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Psychological Healing
in the Catholic Mystic Tradition

Weight Reduction

But woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.

—Luke 6:25

 

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Introduction | Body Mass Index Calculator | Psychological Factors in Overeating | General Facts About Weight Gain or Loss | Weight Reduction Assisted by Fasting | Weight Reduction through Faith and Prayer | Visualization and Prayer Technique | Coping with Cravings

 
CERTAINLY, we all know that eating is necessary for our survival. Yet consider the following:

When you overeat, you are really abusing and torturing your body with food it doesn’t need.


  

Overeating afflicts your body, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, with medical problems such as back pain, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease.

Excess weight causes you to bury your talents, wasting energy that could have been used for productive labor.

So the evidence is clear: Overeating is a form of self-punishment. The underlying psychological mechanism of this is anger, and there can be many reasons for your anger, as will be described below, but knowing this, and yet continuing to care more about the illusion of “feeling good” than you care about the welfare of your body and soul, is a sad mistake.

 

Body Mass Index Calculator

Enter your weight and height and click on the button to calculate your
Body Mass Index:


Use metric measures

Weight:

lbs.

 

 

   

Categories:

<18

  Underweight

18 – 24.9

  Normal

25 – 29.9

  Overweight

30 – 34.9

  Stage I Obesity

35 – 39.9

  Stage II Obesity

>40

  Stage III Obesity

Height:

Ft. In.

Body Mass Index:

Description:


  

This index assumes that excess mass is the result of body fat. If you have a muscular, athletic body type with little fat, then you may not be at risk for the health dangers of obesity.

Men at the low end of Normal may actually be underweight.

 
Psychological Factors in Overeating

Psychological factors can play a role in excess weight, either as a primary cause, or as secondary causes underlying a medical condition.

  

Anger.  Unconscious anger can generate feelings of victimization, guilt, and self-loathing. Consider the following examples:

Some individuals will resist physical exercise and disciplined eating habits (saying that it’s all “too much trouble” or “unfair”) because, as children, they lacked protection, guidance, and loving care from their parents.

Some individuals will use food as a way to stuff down feelings of irritation and resentment because they blame themselves for not knowing what to do with those feelings.

Some individuals will eat to compensate for their emotional “hunger” for acceptance from their mother, a mother who criticized, neglected, or rejected them.

Some individuals will overeat as a way to punish themselves for past mistakes, saying to themselves, “I don’t care how much this harms my body; I don’t deserve any better.”

Some individuals will derive a certain hostile satisfaction, and pride, from “throwing their weight around” as compensation for their feelings of social and emotional helplessness.

  

In contrast to the reasons for overeating, anger at a father who is lacking in gentleness and guidance because he is manipulative or controlling can lead to the development of Anorexia Nervosa, an eating disorder whose deep psychological intent is to get revenge on the father by punishing and controlling one’s body, even if the punishment results in near starvation.
 

  

Body Armor.  Some individuals, usually women who have been sexually abused as children, use body fat unconsciously as a sort of body armor to deflect the sexual desires of others.

Deadened Emotional Awareness.  Some individuals, usually because of the emotional emptiness of growing up in dysfunctional families, have, as a psychological defense, so deadened their emotional awareness that they perceive all emotions as hunger. Anger, frustration, fear, sadness, loneliness—it all feels like hunger. But, at its psychological depth, it’s really a hunger for emotional acceptance, not for food.

Deprivation.  Some individuals who felt deprived of emotional or material resources as children will, as adults, resist the self-restraint of healthy eating because it feels like another form of deprivation.

Reward.  Some individuals have grown up in families that use food as a reward for being “good,” and so, as adults, they can use food for self-soothing when they feel “bad.”

 
General Facts About Weight Gain or Loss

The general facts about weight gain or loss are governed by a simple law of physics: if you consume more calories as food than you expend in exercise, you will gain weight and if you expend more calories in exercise than you consume as food, you will reduce your weight. There are three points to consider in this regard:


  

Some individuals have—or through yo-yo dieting have created—a metabolism that tends to store food intake as body fat, and for such persons it can be a trial—but not impossible—to maintain a normal body weight. The psychological danger here is they will (a) use dieting and exercise to punish their body for its genetic limitations; (b) use overeating to punish God for being so “cruel” as to allow such limitations; or (c) use overeating to punish themselves for their past mistakes in dieting.

Some individuals have medical problems that make it difficult to exercise. In that case, one option remains: cut back on the amount of food that is eaten so as to compensate for the lack of energy expenditure. The psychological danger here is that they will overeat to punish themselves for not being able to exercise.

Some obese individuals will claim, in all seriousness, that they do not eat very large meals. But, if their eating habits are examined closely, it is often discovered that they “nibble” or “snack” almost constantly throughout the day. All of this points to the way that you can unconsciously deceive even  yourself about your self-punishing behavior.

All of these examples illustrate the danger of self-punishment. Nevertheless, one solution does exist: learn to treat your body with love rather than afflict it with resentment and hatred. Learn to exercise because it is a way to care for your body. Learn to avoid unhealthy foods or excessive food as a way to care for your body. Learn to eat healthy food as a way to care for your body. In essence, learn to  fast —but be clear that fasting is an act of love, not punishment.

