I was offered the gift of co-facilitating a workshop at a picturesque ranch in Larkspur, Colorado this past Saturday with my friend and colleague Devon Combs, CEO of Beyond the Arena. Devon is an equine gestalt coach, and I have blogged before about the moving experience I had when I was her “client” for the day back in May.
This time, we partnered to put on a workshop for women with eating disorders or body image concerns. We had six women, two horse handlers, six horses, three dogs, one coach, and one therapist. With all of us, there was lots to learn, absorb, and share with each other. The community that was fostered on Saturday was incredibly special and powerful and will always be remembered.
More than anything else, the horses — their authenticity, their honesty, their empathy — were the healers that day.
Playboy, a Tennessee Walker, provided foundation for processing, as we each took our own piece of his calm presence and applied it to our own unique experience.
His steady power, along with the different offerings that each horse encompass, gave the participants an opportunity to feel supported from all sides.
This private bonding connection — human melting into horse, Playboy embracing that love — brought me to tears.
Thank you to the horses for being the beautiful, magnificent, wise, and accepting animals that they are. Humans have so much to learn and benefit from the authentic intuition of horses. Horses can intuitively sense what a human is feeling and what emotions they are holding inside – and they share this wisdom with us so freely. This day, nothing could be hidden as the horses calmly and safely encouraged us to be present with our bodies and ourselves.
I was truly touched by the openness of all participants, and how each woman offered her raw emotion and vulnerability to the horses in a way that invited peace. This was a day that changed lives!
Please stay tuned to Kate Daigle Counseling and join the mailing list for information about upcoming equine gestalt workshops!
So many of us wrap our identity around the things we do, the accomplishments we achieve, and the trophies we receive — in terms of school graduation, career success, or athletic competition. We, as animals, thrive on a healthy sense of competition, as it keeps us motivated and pushing forward towards our goals. Athletes, in particular, know this sense of purpose very well. The faster you run, the better place you will get. The better you dive, the greater team you will join. It can feel authentically validating to be acknowledged for your hard work and perseverance, and it can feel absolutely devastating to land in second place. Your time and your place can solidify themes of who you are — your identity. In addition, how you look physically (strong, solid, agile) can contribute in significant ways to your ability to achieve in ways that align with the identity you have created for yourself.
This obsession with perfection, size, and achievement can be an invitation to an eating disorder.
What happens when you retire from your sport(s)? Or are injured and can’t compete anymore? When your life is your sport, how do you cope? There was an article in the Denver Post last week entitled “Body obsession fills void left by sports” which chronicled the lives of several retired athletes (and by “retired” I do not mean AARP eligible; I mean in their mid-20s). One gymnast “who, since the age of 7 had devoted herself to gymnastics and without it felt a loss of identity”, developed bulimia as a means to have a new fixation: her body. Sports such as gymnastics are very vigilant about body size, shape, and weight. To succeed at the highest levels, you need to be thin and light. For some of us for whom that does not come naturally, that might lead to restricting food or purging it in order to maintain or lose weight.
Not only do these athletes not have the expectation to look a certain way in order to support their identity, they shift their entire lives to find a new meaning for who they are….which may seem daunting and elusive. Who am I if not a figure skater? Whether the eating disorder was developed during the years of training and competition, or if it was adopted after retirement, these types of questions are the challenges that we must all face as we walk the path of recovery. The eating disorder may try to mask or take away parts of who we are — and the beauty of recovery is rediscovering those parts of ourselves — but the initial confrontation of “what if there is nothing else to me?” is quite overwhelming.
The article states that “at least one-third of female college athletes has some type of eating disorder”. Think about how big that number is! What contributes to this? For one thing, the competitive nature of women (and men) in sports can contribute to the feeling of needing to be “the best” — and this can also blend into social spheres. The best athlete might also be the most popular girl on the squad, and we all know how important that might feel when making new friends in college. You might get compliments from coaches, family members, or mentors who notice the “hard work” and support it.
It appears that life after sports can leave a void and can create a feeling of loss. Loss of that team environment and cohesion that the athlete thrived in for so many years. If a member gets an injury and cannot play the sport, “she may feel like an ‘outsider’ and unable to contribute to the team anymore.” States Veronica Sykes, “I needed a new distraction, and I was able to fuel all of that angst into running — the same thing that made me good at my sport made me want to get really skinny.” Another aspect of risk in life after being an athlete is the distance that may come between former athletes and their colleagues and coaches. After retirement, people tend to split up and get out of touch. This can be a dangerous time for eating disorder development, as women may be searching for their identity and feel a lack of support and community.
