How EMDR Helped Jameela Jamil Overcome an Eating Disorder (and Her Fear of the Dark)The actor and advocate shares what mental health tools are in her self-care kit.
When you think of Jameela Jamil, your mind probably goes to her self-centered yet lovely character on The Good Place, her fierce and often divisive takedowns of celebrities who hawk appetite suppressants disguised as tea and lollipops, and her ever-present advocacy work. And this month, the actor and podcast host is using her knack for bringing people together to lead a new mindful movement initiative with her I Weigh mental health platform.
“I think I've made a big ol’ stink about diet culture, and we all know now how I feel about the diet drinks and certain people abusing the weight loss injections who don't need them. So now I'm moving on to exercise culture to just give that back to people,” she tells Wondermind.
Through the Move for Your Mind movement, Jamil is on a mission to encourage people to tap into physical exercise for the sake of mental health benefits. Unlike so many exercise initiatives you see online, this one isn’t about getting your body to look a certain way. Plus, Move for Your Mind is meant for everyone to participate—not just the typical white, able-bodied, slim, super toned, or muscle-y people that are frequently catered to by the wellness industry. Her mission will take shape in the form of both in-person events and online offerings on social media (for anyone who is a homebody or struggles to get out of the house). “Exercise can be joyous and fun, and you can look hugely uncool doing it and still have it be effective, as I have learned myself,” she says.
Here, Jamil talks about therapy, anxiety, and why she prioritizes movement even though she despises sweating.
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WM: How are you doing lately?
Jameela Jamil: I'm alright, actually. I feel good. I feel a bit stressed about the world, but I think that's kind of strengthened my resolve to really look after myself and get ready for the fight ahead.
WM: What current events are on your mind?
JJ: The increasing restrictions on women's reproductive health is probably the thing that stresses me out the most. It seems to be one of the many imminent dangers. Obviously [there’s concern] with things like gun violence or what's happening to the unhoused in this country, and there's so many things that are bothering me as well as in my own home country. But I think in my head at least, and probably because of my own emotional attachment to reproductive freedom, the continued assault on our right to control our own bodies is what feels like the house is burning down right now. It's affecting people right now as we speak.
WM: It can be easy to feel powerless in those moments. Do you ever feel like that? What helps you maintain your mental health during these trying times?
JJ: One of the ways in which I protect my mental health is remembering that this is not just my journey. Sometimes because we're from such an individualist society, we take all the pressure onto ourselves, and we just think, What am I going to do about this? You have to find the people who inspire you, who galvanize you, and who take a bit of that pressure off so that you remember this is not just a one-human fight—there's millions of us in this, and we will win again.
I never used to be intentional about making space for myself, but I got so sick, both mentally and physically, from constantly burning the candle at both ends and constantly taking in this stressful information that my literal cortisol levels couldn't handle it anymore. I used to feel guilty for taking a break from thinking about these things or learning about these things or fighting towards these things, but I realized I just ran on empty and eventually burned out so much I couldn't do anything for anyone. So it's not just care for you, it's also care for your community to engage in restoration.
WM: This month you're working on a new mindful movement initiative with your I Weigh platform. What inspired you to lead this?
JJ: I had an eating disorder for 20 years, and I have very strong feelings about diet culture because it was a massive part of what poisoned my brain for such a long time and took away two decades of my life. I think exercise culture has really crept into diet culture, and they have become synonymous with one another.
We have been programmed for about four decades now to look at exercise as something you do for weight loss, as something you do to punish yourself for having eaten or to give yourself permission to be able to eat more food. We look at it as this obligation to make our body look a certain way. And we have these increasingly ridiculous body goals that take months or years or a lifetime to achieve these sort of Marvel bodies or Instagram bodies that everyone wants to attain. And we are human beings, and we are prone to wanting instant gratification.
What I'm trying to do is to remind people that you might not get abs by the end of this [movement] session, but you will feel immediately better than you did before. You will release happy chemicals into your brain—endorphins and dopamine—and you will feel a literal sense of control in your life, which in these times, is so vital to feel a sense of autonomy. You will sleep better that night. You will feel more energy. You will feel more vitality.
So many people have been kept out of exercise via advertising or via gym culture. We don't see people with disabilities very often. We don't see fat people very often. And when we do, there's global uproar. We shame bigger people about not exercising, and yet when we see images of them doing so or clothing that's big enough to fit their bodies, we freak out, which is such confusing messaging. Pregnant people, elderly people, all these people who need to move every day for their mental health aren't being included in a culture because of capitalism. We need to get rid of the term exclusive. We need to democratize exercise. We need to take exercise back because it's for everyone, and it is vital to our emotional well-being.
WM: How did more movement impact your personal mental health journey?
