamen, caudate, and orbital gyrus. The meditative practice was also shown to help shield mental health.
Mindfulness is believed to build an attitude of acceptance coupled with detachment from the ‘self’. With meditation, one can attain a state of mindfulness.
Prior studies suggest mindfulness-based intervention helps with emotion regulation for anxiety and can assist with many mental illnesses, including anorexia nervosa recovery. However, studies on whether mindfulness can help in clinically tackling anorexia nervosa are rather limited.
For this reason, the Japanese researchers set out to determine the neural link between the effect of mindfulness practice on alleviating crippling anxiety about gaining weight and self-image in patients with anorexia nervosa.
The team enrolled 21 patients with anorexia nervosa in a four-week mindfulness-based intervention program. All participants were given questionnaires to fill out to assess their psychological traits. They also underwent a functional MRI task before and after the mindfulness training which enabled the researchers to examine the effects of mindfulness on anxiety. The team designed the task such that it induced weight-related anxiety and got the patients to try to regulate their anxiety.
In the end, they found that mindfulness-based intervention decreased “mind wandering” in anorexic patients whose internal thoughts easily drifted away from reality.
Practicing mindfulness meditation could reduce emotional arousal and promote the detachment of the ‘self’ in patients suffering from anorexia. The team also highlights the practice’s ability to reduce anxiety in anorexic patients, not just at a subjective evaluation level but also at a neural level.
“We anticipate practical implications of our results in clinical psychiatry and psychology and broader research into mitigating suffering through mindfulness, using the strategy of self-acceptance,” says co-author Toshiya Murai.
Although the study authors suggest the need for further research, they believe this study sheds light on the neural mechanisms behind mindfulness practice’s potential ability to treat anorexia nervosa.