Using Neuroplasticity to Help Combat a Disordered Eating Mindset

Norman Doidge's The Brain That Changes Itself is not only a great read, but also one of the most valuable pieces of evidence for neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the notion that what we think can alter the physical structure and function of our brains. Doidge supports neuroplasticity through remarkable stories of patients who have had their lives changed by it. The anecdotes suggest that we can actively rewire our brains to alleviate mental and/or physical obstacles. For anyone who believes that our mentalities and brain structure are always "hard-wired," Doidge's work is an evidence-based wake-up call that we can guide our brains towards change. For example, it has given me an entirely new perspective on overcoming the aftermath of my eating disorder.

I was 16 years old the day I was diagnosed with anorexia. At the time, it seemed that no matter how few calories I ate, or how much weight I lost, my mind would always hate my body; I thought I would always be stuck in a routine of starving, purging, exercising, and loathing. Yet, I eventually had a transformative experience through an outpatient treatment program. I achieved a healthy weight and abolished habits that I never thought I would be able to. For over two years now, I have been in what my doctors consider full recovery. Yet, despite my physical health, I sometimes still have a tendency to overthink everything I eat. Of course, starving myself no longer feels safe to me. What does feel safe, though, is always knowing what I am going to eat, when I am going to eat it, and how I will fit in a workout afterward. Even though I have been able to eliminate harmful habits, I still occasionally fall into a focus on diet and exercise. I no longer act on my compulsions in a risky way, but in a rigid way in attempt to calm my repetitive thoughts.

When I have told others about this, more than a few have responded with something like, "Once a person has had an eating disorder, they always have that mindset. As long as you're physically healthy, that's all that matters. But the mentality will probably be with you for the rest of your life." I have believed this for a while, and supposed that I just needed to cope with the fact I will always have an anorexic mindset, even if I do not "have" anorexia. But Doidge provides evidence that, even though this anorexic agenda has been mapped in my brain, I can perhaps form new, healthier neural connections.

But what is the best way for me to form new neural connections? When I am in class, having a conversion, or doing anything else that is unrelated to food or exercise, my mind tends to drift towards those things anyway. To stop these habitual distractions, Doidge's proposal is to not feed into them, and instead actively feed into something else I enjoy: reading, writing, engaging in discussion in class, or even just smiling. Doidge submits that because "neurons that fire together wire together," doing something pleasurable during the occurrence of thoughts or compulsions can "form a new circuit that is gradually reinforced instead of the compulsion." This approach makes "plastic sense" because it grows a new brain circuit that gives pleasure and triggers dopamine release, which rewards the new activity, and consolidates the new connections. He quotes psychiatrist Jeffrey M. Schwartz: "the struggle is not to make the feeling go away; the struggle is to not give in to the feeling by thinking about the obsession." My recurring thoughts seem to tell me that they will only stop pestering if I stick to my regimented diet and exercise. But what Doidge affirms is that I can train my brain to identify that these thoughts are lying. The truth is that only way they will they will stop pestering me is if I train my brain to stop feeding into them.

In my journey to get rid of my disordered eating mindset, I must also keep in mind Doidge's "use-it-or-lose-it" principle. Each moment that a person with an obsession spends obsessing, they simply deepen the obsessive circuit. With obsessions and compulsions, the more you do it, the more you want to do it; the less you do it, the less you want to do it. The more I bypass my thoughts, the faster I will get rid of them. I can remap my brain to think "I want to exercise today and I hope to get to it later," instead of "I have to exercise today, and I better get to it later."

Doidge writes of a depression patient who was cured with neuroplasticity. He says that "the most pronounced of his character traits wasn't genetically predetermined but plastically learned, and now it was being unlearned." In a similar way, the habits and thoughts of my eating disorder were plastically developed through a genetic predisposition and the environmental triggers of my childhood. And now I can plastically unlearn them. Many might say that an anorexic mindset is just something that is part of me and, even though I can behave healthy, I will think obsessively for the rest of my life. But I can now put forth the idea that I am not forever engrained with an obsessive mindset. My brain is neuroplastic. If I train it the right way, I can restructure parts of my neuronal circuits, and focus on dieting and exercising only when I want to or need to, instead of always feeling like I have to. What you repeat will become habit, and what will become habit will become who you are. But we have a choice of what we repeat, and of which circuits we choose to "feed." Feed the one that's going to make you happier and healthier, and basic neuroscience might do the rest of the work for you.

And check this out, because basic neuroscience is boss:


If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.