Mental Health Awareness Week: Interview with Dr. Sharon Cox
At the weekend I attended a workshop by Sharon Cox “Yoga’s role in Eating Disorders” and had a little chat with her afterwards. She shared her own experience and her vast amount of knowledge on the subject with me.
“my developing yoga practice was the final step in enabling me to connect fully to my body’s experience, to feel comfortable within it, and to accept my body as it was and for what it allowed me to do”
Tell me a little about your professional background…
I’m a counsellor and clinical supervisor with 17 years experience and have a private practice based in North Tyneside. I’ve always had a special interest in working with clients experiencing eating disorders and body image issues following my own experience of both anorexia and bulimia in my teens and twenties. I was awarded my PhD from Leeds University in 2017, during which I researched the embodied subjectivity of psychological therapists working with clients presenting with eating disorders.
So, when did you start practicing yoga?
Throughout my PhD, I increasingly engaged in my own yoga practice, and as a result of this, combined with what I was learning from my research, I began to appreciate how beneficial yoga could be for those experiencing issues with eating and body image, as well as other mental health concerns. I then trained as a yoga teacher and this year, have began to facilitate workshops for therapists and yoga teachers to explain how yoga benefits mental health conditions, including eating and body image issues. Although I was many years recovered from my eating disordered behaviours by the time I engaged with my PhD, I still experienced some self-consciousness around my body, and for me, my developing yoga practice was the final step in enabling me to connect fully to my body’s experience, to feel comfortable within it, and to accept my body as it was and for what it allowed me to do and experience, rather than for how it looked; and it is this that I want to share with other people through my training, workshops and therapy.
Being a counsellor and a yoga teacher, would you say you come across body image issues quite a bit?
I see many clients presenting with eating and body image issues. I think that the increasing focus on image in western culture has played a big role in the increased prevalence of both body image issues and eating disorders, in both males and females. Social Media would seem to have played a role in this as it is an arena in which people are very image focused and concerned about how their body looks. People with low self-esteem or a poor sense of self can look at these ‘perfect’ bodies and begin to believe that if only they can make their body look like those idealised images, then they too will be as happy and successful as the person on social media looks to be.
I think that it is also important to acknowledge that not everyone who experiences body image concerns, or is controlling their food intake has an eating disorder. Many people diet or follow restricted eating plans successfully without developing an eating disorder.
Body image concerns, if left untreated, for some may progress into an eating disorder, but not for everyone. And for example, there are other psychological conditions such as body dysmorphic disorder, in which people experience a distressing and distorted relationship with their body, but without the same eating issues of those experiencing eating disorders.
Eating disorders are complex psychological conditions with many factors that contribute to their development; including the early relationships that develop between the baby and significant caregivers in infancy, from messages around food, eating and bodies acquired throughout childhood and adolescence from families, peers, teachers, media, etc. and from circumstances that the individual has experienced. Quite often, there will be psychological distress caused from early relational trauma or traumatic experiences, and because the individual has learned that food can help manage feelings, they turn to food for emotional support. Although it seems that the eating disordered behaviours (eg. restrictive eating, bingeing, purging, compulsive exercising, excessive weighing / measuring of self) are the problem, they are in fact creative solutions to the underlying distress that the person is feeling. And for recovery from an eating disorder, all of these elements need to be addressed.
How do people suffering from those issues or behaviours get help?
The first port of call for anyone concerned should be to visit their GP or a therapist with experience and knowledge of these areas. NHS primary care services can offer short term therapy and for those with more serious eating disorders, there are specialist services which would require referral from a GP or other health professional. Yoga is being used as part of treatment in some American eating disorders’ clinics and from my recent research, I have come across a few treatment services in the UK which are beginning to offer yoga as part of an overall treatment plan, despite it not currently being recommended by NICE (The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) guidelines. My hope is that this initiative will expand into other services.
Yoga can play a big role in recovery then?
I personally think that yoga can be helpful as part of an overall treatment package for those experiencing eating disorders and body image concerns. Used effectively, yoga can also challenge these beliefs and behaviours on the yoga mat to enable people to challenge their beliefs and behaviours in day to day life, and move forward in their recovery.
I think that yoga can be helpful for many people in encouraging them to change their relationship with food, eating and their body. Yoga encourages an inward-focused, embodied experience of the body rather than the external focus on what the body looks like. And as people become more connected to their body, they become more likely to want to look after it and nourish it with improved diet and eating behaviours.
Thank you Sharon.
Powerful stuff hey? Keep your eyes peeled for Sharon’s next workshop or visit www.therapywithsharon.co.uk