JJ: There's nothing I passionately despise more than thinking about the exercise that I'm going to do. I hate putting on trainers. I hate every single moment of it. And it's very normal if you do too, but I would advise you to try to push past that and carry on with it. Because at the beginning of a walk, often I feel low in mood, low in energy, and very overwhelmed. All the thoughts of the internet are in my brain from whatever I've just seen, and I can't process them properly and just feel kind of stuck and anxious. And by the end of a 15- or 20-minute walk, I think there's something about being in motion that changes the way that you think and the way you are able to troubleshoot. It starts to organize my thoughts while I'm moving. The feeling of momentum kind of carries through to me psychologically.
And because of the chemical interaction in my brain, I feel so much less anxious. I feel literally less depressed. … I feel happier and better, and it feels like a free concurrence where if there was any pill that could make me feel better that fast, I would take it.
WM: Including everybody, no matter their mobility or fitness level, is crucial. How will your initiative ensure everyone is included and able to participate?
JJ: Oh yeah, big time. I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which is a collagen disorder, and it means that I dislocate my joints sometimes. So there are many times when I can't get up and down the stairs or get out of my house. Even using little weights in the bathtub can help me and shift my feeling of mobility. There are little micro-movements that you can do [because] when you are unable to move your full body, it does require extra energy.
We're trying to find trainers all over the world who give exercise lessons to people who are pregnant or people who live in bigger bodies or people who have disabilities and different types of disabilities. I'm not pretending to be the expert here or saying I've invented the concept of exercising for your mental health. But I'm very good at bringing people together, whether it's because they like what I'm doing or if they're all annoyed at me. I am somehow a very connective human being. They're paying attention. So even when people hate me, they hate me together. That's a skill.
WM: What aspect of your mental health would you describe as a work in progress?
JJ: I don't really struggle with depression very much anymore, [though] I get very sad when I'm unwell because it hurts a lot, and it's very hard to stay motivated about anything when you're in pain. … I really struggle with anxiety. I think if you are working in social justice all the time, it's really hard not to feel that. It's really hard not to internalize that and just to constantly feel like the world is on fire and there's so much to do. I’m working on pacing my anxiety and working on taking those breaks and realizing that this is a marathon, this is not a sprint, and these two things take a long time. And making sure I don't fall into hopelessness because that makes my anxiety so much worse.
That's why things like exercise, things that force my anxiety out by dancing or whatever are a vital practice. 'Cause it's really hard as an anxious person to think your way out of anxiety. You kind of have to move your way through it. Whether that's medication or exercise or spending time with friends or animals, that's something that I'm still making a conscious effort to do because you can't override it by yourself.
I found eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR) therapy very helpful. It kind of reorganizes your brain as to the thoughts that you need for safety and the thoughts that are mundane and that you don't need to constantly hyper-focus on.
Let's take the eating disorder thing. I had a very, very weird and bad attitude towards food, where food represented anything other than just fuel. To me, food was parents. Food was love. Food was rebellion. Food was self-hatred. Food was congratulations. It was anything but nutrition. It was all these symbolic things to me. And I went to EMDR for that, to detach my feelings around food so that when I'm eating a hamburger, it's not because I did well at school or won an award or because I'm punishing myself for daring to feel good and I'm trying to make myself feel bad and feel self-hatred. It’s just a fucking burger. It's been unbelievable to reclaim my attitude towards the way that I nourish myself.
It's the same thing with how I used to be afraid of the dark. I did EMDR and found it was linked to childhood anxiety that I had because of terrible things I'd witnessed as a kid. Via doing EMDR therapy, I was able to reclaim my feeling of like, No, I am safe now. I'm not still a child and I'm not still in that position and I'm able to sleep in the dark now. These things sound silly and maybe childish to some people, but they're real, and a lot of people face them.
WM: What stigma or misconception about mental health bothers you the most?
JJ: There's still a huge stigma around medication. I used to have that stigma around medication. I was 33 the first time I took meds, and the reason I hadn't until then is because I thought they just treat the symptoms and not the cause. What I hadn't realized is that sometimes the symptoms are so severe that you are never going to find the cause because they're clouded in the symptoms. So it's vital to be able to give yourself the medication that allows you to at least have a fighting chance at clearing the pathway to finding what was the initial cause.
We talk about it more, but people still feel embarrassed or ashamed. Or they're worried they're going to gain a bit of weight on the medication or worried that maybe their sex drive will be low. Some of these side effects can be real, but once you do it, and once you take these things and the world looks more colorful to you and you are able to access joy and friendship and stability and you don't feel hopeless and suicidal—all these different things that can happen that I've experienced—you don't care anymore about if your body changes a bit or if your sex drive changes a bit.
Medications react differently on different people, and you have to try them to see how they impact you individually. … While I don't think medication is the be-all and end-all of our self-care—I think we have to practice other things to get better too—it is vital that we stop making people feel like there's something wrong with them for taking an “easier” route. The world is hard enough.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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