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  • Helly Barnes

Withdrawal Symptoms from a Restrictive Eating Disorder & Addiction to Energy Deficit

Have you heard the news? I've written a book called 'Addicted to Energy Deficit' which is all about restrictive eating disorders, what they are and how to overcome one. It's out now and available from all good online book retailers so please feel free to pick up a copy as I hope it will be a valuable resource and help you with your pursuit to bash the eating disorder out your life!

Now I've done my little plug (sorry), I'll get on with sharing more of the information from the book to help you understand what an addiction to energy deficit (or restrictive eating disorder) really is and why it's so hard to overcome.

The last few blog posts have introduced the concept of an addiction to energy deficit, some of the neuroscience and a few more details, so have a read of those if you haven't already. This post covers the withdrawal symptoms that you are likely to face as you work to overcome a restrictive eating disorder, abstaining from the necessary habits that you have and pulling yourself out of energy deficit.

As I covered previously, a restrictive eating disorder is a powerful addiction to energy deficit and it's the same brain based response that occurs with this form of addiction as people get with any other form of addiction. This means that when you give up your pursuit of the addictive drug, which in the case of a restrictive eating disorder is energy deficit, you will experience the same types of withdrawal symptoms that can occur when giving up any other form of addiction.

Typical Withdrawal Symptoms from a Restrictive Eating Disorder:

  • Anxiety, fear and feelings of panic

  • High levels of agitation

  • Sleep disturbances (this can also be caused by energy deficit)

  • Depression

  • Mood swings

  • Irritability or anger

  • Feelings of overwhelm

  • Brain fog

  • Headaches, muscle and joint stiffness, a painful jaw

  • Fatigue and feelings of weakness

  • Fevers and nausea

  • Urges to engage in other numbing compulsive behaviours or habits

  • Flashbacks to the eating disorder or other painful times in your past

  • Thoughts of self harm or suicide (if these occur then seek immediate support)

What Causes Withdrawal Symptoms?

Withdrawal symptoms as you give up an addiction and so a restrictive eating disorder stem from two brain based systems.

The first of these relates to the dopamine seesaw which could be considered as the brain's reward system seesawing down with a hard crash to a state of dopamine deficit. Low dopamine will cause feelings of low mood, agitation, lack of motivation, feelings of hopelessness and despair.

The second brain system involved is your brain's stress response system. This is where your amygdala comes to life. As you are probably aware, the amygdala is where your fight-or-flight responses arise.

When you stop engaging in an addictive behaviour, stress chemicals are activated and released within the amygdala. At the same time, if you continue to disengage from the eating disorder, you will have a drop in endorphins and natural opioids, as well as a reduction in other key anxiety-lowering chemicals such as one called GABA. All of this means you have a rise in chemicals that create a stress response and a reduction in chemicals that reduce anxiety and stress, leaving you feeling really very stressed, anxious and probably not much fun to be around.

When you can understand all of this though, it can be powerful and reassuring as you appreciate why you feel like you do and so you can remind yourself that these symptoms and feelings won't last forever when they feel impossible to manage in the moment.

The incredibly painful and hard to tolerate withdrawal symptoms that can arise as you work to overcome the eating disorder are the main reason why so many do return to old habits and behaviours because not doing so feels just too much to tolerate. Of course, returning to old behaviours to negate the withdrawal symptoms only becomes a vicious circle. The withdrawal symptoms increase over time and it gets harder and harder to then disengage from the eating disorder once and for all.

But the good news is that if you do manage to tolerate the withdrawal symptoms, finding ways to cope, your brain chemicals that are currently off balance and creating these symptoms, will naturally return to levels that will allow you to feel normal, calm and content, without the need for compulsive behaviours or numbing substances to achieve this state.

How Long Does Withdrawal Last?

How I wish I could give you a blanket answer to this question and make it black-and-white so you can mark a date on your calendar and know that if you keep going, on that date you will feel somewhat 'normal'… I think you know that isn't realistic.

How long withdrawal symptoms last and what symptoms you will experience will be unique to you and your circumstances. Some people sail through this process with few withdrawal symptoms, most experience a difficult cocktail that they find their way through and for some, the symptoms become so painful that higher levels of support or therapy are needed.

For some, initial abstinence from eating disorder behaviours is met with days of even a week or two of feelings of exhilaration and highs as they go through a 'honeymoon period' of finally feeling free of the eating disorder. Sadly, this period usually results sooner or later in some of the more challenging symptoms discussed above as the eating disorder decides to kick back for a while. Others don't get a honeymoon phase and find the withdrawals kick in from day one.

It is impossible to know what will happen in your case. The more positively you can go into the process and the better prepared you are for the worse in relation to withdrawal symptoms, the more likely you might find that you actually get through it relatively unscathed. But whatever happens, however strong your symptoms and however long they last—be reassured that it will end, you can get through it and it will be worth it.

**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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