This is a population that needs intervention and attention, as the environment of competitive sports can lead to an expectation to be perfect in life outside of that arena. It seems to me like a key point in self-care for retiring or active athletes is identity. Who are you without your sport? What parts of yourself can you nourish in a healthy way so that you don’t feel lost and separate? How can you boost your self-esteem and self-concept in affirming and positive ways? We all can ponder these questions and maintain awareness about the triggers of eating disorder and how to begin intervening.
I attended a fascinating presentation earlier this week by established Denver therapist Dr. Jennifer Harned Adams about the “Psychological Aspects of Women’s Reproductive Health”. Dr. Adams is a specialist in women’s issues relating to fertility, complicated pregnancy and childbirth, pregnancy and infant loss, and pregnancy and Post-partum Adjustment and she uses a Whole Woman Wellness Approach to consult, assess, and treat women (and their partners) who are going through these issues.
The entire presentation was full of great information and resources about pregnancy and related issues; I had no idea how complicated and complex these concerns can be and how many decisions need to be made that can affect emotional states and coping. In the realm of fertility, there is so much to consider, whether you are fertile and want the child, or infertile and want to have children. Dr. Adams referenced a recent New York Times article The Two-Minus-One Pregnancy, which focuses on the new trend of couples who have used in-vitro fertilization or another type of treatment to conceive, and find that they have multiple embryos growing when they had only planned for one — this may be due to financial or health reasons. Some doctors are helping couples terminate unwanted embryos — can you imagine the debate and controversy that this invites? I encourage you to read the article and the comments it produced.
Dr. Adams also touched on the sensitive and deep issue of pregnancy and infant loss. She works with couples who have lost pregnancies and who are in mourning of this loss, and she described the common reactions that couples have to this trauma: emotional numbing, fear, anger, having a sense of still being pregnant, guilt, and shame. I was taken aback by the high statistics that she presented on this type of loss: approximately 25% of all women will experience a pregnancy loss at some point in their lives. ”Many women,” Dr. Adams stated, “may not even know they were pregnant and lose the baby thinking they were having an abnormally heavy period.” She also offered the statistic: “10-25% of all medically confirmed pregnancies will end in loss”. That is shockingly high. A point that stuck with me was how men are just as much victims of pregnancy losses as their partners are, and they are often overlooked or forgotten. A loss such as this needs lots of attention and empathy for both partners, as each will cope in his or her own way. Working with a professional such as Dr. Adams or another specialist can help couples define their feelings and come together in healing instead of shut each other off to their feelings.
The area where Dr. Adams focused and in which I was particularly interested was that of Post-partum Adjustment (which can include depression). Post-partum depression is not talked about much in our society. There is an expectation to be “happy and joyful” when you have a child (and of course, exhausted and adjusting). What happens when a mother is depressed during or after her pregnancy? She may be ostracized. She may hear quotes such as in the title: “why are you sad? you have a healthy baby!”. This can be especially difficult for a depressed mother to hear if she has gone to extreme measures to conceive (such as in-vitro) and still feels down. Many women may experience the birth of their child as traumatic in some way and the anxiety and stress from that event can carry forth into post-partum if not treated.
It is very common for new parents to experience the “baby blues” (up to 80% of new moms experience this). What is the baby blues? You may have trouble sleeping, eating too much or too little, feel tearful, overwhelmed, or have mood swings — typical new-parent adjustments. Post-partum depression, however, is more severe and lasts longer. Post-partum depression affects 1 in 8 new moms — the most common medical complication of childbirth! It can be influenced by prior depression or a family history of depression, and usually peaks at 3-4 months post delivery. It is a serious condition in that it can affect the new mom’s ability to bond with her child or provide it with the best care for its needs. While we are often thinking of the baby and its health in the first few months of its life, we may forget to check up on how the new mom is doing. Doctors should be giving mothers screenings at their six-week check-ups (which they may avoid if they are depressed) to see if the symptoms are present. Most cases of Post-partum depression are not treated because they are not diagnosed or the mom (or dad, who can have PPD as well) do not disclose their feelings.
There is great need for intervention and treatment in the area of women’s reproductive health. I am grateful that I met Dr. Adams and was given all of these wonderful resources so that I may use them to help my clients or give them appropriate referrals. You can find out more about Dr. Adams at her website.
