Last Monday I started my week with 16 hours of fasting. It turned out to be challenging and tiring. Why did I put such a stress on me? It was an experiment, a test on my resistance skills I planned to go through many weeks ago. During the fasting periods I experienced different feelings that have affected my mood, my attitude towards daily activities and even caused some moments of irritability. All in all fasting was a constructive experiment, something I am glad I went through and in this post I am going to tell you why and what I learnt from it.
Fasting as a personal experience, not as a therapy
Fasting is considered by the Natural Hygiene Movement – to whom a rediscovery of food abstinence is attributable – a therapy to ensure that the human body spontaneously restores its well-being by getting rid of toxins. An unnatural lifestyle is the real cause of all diseases, the Movement believes.
Fasting is also an important aspect of many ascetic practices to get to purification, evolution and search for the divine. All religions involve fasting rituals as a mean of penance. Buddhism prescribes monks to fast every month in the days of new and full moon. In Islam fasting is essential practice during the solemn month of Ramadan, where eating, drinking, smoking and having sexual intercourse is not permitted from sunrise to sunset. Also Christians held fasting in high esteem (in the past, at least): every Fridays, on Christmas Eve, Easter, Assumption, All Saints’ Day.
The topic would have never caught my attention if I didn’t came across a blogger who writes about fitness and well-being. She described her personal attempt to fast for more that 24 hours. After reading the post I knew few things more: she dealt with the fasting period quite well and she was going to repeat the toilsome experience again in the near future.
Since my relationship with food is slightly more complicated I knew it was not going to be that easy to me. To deprive yourself of something so necessary and vital is not a sensitive choice, you’d do your body a grieve wrong. All this said, I still decided to embark on this experience. Why and for what purpose?
I read that fasting can mean “autophagy” when becomes a practice to make the body feed itself. A condition which happens naturally in various circumstances: during the development of the egg, during metamorphosis (stage of life comparable to the embryonic period) and also during hibernation and sleep. The idea of autophagy disgusted me a little, in very truth. I wasn’t sold on it yet.
Then I read that fears, anxiety, phobias and obsessive ideas may appear more or less fleetingly during fasting. All that can be interpreted as the appearance of neurotic traits previously hidden. The more the balance is fake and superficial, the more intense is the crisis. These not too serious phenomena of personality disorder are a necessary step to achieve a more stable balance and equilibrium. Any change requires, as a prerequisite, the awareness of the current condition. Small psychological crises during fasting are therefore to be considered potentially beneficial.
This idea of testing how deep my fears and anxieties are, intrigued me. If, by fasting, I was going to uncover masked and blocked traits of my personality, I could have found a way to know more about myself. And to enrich my personality with tools of self-control, eventually. A test, rather then a therapy.
My fasting experience
In the morning, whether my mood is bad (as usual), or less bad than usual, I can always find consolation into my hearthy-healthy breakfast. Last Monday I woke up knowing that I was not going to have my tasty porridge soon and that made me a little nervous. Every two hours I had to fill out a questionnaire about my state of mind. The experimenter wanted to know if I was feeling proud of fasting. Any sense of reward for being able to keep food away? Not at all.
A net sense of emptiness in the stomach was preventing me from concentrating. Any effort of focusing on scientific papers was failing. I was feeling more irritable than usual. As time went by, my stomach was not yelling ‘”hunger!” anymore but my brain was turning into a muffled cage of sleepy neurons, an organ unfit for rational thoughts. I managed to get to lunch-time as an injured climber in front of a snowy, rocky, steep mountain.
My body was still reacting very well. During the day I could walk the stairs from the 9th to the 11th of my workplace several times, always at quick pace. Any physical activity was still a natural occurrence in my daily routine. I could not sustain any mental effort, though. I was counting the minutes till the end and when the end eventually arrived I broke my fast with a banana. Then three granola bars. Then a cheese and tomato sandwich and one piece of lemon cake.
This is not what I call self-control. I gobbled up everything in a hurry, enjoying a cereal bar as if it was the most delicious food on earth. That wrong meal delighted me. What did I learn, then? Something I did not know before, for sure. That my brain needs food more urgently than my body; I can resist the hunger without panicking (self control can be practiced and improved); fasting is a mental exercise to control both the body and the emotions and it has nothing to do with weight loss practices. I learned that I am not able to feel proud for not having eaten. If a person could develop a sense of reward from abstinence, then, well, that person would get much more benefits from fasting than I did.