 
Weight Reduction Assisted by Fasting

In the Christian tradition, fasting does not necessarily mean to do without food entirely. Fasting really means to do without anything—not just food—that you do not really need. Now, when you cut out of your life food that you do not really need, you will be caring for your body, and so you will reduce your weight. When you cut out of your life food that is unhealthy for your body, you will be caring for your body, and so you will reduce your weight. Then, once you have attained an ideal weight, you can fast moderately, yet perpetually, in order to maintain an ideal weight. 

  

In regard to fasting, however, be careful not to get caught up in pro-anorexia (“Dear Ana”) propaganda. The dangers of Anorexia Nervosa are very real: loss of the menstrual period is a warning for women, and loss of bone mass and sudden cardiac arrest can be unfortunate consequences of the disorder. At its core, anorexia represents a hatred for the body as a vessel of submission to incompetent authority. Anorexia, therefore, is in flagrant opposition to proper Christian respect for the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit. [1]

And what about saints who fasted to the point of being frail and thin? Were they anorexic? Well, someone who loses a taste for the world’s delights out of love for things divine acts virtuously; whereas someone who deprives herself of nutrition out of fear that she is not in control of her body acts from the place of a mental disorder.

  

Here are some suggestions to consider in regard to a spiritually healthy way to care for your body and, in the process, let go of excess weight and maintain an ideal weight:

Make exercise a constant part of your life. Do bending and stretching exercises. Use light weights. If necessary, follow along with an exercise DVD to learn the routines. Or buy an exercise machine for home exercise. Walk, rather than drive, wherever possible. Take stairs rather than elevators.

Eat foods made with whole grain flours. Avoid “store bought” baked goods that use refined white flour. Bake as much as you can at home, using whole grain flours.

Use light olive oil for shortening, not the commonly used “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” stuff that clogs your arteries.


  

Eat vegetarian foods as much as possible, rather than meat. It’s entirely possible to consume all the nutrients required for health with a gentle vegetarian diet (i.e., including eggs and milk products). Some religious orders make a vegetarian diet—that is, perpetual fasting—part of their rule.

Avoid fried foods, because they add unnecessary (and unhealthy) grease to your diet. Greasy foods also tend to make your mind sluggish, thus interfering with prayer.

Coffee and tea are fine for breakfast and dinner, but throughout the day avoid them, along with the culturally standard soda pop and colas, and drink only pure water. Drinking about 8 oz (250 ml) of water per hour is not only healthy (it keeps you properly hydrated) but it also helps to keep your stomach full, thus preventing you from feeling hungry between meals.

Whenever you are about to eat anything, whether it be a full meal or just a sip of water, take time to give it a proper blessing. In this way, your food will participate with you in a divine mystery, rather than be reduced to a mere object of consumption. Moreover, developing this habit of blessing your food will help you avoid “automatic eating,” and it will encourage you to reflect on whether you really need the food or not.

BLESS us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts
which we are about to receive
from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord.

And, in support of a more humble diet,
add the following to the above:

Thank You for such humble and simple food;
may it fulfill all of our physical needs,
for without even Your most lowly of gifts
we would perish. Amen.

 
Weight Reduction Through Faith and Prayer

You can live within normal and healthy weight limits if only you love God’s mercy more than you desire to punish yourself. Right now you use food to numb your emotional distress, and you fear that without using food and excess body fat as psychological defenses your life will be nothing but empty pain.

Therefore, to overcome the habit of constantly reaching for something to deaden pain, endeavor to teach yourself to act in new ways through love. Recognize the urge to use food as a way to numb emotional pain, and then return food to its proper place in your life: not as a psychological defense but as a holy gift of nutrition. This takes considerable conscious effort—still, it is all possible through graceful trust in God’s help and protection.

  

While you are making all these changes, it can help greatly to use some sort of relaxation technique. For more information about relaxation techniques, see my web pages called Progressive Muscle Relaxation and Autogenics Training on A Guide to Psychology and its Practice. A relaxation CD (true to the Catholic faith) from the present website can help you experience relaxation as well.

Audio CD
Guided Imagery Relaxation:
The Catholic Way

 

  

Moreover, the Catholic Church offers a centuries-old form of relaxation and emotional support: prayer.

Accordingly, I offer below two ways to use relaxation and prayer to help you reduce your weight. The first way is best practiced at least two times a day (morning and night). The second way is a small card that you can print and carry with you; whenever you feel the urge to use food as a psychological defense, pick up the card, not food, and say the prayer.

 
Visualization and Prayer Technique

In general, changing unwanted behavior comprises three basic steps:

1.

To know how ugly the behavior is and how destructive it is to yourself and to others.

2.

To know the damage caused by the behavior.

3.

To know the benefits of new and different behavior.

Note carefully, though, that in trying to overcome an addiction you will immediately encounter a frustrating paradox: thinking about the negative consequences of an addiction will only increase the desire for the addictive substance. So why does this happen? Well, the psychological defense at the core of any addiction is denial, so when contemplating any negative idea (such as getting heart disease from obesity), your mind will crave the intense pleasure of the addiction as a way to override (i.e., deny) the frightening idea.