I had briefly heard of Reiki in the therapeutic community, but I had not had any personal experience with it, let alone did I truly understand what it is until this past weekend when I got to participate in a Reiki session myself. As I am a strong believer in all methods of healing, and advocate for connecting the mind, body, and spirit in wellness, I was intrigued by what energetic powers this ancient practice had to offer. I entered the experience with a “blank slate”, adopting no preconceived notions or judgments about what I was to learn during my session.
My good friend Audrey has completed her level I and level II certifications in being a Reiki practitioner, and she currently does Reiki on patients at the Denver Hospice. She graciously offered to come to my house and practice on me — a practice that she said, “I could do on myself, my dog, my husband, or anyone who is interested and willing”. Wow, I thought, how great that this healing practice is accessible to us all on an everyday basis if we make the effort to use it. For an ancient healing force, it is surprisingly simple and relatable for many types of people and situations. The patients at Hospice that Audrey works with report feeling more relaxed, and have often opened up to her about favorite memories and experiences of their lives as she gives them positive energy through her touch.
So what is Reiki? According to the International Center of Reiki Training, Reiki is a “Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing”. It is administered by a “laying of hands” and is conceived from the notion that unseen life force energy flows through us and is what causes us to be alive. If our life force energy is low or negative, we are more likely to get sick or depressed, and if it is high and healthy, we are enthused to be happy and impassioned. The practice was developed in 1922 by Japanese Buddhist Mikao Usui, and through this alternative approach to medicine, healers can transfer positive energy in the form of ki through their palms. The word “Reiki” is made up of two different Japanese words — “rei”, which means “God’s wisdom or the Higher Power”, and Ki which means “life force energy”. Combined, the Reiki tradition means “spiritually guided life force energy”.
How does this actually work? When Audrey arrived to perform the session, she asked if I would like to put on any music or burn any candles or incense — anything that might help me get in a relaxed state. Then she asked if I would like to be laying down or sitting up; you can be in either position but it is more effective if I am laying down. She explained that there are two types of Reiki — one which is “hands on”, and one that does not use touch. She was trained in the hands-on technique, which is more common and I think contributes to a deeper healing experience.
Before we began, Audrey said a silent prayer to the higher power that invited her to channel positive energy. She then laid her hands on my forehead — one of the chakras that holds energy. She explained that typically both she and the patient can feel a warmth radiating from her palms, which signifies the process of positive energy flowing from her hands into my body. She asked me if I had a particular part of my body to which I would like to send more concentrated healing energy, as sometimes she focuses on a body part like the knees that might have pain. She kept her hands on my forehead for a couple of minutes and then moved to my cheeks, neck, and chest, and further down my body in slowly paced and gentle movements.
I was instantly put into a relaxed state. I felt warmth coming through Audrey’s hands in many places, but most significantly on my feet and on my knees. We discussed that I was sore from exercising the day before and that those areas were in need of healing. I was shocked by how warm and comforting her hands were; ”aren’t your hands already warm?”, I asked her. ”No,” she said, “the warmth is the energy radiating from them.” She explained that she was moving unwanted energy out of my body and replacing it with positive and warm energy — and in turn, helping me to relax tension and release stress.
After Audrey had put me into a relaxed, almost hypnotic state, and had performed healing touch on my back and shoulders, she “brushed away” the negative energy that was released, and “zipped up” the positive energy into my body.
What was the effect? I can tell you that I did not feel like doing much of anything for the rest of the day! I was very relaxed and slept well that evening. The next day, I had bounds of energy to perform my work in an effective, positive, and authentic manner. Maybe that was due to having a good night’s sleep, but I like to think that the Reiki session helped to hold that positive energy inside me that often slips out.
As a psychotherapist, I help people heal emotional wounds and strengthen themselves to live a full and vibrant life. I believe that incorporating practices such as Reiki, massage, acupuncture, and other alternative healing methods contribute to the “whole being” health philosophy that I believe in so fully. I am grateful that I got to experience this for myself, and will continue to explore and practice methods of promoting peace and happiness for myself and others.
I often write about food and eating-related topics on my blog, because these issues are very close to my heart and to my professional career. I began pondering the other day the questions of: how do you define healthy eating? What is ‘normal’ eating? At what point does being ‘healthy’ or ‘on a diet’ become….unhealthy? (I personally don’t think being on a diet is ever truly healthy).
