One of the most advantageous aspects of fasting is the effect it has on our emotional states. Although emotions often feel more intense during and after a fast, this phenomenon is part of a natural process. The more calm an individual remains during a fast, the easier it is for them to move through emotional experiences. Research has noted common emotional themes during fasting, most notably related to feelings of irritability and joy. The negative emotions that surface during fasting tend to be related to feelings of grief over the temporary loss of food.
Perhaps the most prevailing beliefs of human nature is that people need food in order to survive. As noted in the hierarchy of needs as created by psychologist, Abraham Maslow, food is associated to basic survival. In some instances, this need is so great it overshadows one’s ability to see clearly. From the day we are born, the desire for food reigns dominant. The inner drive for food is almost constantly present on some level from the beginning to the end of life and rarely leaves.
Attachment to food is undeniable. As soon as an individual becomes attached to something, a situation is created in which he or she may have to grieve the loss of it. Because attachment to food is interrupted during a fast, grief is a significant part of the fasting experience.
The grief that is connected with fasting has the potential to create significant positive growth if participants are able to recognize their less productive attachments and let go of them. In this manner, fasting can assist with detachment from our mundane everyday existence.
If an individual associates food with love and nurturing, fasting will challenge the most fundamental of all belief systems. For those who have unconsciously avoided their feelings by using food, fasting provides them an opportunity to face the pain hidden beneath the relationship they have with food. For someone who uses food as a coping mechanism or expects it to fill an emotional void, fasting can reveal unhealthy habits.
Fasting creates suffering on many levels, but the degree to which one is able to feel one’s suffering is parallel to one’s ability to feel joy. Italian psychiatrist Robert Assagioli suggested that these higher experiences activate feelings from the lower unconscious, thereby creating anxiety as we feel wounded, fearful, angry, and depressed. Similar to other consciousness-raising events such as mediation, fasting can potentially create psychological and spiritual disturbances. Fasting is associated with these types of changes because of the unique relationship it has with the psychospiritual aspects of human development.
The term psychospiritual is defined in a variety of ways, beyond the literal and conceptual reunion of the psyche and the spirit. In human development, it can defined as the relationship between self-concept, emotional well-being, sources of inspiration, as well as the meaning and purpose in one’s life. Some clinicians have suggested that psychospiritual approaches to psychotherapy can help facility change on the deepest levels of consciousness.
The goal of both the faster and the psychotherapist is to recognize which psychospiritual aspects of the person’s life are preventing psychospiritual growth. When fasting, an individual has the potential to experience psychospiritual autophagy, a term I coined to explain the process of holistic reintegration that occurs during fasting.
Autophagy is a normal biological process in the body that is self-protective. During fasting, for example, the body segregates and digests portions of cell’s cytoplasmic material. Recent research into fasting and cancer has shown that the process of autophagy has the power to shrink – and in some cases – completely eliminate benign growths such as breast cysts and uterine fibroids. These are prime examples of non-essential tissue that become recycled during a fast. The phenomenon of autophagy explains why fasters experience tremendous physiological changes, and may also suggest why remarkable psychological and spiritual changes occur as well.
The theory of psychospiritual autophagy proposes that fasting induces various types of autophagy on three levels; physiological, psychological, and spiritual. During psychospiritual autophagy, the psyche segregates and digests emotional and spiritual imbalances much in the same way as cellular autophagy. For people who experience psychospiritual autophagy—a significant change in the psychospiritual realm—post-fasting psychotherapy may be a useful intervention. The purpose and focus of psychotherapy would be to assist the faster in assimilating the psychospiritual changes that occurred during the fast, to prevent the faster from using defense mechanisms to dismiss or deny these changes. This premise, based on the theory of holism, suggests that when something as significant as autophagy occurs, it impacts the person on all levels; mind, body, and spirit.
This belief system is based on the principle of holism. Holistic approaches to health care appeared in what was termed psychosomatic medicine in the 1970s, and were used to conceptualize and treat psychosomatic phenomena. Instead of charting one-way causal links from the psyche to soma (the body), or vice-versa, it aimed at a systemic model, wherein multiple biological, psychological and social factors were seen as interlinked. At present, it is commonplace in psychosomatic medicine to state that psyche and the body really cannot be separated for practical or theoretical purposes. A disturbance on any level—somatic, psychic, or social—will radiate to all the other levels as well. In this sense, psychosomatic thinking is similar to the biopsychosocial model of medicine which links biology, psychology, and sociology in a similar manner. By the early 2000s, psychosomatic medicine had become a psychiatric subspecialty.
In psychotherapy, holism is based on the concept that all aspects of a person—psychological, physical, and spiritual—affect one another. Because the person is seen as whole comprised of these parts, it is posited that one aspect of the person cannot be affected without impacting the others. The concept of holism is found in transpersonal psychology and alternative medicine. Fasting often helps with emotional challenges due to the manner in which it takes the focus off of our own needs, opening us to a larger world.
For more information about fasting and psychospiritual autophagy, visit the website for Dr. Fredricks’ book Fasting: An Exceptional Human Experience at http://fastingexperience.com or http://drrandifredricks.com.
Fredricks, R. (2012). Fasting: An Exceptional Human Experience. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.
About the Author
Dr. Randi Fredricks, Ph.D. is the author of the best-selling book Fasting: An Exceptional Human Experience and a recognized expert on complementary and alternative therapies for mental health. To learn more about Dr. Fredricks, visit http://drrandifredricks.com.