Using mindfulness, cognitive and behaviour strategies for positive change!

By Penny Lomas

It is very common for Figure athletes to experience Body Image Dissatisfaction, especially as the sport is based on the judging of your physique.

Whether you are a competitive athlete, a gym junkie or working in the fitness industry, we all at some point in our life experience Body Image Dissatisfaction. And, with reported eating disorders on the rise, it is more important than ever to have the correct cognitive wiring to be able to deal with the pressure to be perfect.

What is Body Image Dissatisfaction?
Body image dissatisfaction is the negative opinion of your weight and shape. Body Image Dissatisfaction affects a wide range of people and presents itself in many forms: thoughts, images, feelings, sensations, urges, memories and, in some cases, eating disorders.

What is ACT?
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a mindfulness-based behavioural therapy that establishes a different relationship with cognitions and emotions in order to make choices based on values instead of avoidance. It’s a way of thinking that has a major emphasis on values, forgiveness, acceptance, compassion and living in the present. Created in 1986 by Steve Hayes, the aim of ACT is to transform our relationship with our negative thoughts.

The goal of ACT is to take effective action from mindful thought. That is, thought in which we are fully present and engaged. This is achieved by two main processes:

1.    Acceptance of negative experiences
2.    Commitment towards a positive action

ACT aims to recognise that the ongoing attempt to get rid of symptoms can actually create a disorder. Whether they are negative thoughts, an attempt to gain control or a destructive pattern (anorexia or bulimia), ACT can build acceptance.

What is Mindfulness?
When I discuss mindfulness with my clients I simply describe it as “thinking with awareness.”

Mindfulness can be exercised by living in the present moment; engaging fully in what you are doing rather than getting lost in your thoughts and allowing your feelings to be as they are. Letting them come and go rather than trying to control them.

Mindfulness and Eating
Mindful eating means using all of your senses when eating; seeing your food, feeling its texture, smelling it, tasting it in your mouth and listening to the thoughts you experience as well as noticing your emotional reactions. If you are in the habit of eating to soothe emotions or distract yourself from difficult thoughts, fully attending to the experience of eating will raise awareness of hunger and fullness cues.

The Power of Language
When human language and cognitive processes such as analysing, comparing, evaluating, planning, remembering and visualising have a positive responsibility, it helps us make plans for the future, set goals, dream big, learn from the past, imagine things that have never existed and go on to create them. They can help develop values that guide our behaviour and help us to thrive as a person.

The dark side of human language is that we use it to dwell on and relive painful events from the past. We scare ourselves by imagining unpleasant futures, we compare, judge, criticise and condemn both ourselves and others in order to create rules for ourselves that can often be life- constricting or destructive.

Experiential Avoidance
ACT rests on the assumption that human language naturally creates psychological suffering for us all. One way it does this is through setting us up for a struggle with our own thoughts and feelings, through a process called experiential avoidance.

Unfortunately, all too often when we try to avoid or get rid of unwanted private experiences, we simply create extra suffering for ourselves. For example, a person suffering with a binge eating disorder attempts experiential avoidance by a binge-eating episode, which produces an immediate reduction in feelings of anxiety and depression. It then becomes self-sustaining as it provides a quick and easy way to get rid of cravings or withdrawal symptoms and allows an escape from an uncomfortable mood.

If you believe you are experiencing Body Image Dissatisfaction, take the time to identify the ways you have tried to get rid of or avoid unwanted negative thoughts about your body. Then ask yourself if this has reduced your symptoms in the long term. What has this strategy cost you in terms of time, energy, health, vitality and relationships? Did it bring you closer to the life or the body you want?
Control is the Problem, Acceptance is the Solution
It is important to identify your attempts at emotional control and then recognise them as an unsuccessful way of escaping pain. By trying to control how you feel, you can become trapped in a vicious cycle of increasing suffering. Instead, learn to reduce the impact of unwanted thoughts and feelings by implementing willingness to let go of avoidance-driven behaviour and move towards value-based behaviour.

In quicksand, struggling is the worst thing you can possibly do. It’s tricky, because every instinct tells you to struggle - but if you do so, you’ll drown. The same principle applies to difficult feelings. The more we try to fight them, the more they overwhelm us.

The 6 Core Principles of ACT
ACT uses six core principles to help develop psychological flexibility:

1. Cognitive Defusion
Learning to perceive thoughts, images, memories and other cognitions as what they are: nothing more than bits of language, words and pictures, as opposed to what they can appear to be - threatening events, rules that must be obeyed, objective truths and facts.

2. Acceptance
Making room for unpleasant feelings, sensations, urges and other private experiences. Allowing them to come and go without struggling with them, running from them or giving them undue attention.

3. Contact with the present moment
Bringing full awareness to your here-and-now experience with openness, interest and receptiveness. Focusing on and engaging fully in whatever you are doing.

4. The Observing Self
Recognising that your thoughts and feelings change constantly and are aspects of you but are not who you are. There are your thoughts and there is you noticing them. So there are two processes going on: a process of thinking and a process of observing that thinking. From the perspective of this observing self, no thought is dangerous, threatening, or controlling.

5. Values
Clarifying what is most important, deep in your heart. Knowing what sort of person you want to be. Values are chosen qualities of action consistent with the things that you care about and ultimately what matters to you. Often with eating disorders, people have lost contact with their values in their pursuit of a certain weight or shape.

6. Committed Action
Setting goals that are guided by your values and beliefs and taking effective action to achieve them.

Take the thought “I am fat” and apply the 6 steps of ACT. Firstly “I am fat” is your thought and not the literal truth that you must get rid of. It now becomes “I am thinking that I am fat.” Secondly, accept that thought; it’s ok to have negative thoughts. Think it, let it float into your mind and then out again. Thirdly, connect with the present moment, where are you? What are you doing? What environmental influence has made you think that thought? Fourth, simply observe “I am thinking that I am fat,” with detachment as a third person and see that as a thought of no real threat. Fifth, remember your values; to live in balance, spend quality time with your girlfriends, be active, happy and enjoy your exercise. The last step and I believe the most important step is to commit to an action that is beneficial to your goals. Ring a girlfriend and go for a power walk or rollerblading.

Practising mindfulness of unwanted thoughts and feelings is a form of exposure in itself. I must admit at first this takes a lot of bravery to succumb and allow yourself to be vulnerable but remember: it is no longer about getting rid of bad feelings and striving to be perfect. Instead it is about accepting them and being committed to wellbeing. Embrace your demons.

With the correct acceptance and commitment techniques, you can show a decrease in experiential avoidance, greater maintenance of weight loss, less psychological distress and an improved quality of life.

ACT really is all about ACTING! Recognise, observe and accept your thoughts - and COMMIT towards a positive ACTion!