This is a complex topic and one that professionals as well as people who have recovered from eating disorders (or any type of food-related problem) continue to debate. I think this debate is healthy in its own right. As we are all humans with our own unique experiences, we all need to define for ourselves where healthy eating can cross the line into emotional and physical distress…and possibly an eating disorder. Going on a diet or exercising extensively do not necessarily cause an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia, or binge eating disorder. However these behaviors are the “gateway drug” to eating disorders, and the control aspect of them can very easily lead to the development of a dangerous eating disorder. Check out www.eatingdisorderfoundation.org for lots more information on the statistics of diets leading to EDs, and other pertinent danger signs and treatment recommendations. You can also check out and download my handout Fifteen signs of an eating disorder.
As a psychotherapist specializing in body- and eating-related issues, I often work with nutritionists and dieticians to help my clients define a healthy and balanced diet for their unique needs. Depending on our activity level, height, and genetic makeup, we all require different amounts of calories and nutrients on a daily basis to have energy, cognitive functioning, and physical ability. I have written in my blog before about the updated recommendations for the food guide pyramid by the federal government. These are not set in stone requirements for everyone, but can give a general idea on what are healthy portions and types of foods to eat daily.
How do you know what is healthy for you? How is the physical state of our health related to the mental state of our health? We all have a ‘set point’, a weight that our bodies will naturally stay at (within a few pounds) when we have consistently been treating our bodies with adequate exercise and nutrition. Sometimes, when we feel pressure to control our bodies or control other parts of our lives such as social environment and physical acceptance, it can seem like an ‘easy solution’ to control the way our bodies look. Society tells us that when our bodies look perfectly svelte like the actresses we see in movies, then we will be socially popular, we will ‘get the guy (or girl)’, we will be smart, we will have money, and everyone will want to be us. Then everything will be perfect and fine. Right?
How damaging those messages are. Men and women are constantly bombarded with messages from society — whether it is in a magazine, on television or in a movie, or through an expectation from a sports team to compete at your ‘optimal physical shape’, we all are told every day that we should look a certain way and that this will bring us things we really want. That there is only one way to do it, creating a tunnel of dualistic thinking — and it must be in pursuit of perfection. Even if the way we ‘should’ look is very different from where our natural set point and body shape would rest, this ‘perfect’ complex can obtain a sparkly shine and can be the ONE THING WE MUST OBTAIN. What happens when we get there? When we get to the ‘perfect’ weight, or we get ‘perfect’ grades (perfectionism spans all areas of one’s life)?
Much of this pressure is about acceptance, but in a very warped way. We want to be accepted by the people who have power, which are the rich and skinny people who seem to ‘have it all’. They are ‘happy’! However, the harsh reality is that we will never find acceptance at all until we can truly accept ourselves. In fact, we can damage our physical and emotional health to very scary extremes if we try to change who we are in order to be accepted by a friend or family member. I am a huge fan of the organization Health at Every Size, which promotes body-acceptance and self-love. This organization calls itself “the new peace movement”. I love that!
So, I don’t think I even came close to defining what healthy eating is (which is the point….it’s different for each of us but requires one common ingredient: balance). What about normal eating? This one is even more tricky, and for each client I work with, it is different. I like to think of normal eating as: starting to eat when you are not starving, and stopping when you are satisfied. Now, this in an of itself requires balance — sometimes you may be starving when you start eating for one reason or another, and sometimes you may overeat. The key factor is: trusting your body. Your body will digest the food. You will have another opportunity to eat. Your body knows what it needs. Listen to it, and trust it. Those messages we get told every day are the antithesis of this concept. How did we get so skewed? Where did we get told that we shouldn’t listen to our bodies? And why do we listen to that??
I encourage your own thoughts, feedback, and reflections on your experiences. This post is a meditation on my own personal experience coupled with my clinical training and philosophy. And, as with everything, the debate is always lively on this topic because we are all human beings, living our own lives, with our own outlooks — and striving for balance.
For more fodder for your thoughts, check out this blog post from HAES about “loving your body WON’T kill you!”
One woman’s creations, a community of healing — these words were an aspect of what I took from the drawings and honest story of Khale M. Hurst, an Australian artist who posts her drawings on her website/blog. While looking through her archives, one particular post caught my attention: Just Be Honest For Now: I DO NOT HAVE AN EATING DISORDER. The first and the second phrase of this title appear to contradict one another — at least that was my initial opinion. Isn’t honesty usually linked to an admission of a difficult truth? I was curious to read more of what she meant.
