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  • Helly Barnes

Applying the Principles of Neuroplasticity to Eating Disorder Recovery

When you have had an eating disorder for any significant length of time, especially as an adult, it is easy to believe that this is your fate and that you will be a slave to your eating disordered brain forever more.

I am here to tell you that no matter how old you are, how long you have been ill or how entrenched you believe the eating disorder to be for you, that because of the wonders of neuroplasticity (that is the brain's ability to change and adapt), you too can change your brain and recover.

Neuroplasticity is an incredible thing and knowing more about it and how to use the brain's ability to adapt, shift and ultimately rewire for recovery will enable you to change your brain so that the disordered brain pathways that developed in the illness, no longer drive your thoughts and behaviours.

"Neurons that Fire Together, Wire Together"

This is an often quoted statement of the famous neuroscientist, Donald Hebb, and this statement underlies the basis of neuroplasticity and our ability as humans to change our brains and 'rewire' them.

Thoughts, Experiences & Actions can Change our Brain Wiring

We now understand that the brain is constantly changing throughout our lifetimes.

With neuroplasticity, connections between our nerve cells (or neurons) are constantly being built and strengthened between those neurons being used in our day to day lives through our thoughts, actions and experiences and reduced or removed entirely between those that are no longer in use or necessary.

In this way, neural networks (that is the multiple pathways that are present between our brain cells) will change depending on what we use. If we stop using them (for example, if we are no longer acting in a way we once were) then they will eventually go.

Ultimately, thoughts, experiences and actions that we perform can affect which of our brain cells (or neurons) 'fire together', forming connections, which when repeatedly fired off will grow into stronger and more embedded and 'wired in' neural pathways.

If we repeat these thoughts, actions and behaviours over and again, then over time the neurons will begin to fire off automatically as our thoughts and behaviours become habits.

The more deeply we embed new thoughts and behaviours by repeated action, the more embedded those new pathways become and the more automatically and quickly the brain will be to use them in future.

Ultimately, the brain wants to apply neuroplasticity to guide our actions and thoughts as doing so uses less energy in terms of conscious thought (leaving energy and space for other things to be thought about and focused on!).

'Challenge - Repeat'

When you understand the basic principles of neuroplasticity and apply it to eating disorder recovery, the old saying that many in the recovery communities use of 'challenge, repeat', which is to face an eating disorder recovery challenge and do it repeatedly until it gets easier and easier, makes perfect sense.

When you first face a new eating disorder recovery 'challenge', such as eating something new and terrifying, the first times you do so, there will be no or only very weak connections between the neurons involved in that particular action. It is likely to feel clunky and wrong as the brain is being asked to fire off in a new direction (and the brain likes familiar and habitual!).

However, the more times you repeat the 'challenge', you find that it becomes easier and easier as the neural connections involved in that action have become stronger, are familiar to the brain and with ongoing repetition, this new positive recovery behaviour is strongly wired into your brain and can become a future habit.

Neuroplasticity also Applies to Thoughts!

Another important point to note is that it is not just our actions and behaviours that we can 'rewire' to aid our recovery, our thoughts can also be changed.

With an eating disorder, it is very likely that you have many very disordered and automatic thoughts that are wired into your brain. However, these can also be changed and 'rewired' with neuroplasticity and changing our thoughts can make altering our actions easier too (win, win!).

The good news is that with neuroplasticity, what went before can be irrelevant as we can choose today to think differently which will determine our future. It is possible to choose to change our conscious thoughts in recovery (even if at first we don't believe those thoughts) and repeatedly choose recovery positive thoughts to start to wire them in so in future they too can be automatic (new beliefs) and we have literally 'reprogrammed' our brain in a direction we chose.

A key example here in eating disorder recovery might be around body image.

Many with eating disorders have poor body image and might experience regular automatic thoughts that are not too kind about their body.

In recovery, to use neuroplasticity in your favour here, it would be key to notice when you have an automatic negative body image thought and replace it with a positive thought about your body instead (remember, I said you don't have to believe it - that will come later!). Alongside this, make a conscious effort throughout each day to think something kind about your body and gradually those good thoughts that are pro recovery will wire in and make you feel overall more body confident.

Embrace Positive Emotions while Engaging in New Behaviours and Thoughts!

One thing that also makes the brain learn faster is if there are emotions behind a new experience or thought.

Unfortunately, as the brain is always looking out for danger (a survival mechanism but not always a helpful one!), the brain does learn super fast when there is negative emotion behind an experience compared to neutral emotions or positive ones. However, forcing yourself to feel really positive (fake it if you have to!) when engaging in a new recovery behaviour, challenge or thought can definitely help the brain learn that this unfamiliar thing it is encountering is actually quite a good thing so might be worth while holding onto and repeating... And those little recovery neural connections will bond together and embed themselves in the brain a bit harder and faster.

It is Never too Late!

I said at the beginning of this post and I will repeat it again, research has demonstrated now time and again that the brain holds onto its ability to rewire itself throughout the lifespan. This means that it is never too late to rewire your brain in eating disorder recovery and never too late to recover!

To Conclude...

Neuroplasticity generally does not feel good when it is happening. This applies to anytime we are learning something new that is difficult (it could be learning to play the piano, speak Japanese or it can be recovery from an eating disorder!).

Neuroplasticity feels uncomfortable because it is unfamiliar to the brain. Therefore to begin with, new behaviours and thoughts in recovery will feel wrong, require a lot of focus, create agitation and a feeling of 'brain fog'...

However, the more you persist, stay committed to your recovery and repeat and repeat, the sooner those new connections will be embedded and habits, thoughts and behaviours that are all recovery positive will be deeply ingrained in your brain, leaving the old disordered brain pathways and networks nothing but broken and trampled down weeds!

I will be writing more about applying different principles from neuroscience to eating disorder recovery, so look out for future posts!

I coach people who are overcoming eating disorders, disordered eating or low body confidence; enabling them to find freedom in a world obsessed with diets.

If you do want to know more about my services, please explore my website and contact me.

And a final note - over on my Recovering Nomad website, I wrote a much more detailed post a year or so ago about how to 'wire positivity and purpose into a lasting eating disorder recovery'... just in case you want more on this topic!


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