Understanding Fasting

Both ascetics and anorectics strive for perfection . . . Striving towards the ascetic image is a source of satisfaction, and a source of liberation from imprisonment of the body (or from its definition by others) and its bondage to an unacceptable world. In both cases, asceticism is not experienced as self-destructive, but as self-liberating.

Many with anorexia use their religious beliefs to justify extreme fasting, using some of the same rationalisations as the religious ascetic Both have similar goals, such as:

  • Drawing closer to Divinity
  • Becoming more God-like
  • Becoming more worthy of Grace
  • Weakening the body in order to reduce or eliminate human appetites.

Now these aims are very spiritual and appear worthy. There have been many reports of fasting saints especially before medieval times. These saints were venerated.  Ascetic aims can also mask emotional illness in both the religious ascetic and the anorexic.  So let’s just say that there are connections between all people who fast to bring them closer to a nirvana of one sort or another. It is not just about getting a thigh gap or wearing size zero. They develop a relationship with fasting which becomes more important than the relationship with anything or anyone else.

Virtually every recovering anorectic has had a close relationship with fasting. If a therapist lacks a thorough understanding of fasting from spiritual, psychological, and medical perspectives, he or she could unintentionally allow the anorectic to keep their relationship with fasting a secret. Imagine the therapy session in this way; the anorexic patient is describing a personal experience about fasting, but it becomes clear to the patient that the therapist has only a peripheral understanding of fasting. The anorectic is now the expert on what is a critical feature of their psychiatric disorder and the therapist loses credibility when discussing the topic.

We therapists need to  understand of the importance of exploring fasting behaviour in anorexic patients. And treatment needs to include a discussion of what fasting means to each patient. It is not just about fear of food, it is sometimes the quest for an unattainable emotion or an exalted state of mind.  
There is a saying among mental health professionals, “You’re only as sick as your secrets”.  This implies that holding onto secrets—as opposed to revealing them in a safe setting such as during psychotherapy—could potentially impede the recovery of the eating disordered patient.

So as part of this, therapists even without religious feelings themselves should examine the religious and spiritual beliefs of someone with anorexia. Time spent to helping a sufferer to achieve elation in more helpful ways is known to make a difference.