Khale’s post spans several pages and depicts her honest look at discovering (or admitting) that she suffers from anorexia. As many women and men (including myself) know, the process of admitting there is a problem and then asking for help is one of the most difficult steps of recovery. This first step has the power to expose the shame, guilt, and pain that are linked to eating disorders. What I love most about this blog is the honesty in it: she readily states that she struggled for a long time with accepting that her eating patterns were becoming destructive. All of her feelings, emotions, and thoughts are creatively illustrated in drawings. Khale speaks to her feeling of “having her hands cut off” and “feeling emotionally craptastic” as she was wading through the initial stage of readiness to admit to the problem. As soon as she started to embrace her journey and seek help, her drawing became easier and more expressive — a sort of therapy of her own.
Khale covers several important indicators that an eating disorder might be present — and these can help others who are reading this as well as Khale’s post to know if a loved one might be suffering. Khale’s humor in illustrating her journey makes it easy to connect with, relatable, and utterly human. Here is one of Khale’s drawings where she wrestles with the denial that has been controlling her for some time. The image depicts her realization that she was cutting out food groups for eating disordered reasons and not for health reasons:
Khale then speaks about the eating disorder voice and how it can appear to be depicted as a menacing monster or monsters that constantly whisper damaging things in her ear — negative messages about body image, health choices, self esteem, and most significantly, that her body is much larger and more “wiggly” than it truly is.
Distorted self-perception is an overlying trait of an eating disorder. Those affected by these disorders may look at themselves and see something completely different (and less beautiful) than what the rest of the world sees. We can believe that we see the truth and that those who tell us we are beautiful are “lying to us”. A lot of feeling okay is wrapped up in how we look, and mainly in how much fat we think we have on our bodies. As Khale notes “if I can continue to fit into [this size] underwear, then I know I have not gained weight”. This is eerily linked to how she feels about her worth that day.
Take a look at this powerful image of the eating disorder voices depicted as threatening and scary monsters towering over her fearful body:
Khale’s journey and journaling is shockingly real and honest. She is still on her journey — as are many people in recovery from an eating disorder. Khale shares some of the insight gained through this process: ”No matter what happens to us, ultimately we still have control over how we care for our own body.” As control is a central aspect of an eating disorder’s power, we must be careful with how we use it. A wrestle with control — whether it is controlling what we eat, or feeling out of control — is ultimately what we must reconcile when we recover. Finding balance with control, with our eating habits, with our selves is our wish, and stumbling through life experiences gives us valuable tools for obtaining this balance.
I love the creative and unique way that Khale has chosen to share her story. She is very brave, as are many others who seek help for eating disorders. Read more of her story at her site, and don’t forget to read all of the comments that she has received for her work. She has touched hundreds of people across the world — a testimony to the way that honesty and courage can impact communities everywhere!
I am so excited about an upcoming venture, presented by Beyond The Arena and Kate Daigle Counseling: A full-day workshop at a beautiful ranch in Larkspur, Colorado where horses spend the day connecting with women and helping them on their journey towards recovery from eating disorders!
You may remember a post I wrote a few weeks ago about my experience visiting the ranch that hosts Beyond The Arena, a coaching business which is owned by Devon Combs who is an exceptional gestalt-trained equine coach. I was moved beyond words by the authentic and powerful healing presence that horses embody in their natural beings, and now I am working with Devon to present a workshop on August 27th where women who are affected by eating disorders can receive the same gift of self-acceptance and peace in the midst of these stunning creatures.
Have you ever felt like you needed to get out of your head and into your body? Do you truly know what your body is experiencing on a daily basis — where it holds hurt, pain, anxiety, excitement, joy? What would it be like to connect with those parts and emotions within yourself and truly accept YOU for the amazing person that you are? I have first-hand experience with the benefits of connecting with horses at Beyond The Arena’s ranch, and I took with me many memories that I will never forget. I also was able to release a part of myself that was being held back by fear and stress…the horses I was working with allowed me the space to let go of obstacles in the way of my path.
The workshop will be from 9:30am-4:00pm on Saturday, August 27th. We welcome women ages 18 and older, and are focusing this workshop on women who are currently struggling or in recovery from eating disorders (anorexia nervosa, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and other types of disordered eating). We will spend the day with several horses who will invite us to experience a peaceful space with them, and we will process emotions that come up as a result of dwelling in this non-judgmental environment. One of the best parts: you do not need to have any previous horse experience!
Please contact me for further information – and spread the word! Space is limited!
Here is the flyer: