Art Therapy for Clients with an Eating Disorder

Last winter, Eve Tesluk and I ran our first art therapy class, focusing on topics related to eating disorders recovery. It was such an amazing experience to see transformation in one's recovery through art. I completely agree that words fail us from time to time, and that another medium is needed to help communicate, express and be heard. 

We are running two sessions, starting Sept. 9th, 2015 and the second on November 4th. The first session focuses on identity and emotional expression, while the second session looks at body-image and self-acceptance. There is no session order in which one needs to complete before doing the other. Sign up today as spaces are limited. We like to keep the group small to increase intimacy and allow time for more sharing, etc. 

Thankful For Our Bodies

I remember being in grade five or so, sitting on the floor of our school's gymnasium during an assembly. I sat there, looking at my feet with such distain, disgust and shame. I hated my feet. I thought they were huge.  If I hadn't known they were my own feet, I would have thought they belonged to a  Sasquatch.  I didn't care that they enabled me to walk, run and skate around. I didn't care that they supported my body, allowing me to stand and balance. I didn't care that they had this amazing quality of being able to spread its toes like nothing you've ever seen, freaking people out. All I cared about was their size. Too big, not lady-like, etc. 

Skip ahead to my fourth year of University. I found myself sitting in the library of a University reading a textbook on the human development and growth across the lifespan. To my amazement, I read how feet grow prior to an onset of growth in height as the feet support/balance the body.  The size of my feet in grade 5 were simply a natural and normal part of my development. It was healthy, not bad or wrong. My body was just doing what it was created to do. I had the same feeling when I learnt about set-point theory (your body has a genetically predetermined weight range it will hover around when you are eating and exercising normally). I'm not saying acceptance of my set point was instantaneously, but it definitely helped to know my body knew what it was doing regarding my weight. 

I wish I could tell my younger self on that gymnasium floor why my feet were the size that they were. I wish I could tell her about set-point instead of B.M.I..  I wish I could tell her to be thankful for what her body was doing and to also accept its limitations.  Perhaps, she wouldn't have had the need to desperately manipulate it into something it was never meant to be. Moving forward, in the unknown amount of years ahead of me, I want to carry a healthier and more positive perspective towards my body.... both in the things I understand and the things I don't.

I had a conversation with the illustrator of wiTHIN (Emily McGratten) earlier this week. She told me about an interview she heard on the CBC about bodies and how we have a hard time accepting what it does, how it changes over time and how we get upset or feel shame about the things it does to keep us healthy.  For example, farting is an important part of our bodies functioning that is some what uncontrollable. In our society, it can be shameful or disrespectful to be caught passing gas. 

The main point of this post is not to focus on farting or feet. The larger point I want to make is the importance of learning about our bodies, how it functions (and to know the signs of when it is not functioning correctly) and to encourage us to be thankful for what our bodies do, as opposed to how it looks, smells or changes over time.  I want to encourage other to not take their bodies for granted, yet to embrace EVERY part of it... both inwardly and outwardly. 


Progress? That' Not What the Scale Says!

First of all, if you're stepping on a scale... get off it (click here to read why scales aren't a helpful or healthy).   Just like the number on the scale isn't an accurate measurement of health, so is it with progress. Pretty counter-cultural right? We've been so brain washed to think that the only thing that matters is how much weight you've gained or lost. Forget the healthy lifestyle... forget the long term change or its sustainability.  There is a tendency to solely focus on the number, instead of all the other benefits of working towards a healthier relationship with food, weight, exercise, etc.  Whatever the number on the scale, or if you've stopped weighing yourself already, you can still see the benefits of building a healthier lifestyle as the following examples show*: 

Emotions - When you get back to eating 3 balanced meals and a few snacks per day, you will likely notice a difference with your emotions/mood.  Ever notice when you don't eat enough how you become more agitated than normal? Or, when you've eaten too much, feelings of guilt or shame emerge? A sign of progress is when emotions and food/weight are not so closely linked.  In the beginning stages, as you learn to trust normalized eating, set-point, and a healthy exercise routine, you may experience uncomfortable or distressing emotions. By using skills learned in therapy and following a healthy meal plan and exercise routine, you can learn to tolerate and cope with such difficult emotions, if not experience an elevation in mood.

Energy Level & Stamina - Just as mood improves, as does your energy level.  By giving your body the proper type and amount of fuel during the day, you will have more energy throughout it. You won't be in a food coma, nor be completely exhausted. You may even notice that you can exercise for longer periods of time, and/or know when to finish so you don't overdue it out of compulsively or 'need'. 

Sleep - Sleep can also be interferred with when one does not get the right type and/or amount of food/exercise. You won't wake up to feelings of hunger or indigestion from eating too little or too much of something. You will also get a better quality of sleep when you move your body throughout the day, instead of being immobile. A better quality of sleep is another sign of progress. 

Flexibility - Rigidity around food and exercise is quite common in those who struggle with food/weight/exercise issues. A sign of progress is when you catch yourself adjusting to those moments when 'life gets in the way' without having a melt down. You won't follow rules like, "I'll just double up on exercise tomorrow" when the gym closes unexpectedly or if you've eaten more than you wanted at a birthday party. You will experience flexibility mentally and emotionally as you build a healthier lifestyle. 

Balance - This is a big one.  What I mean by balance is looking at your life holistically, and making sure you are paying attention to each aspect of it.  For example, are you spending time with your friends? Connecting spiritually? Physically getting enough exercise? Emotionally are you getting your needs met? What about mentally? Another sign of progress is making sure you aren't spread too thin and are using a variety of supports to help sustain your holistic health.  

Medical Issues - Building a healthy relationship with food/weight/exercise can also effect things like cholesterol levels, blood pressure and so on. 

The above are excellent ways in concretely seeing both benefits and movements as you work towards building and then maintaining a healthy lifestyle.... much more informative than just a number wouldn't you say?

*Keep in mind that other illnesses/diagnosis can effect the above.  It is important to consult your medical and health team whenever you make changes regarding your health and wellness. This list is not exhaustive.