Therefore, even though it is important to know the negative consequences of the addiction, the fear of those consequences in itself won’t be nearly so much a motivation for overcoming the addiction as will be the hope of positive changes. Consequently, those positive changes need to be visualized very, very clearly.

So here is how to do it: practice the following procedure at least twice a day until you no longer need it.

First, enter a state of relaxation. Here, you can simply sit (or kneel) and pray quietly. This is important because the next two steps (if done properly) will arouse substantial anxiety, and you need to be able to reduce that anxiety again.

Second, create a negative mood state in which you visualize the harmful and disgusting effects of the unwanted behavior. For example, see your body swelled with fat; feel your muscles and bones straining under heavy weight; notice your shortness of breath; visualize cholesterol coating your arteries and heart. After the intense negativity of this mood has been felt fully, reduce the anxiety with relaxation. Then pray the Hail Mary.

Third, contemplate how miserable and wretched your life will be if this behavior does not change. For example, see yourself wheezing for breath, barely able to endure any physical exertion. Imagine your children suffering from their own obesity because of your negative influence. Imagine yourself in Purgatory where every unnecessary mouthful of food you have ever taken will be purged from you. After the intense negativity of this mood has been felt fully, reduce the anxiety with relaxation. Then pray the Hail Mary.

Now come the most important steps.

Fourth, create a positive mood state in which you visualize the beneficial effects of new, healthy behavior. For example, see yourself as calm and confident in your faith, relaxed and able to concentrate, free of frustration and tension, a positive influence on others. Use your relaxation technique to enjoy a peaceful state of mind with a deep sense of hope for yourself and love for others. Pray the Hail Mary.

Fifth, reinforce your positive mood with positive statements of validation. Repeat the statements several times. Create your own, or select from the following examples.


  

Give me the grace, Lord, to not use food to fill my craving for love. In You, Lord, I am filled with all the fullness of divinity; there is no greater love than this.

Give me the grace, Lord, to not use body fat to ward off unwanted sexual attention. Let the protection of the Blessed Virgin, Saint Joseph, and all the angels, Apostles, saints, martyrs, and virgins through the ages help me guard and preserve my chastity.

When I trust in You, Lord, I do not need to soothe myself with food. Through Your grace, I am no longer a slave to impulses and addiction.

Lord, when grounded in prayer, I work calmly and confidently. Give me the grace to not let my self-confidence be bothered by small mistakes. In You I can overcome all obstacles with total confidence.

Give me the grace, Lord, to respect my own body as a temple of the Holy Spirit and to present myself to others with respect and dignity.

Give me the grace, Lord, to remain calm, relaxed, and composed in any situation.

Lord, let Your calmness and patience reflect through me to shine upon others as compassion and sensitive understanding.

You, Lord, give me an experience of peace and calm that cannot be threatened by anything outside myself. I thank You, Lord; I refuse to be jealous or envious, and I wish peace and good to all.

In You, Lord, there are no good days or bad days; there is only love.

Sixth, conclude with a prayerful closure to the session. Recite the following prayers:


  

The Hail, Holy Queen (Salve Regina).

HAIL, holy Queen,
Mother of Mercy;
hail, our life, our sweetness, and our hope.
To thee do we cry,
poor banished children of Eve;
to thee do we send up our sighs,
mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.
Turn then, most gracious Advocate,
thine eyes of mercy towards us;
and after this our exile,
show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.
 
V. Pray for us, O holy Mother of God.
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Amen.

 

The prayer to St. Michael the Archangel.

SAINT Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle;
be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray:
and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host,
by the power of God,
cast into hell Satan and all the wicked spirits,
who roam through the world, seeking the ruin of souls.
Amen.

 

The following invocation, thrice repeated:

V. Most Sacred Heart of Jesus,
R. Have mercy on us.

 
Coping with Cravings

Copy the following prayer, and whenever you feel a craving for unnecessary food, say this prayer:

 

PRAYER FOR WEIGHT LOSS
 

         

O MARY, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee. Through the grace of your purity, may this unclean habit cease.

FROM habit and slavery, pray for my release.
Hail Mary . . .

FROM anger, fear, and anxiety, pray for my release.
Hail Mary . . .

FOR health and calm and peace, pray for me.
Hail Mary . . .

FOR emotional sensitivity, pray for me.
Hail Mary . . .

TO be filled with all the fullness of divinity, pray for me.
Hail Mary . . .

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that, by Christ redeemed, we choose to live in purity. Amen.

 

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Notes.

1. What is the difference between a person with the psychiatric disorder of Anorexia Nervosa and saints—especially some medieval saints—who were notably frail and thin? Well, the difference is the same as the difference between fear and love. The disorder of anorexia is unconsciously motivated by fear: fear of emotional intimacy, fear of one’s own anger, and fear of not being “in control.” The anorexic uses the body to achieve a sense of (illusory) control over the world. The saint, in contrast, is motivated by love: a love for God that leads to a detachment from the world and its satisfactions—even to the point of mystical, more so than physical, nourishment and sustenance.

 

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The psychological and spiritual
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