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  • Helly Barnes

The Power of Rituals and Restrictive Eating Disorders

Rituals and restrictive eating disorders go hand in hand and as with any form of addiction, it's important to be aware of the power that rituals have over you. It's likely that you not only have an addictive drive to eat restrictively and engage in compensatory behaviours, but the way you approach these behaviours can be fixed, rigid and surrounded by ritualistic acts. These rituals can become addictive in themselves so that not being able to follow usual patterns when it comes to where or how you engage in the behaviours will increase your levels of distress and anxiety further.

Examples of rituals with a restrictive eating disorder can include ritualistic times of day that you will eat or needing to be seated in the same spot to consume the same foods in the same amounts. You might have rituals in relation to movement patterns that you feel compelled to engage in before eating or before going to bed. Purging by vomiting can be ritualised in terms of when, where and how, or compulsive walks need to follow the exact same route each time, again in a pattern that is best described as ritualistic.

These rituals don’t make sense if you are just addicted to the direct pursuit of energy deficit. If that were the case, then as long as you were eating restrictively, whether you did so sitting at the table or in an armchair shouldn't make a difference. The same with movement. If you were only addicted to walking, then as long as you got your fix in terms of how far or fast you walk, the route taken shouldn't matter. So, something deeper is occurring to create these powerful rituals around the eating disorder’s addictive behaviours.

Deeply ingrained rituals surrounding an addictive behaviour are also common to other kinds of addiction. Time of day in which the addiction is engaged in, the location or the tools used with it can all become as important to the person as the behaviour or substance itself. It’s also recognised that rituals can be emotional. It might be that being upset about something gives someone a reason to engage in their drug. This leads them to seek something to become angry or upset about and becomes part of their ritualistic pattern.

An example of this in relation to restrictive eating disorders might be engaging in thoughts about being fat which trigger feelings of greed and disgust. This becomes an automatic ritualistic pattern that precedes restrictive eating habits.

Rituals followed as part of an addictive pattern of behaviour are largely unconscious, and if questioned, most people will not know why it is that they feel they must do something in a particular way or in a certain place. However, once someone has started to engage in a ritual as part of an eating or addictive disorder, it can be very hard for them to then stop themselves from going on to get their full fix.

So why does your brain push you to follow the habits that form part of the eating disorder in such ritualistic ways?

Over time, the pursuit of your drug of energy deficit has become your brain’s primary goal and highest priority. As the eating disorder became deeply entrenched, your days primarily focused on what, where and how you would restrict or compensate, to the point that other things that you once found pleasure in lost their meaning. Therefore, your brain had come to identify these behaviours as highly important, even crucial to survival. It‘s little wonder that your brain notices and puts high importance onto everything that surrounds them.

When you first eat a restrictive meal at a certain place at the table, your brain notices, registers this and recognises that this seat is a spot that is safe to eat the foods you will eat. The time of day a behaviour is undertaken is also picked up by your brain and registered as highly important. Taking a route on a compulsive walk once becomes another thing that your brain latches onto as This route matters, it’s safe and it ensures I can get the dopamine I crave.

You engage in a highly addictive behaviour and the how, what, where, when or emotional state you are in as you do so are noticed by your brain. It will then ensure future pursuit of the same rewards are successful by driving you to repeat them in the same way in future. In this way, rituals become just as deeply embedded habitual and subconscious parts of the eating disorder as the overarching behaviours themselves.

When you are attempting to overcome an eating disorder, it’s crucial to identify what the rituals are that surround the behaviours you engage in. As stated above, once you start to engage in a ritual that would usually end in full engagement with the compulsive behaviour, it’s very hard to then apply the brakes and stop yourself. This is because your brain has started to release dopamine in response to the ritual, and it has begun to follow the deep and automatic brain circuits that drive the full behaviour.

Recognising rituals, labelling them and establishing ways to stop them before they begin is critical. This might simply involve moving the furniture so that the usual seat at the table that you use for meals is no longer available, using different crockery and cutlery or deliberately making plans for the times of day that you would usually engage in compensatory behaviours. These changes can make a big difference to whether you successfully abstain from the eating disorder’s habitual pursuit of energy deficit.

Rituals surrounding addictions and eating disorders are powerful. Be mindful of them and how much pull they have, finding ways to remove them wherever you can.

**The information here is taken from my newly available book, 'Addicted to Energy Deficit - A Neuroscience Based Guide to Restrictive Eating Disorders' which you can buy now!**

If you like to listen, as well as (or instead of read!) then this blog post is the transcript of a podcast episode which you will find on my podcast series,

available on this website, all mainstream podcast platforms and on YouTube.

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