Eating Disorders and the Brain
Until recently, it was thought that the brain stopped developing after the first few years of life, and that if part of the adult brain was damaged, the nerve cells could not regenerate or form new connections.
More recently the field of neuroscience and neuroscience-psychology have found the brain continues to re-organize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life in response to changes in our feelings, thoughts, experiences and the way we use our bodies
What is important to researchers, and hard to examine, are the elements of a disorder that are state dependent (changes caused due to illness that are reversed or rehabilitated during recovery) or trait dependent (characteristics that are hardwired from birth, seen common amongst those with the disorder, that put the individual at a higher risk of developing the disorder given the right environmental triggers).
It is this that I find fascinating and that first attracted me to study Psychology back in 2013!
So, kick starting this little series looking at one of the most important neurotransmitters (chemical signal in the brain) involved in reinforcement (or reward-based) learning: Dopamine.
You may have come across this common phrase used in Psychology.
Without getting too into the neuroscience of it all it basically refers to the way your brains neural networks (the cells in your brain) become specialised (re-organise themselves) which depends on the amount of exposure, or practice, you have.
So basically how your brain learns depending on the positive or negative feedback you get, and also the more exposure you have to a certain environment… let me give an example…
Think of riding a bike.
You start off having to learn to coordinate your feet, look ahead of yourself, balance, dodge the neighbours cat…. but over time you become automatic at it.
The connections in your brain form a “map” of how to ride a bike, and when you next jump on off you go.
In relation to eating disorders and body image, repeated exposure to certain experiences and events in your life; social media use is a big one now-a-days, maybe parents high expectations, divorce, bullying, abuse, these experiences all teach us beliefs about ourselves, our bodies, they help form our identity; our self-image.
So often when we feel unsettled in ourselves, stressed, overwhelmed, we turn to our bodies as the culprit to blame and to hurt.
Eating Junk Food.
We aren’t born knowing these things, but we learn.
And just the same we pick up from birth how to use food to comfort, control, or cope with emotions.
Just like an alcoholic may grab a bottle of whiskey, food is an eating disorders heroin.
They are functional disorders.
They serve as a way to protect and control.
They are automated, learnt, patterns of obsessive thoughts and behaviours.
But like any addiction there comes a point where you need more of your drug to reach the same level of satisfaction.
The Role of Dopamine in eating disorders
Research has shown is similarities in the brains of eating disorder patients and those suffering from addiction disorders such as drug and alcohol abuse.
What these studies show is an increased sensitivity to the neurotransmitter dopamine.
This little feller is the one involved in all your reward & reinforcement learning.
Dopamine is released in response to an event and teaches your brain what you you enjoyed, and what you didn’t, based on the levels of positive and negative feedback you receive, either from the world around you or on a personal level (intrinsic motivation)
It’s involved in helping you remember “was that behaviour useful?”
If yes, you are more likely to do it again.
If no, well…that’s the reason my brother doesn’t eat brussel sprouts on Christmas day.
Having a sensitivity to dopamine (synaptic connections get more excited by the release of dopamine) has been related to more risky behaviours. This has been found common in people with gambling addictions, dug abuse and eating disorders.
In studies looking at groups of addicts and disordered eating a common behavioural trait was found; the inability (not an impossibility) in abstaining from immediate gratification in pursuit of a long term reward. This was underpinned by an increased electrical signal in the brain (measured using electroencephalogram, EEG…basically looks like a rugby cap but has crazy loads of electrodes in it) in response to reward.
It’s like the headlights are full beam looking for all the reinforcement and reward for the behaviour, but in doing so filter out the risks and punishments that try to deter us.
In the context of disordered eating, there is lots you can say that’s reinforcing the behaviour.
From things in our environment; social pressures to be thin, academic pressure to be perfect, successful, high achievers, or have a “perfect body”. To more individual factors such as the comfort of overeating, control, satisfaction in losing weight, even your own thoughts and beliefs can reinforce the behaviours.
You could also argue there is lots that negatively reinforce the use of starvation or over-eating to cope, and this is where we cross the line into mental illness.
The behaviour is illogical in its reasoning to others, even when told how dangerous and damaging to their health it is it can still be hard for the individual to trust and let go.
They feel in control, they feel comforted and safe through engaging in the behaviours and this itself reinforces the coping mechanism, trying to change it can cause anxiety, panic attacks and a lot of distress.
can i unlearn unhealthy coping mechanisms?
Dopamine also plays a part in extinction of old information and acquisition of new behaviours: what was once learnt can be unlearnt, changed & reshaped.
Eating disorders in themselves cause alterations to our brain structure and function through malnutrition that can impact the brain ability to re-generate new connections. Confusingly malnutrition doesn’t mean you’re not eating, the brain can become malnourished if not eating the right foods and receiving the right amount of rest.
When eating begins to normalise our brains and body are both re-fed, providing the energy to think and reason more logically.
Through thought challenging techniques, like the ones used in cognitive behavioural therapies (CBT) new cycles of thought and behaviours can be recreated.
Just like learning to ride a bike the more we practice replacing critical thoughts and behaviours with more positive alternatives, the more you take the front seat and ‘control’ you recovery.
We have choices.
Whilst it may feel safe and rewarding to retreat back into the old coping mechanisms, choose to see comfort, joy, control and reassurance in other health promoting promoting areas of life that take us out from illness and create a fulfilling life for us.
It’s choosing to learn how to value yourself. To have pride in yourself, because then you’ll want to care for your body.
These are all things that take time to learn how to do, but are dependent on the effort you put in to:
a) Challenge and re-place the negative learnt beliefs
b) Practice new healthy ways to cope
c) Create and environment around you that reinforces healthy (anti-diet culture) messages away from focus on food/weight/shape.
1) Look at the environment around you, how is it teaching you that it’s ok to let go of your eating disorder?
If it’s not part of the solution it is part of the problem.
Can you clear out accounts of your social media?
Are you around friends or family members who have negative relationship with their food and body image?
2) Pause for the cause.
When you feel yourself getting stressed, anxious or overwhelmed and you initially turn to your eating disorder behaviour. Stop.
Take 5 deep breathes
Write down, or tell yourself in private,
3 reasons why you don’t need your ED
3 truths about yourself that reaffirm your identity away from your eating disorder
3 blessings about your day.
3 Reasons why recovery will be worth the fight.
Remind yourself it won’t always be this hard, you are not simply “wired this way”.