When it comes to eating disorder recovery today, we frequently refer to the concept of ‘rewiring our brains’ into healthy recovery focused pathways in terms of our automatic behaviours relating to food, weight manipulation and other such things.
I am currently doing a course in neuroscience and I have been learning about what we actually mean by ‘rewiring’ when it comes to our brain and methods we can adopt to use the plasticity that our brains do have to change to our advantage.
Sadly, it is true that as adults, the natural ‘plasticity’ of the brain does reduce significantly from the super malleable brains infants and children have. It is much easier to teach a child a new skill or habit than an adult.
But the old saying that you, ‘cannot teach an old dog (or human!) new tricks‘ is not entirely true… An old brain can learn new tricks, it is just harder! (If you want to see a fun example of brain plasticity in action then please see the video on my last post).
In eating disorder recovery, we have to learn a lot of new tricks… We have to use the plasticity of our brains to fire up neural pathways in directions that they have not been asked to fire in for what might be years or even decades. We have to learn to eat with no restrictions and not use behaviours that are hard wired in terms of manipulating our body weight or shape and break compulsions. But, no matter how old we are, our brains do still have the ability to develop new pathways of learning and behaviour – even become masters of new things… It just takes concerted effort on our part!
In this post, I talk about a model that can be used to help get us going on the road of neural rewiring or to maintain momentum once we have started. The model was created to help with rewiring a brain for any purpose – be that learning a new skill, undertaking a large project OR recovering from an eating disorder!
There is the saying, ‘practice makes perfect‘ for learning a new skill or behaviour and that is true, but to master something, repeated practice alone might be insufficient – instead we should also engage emotions, support and motivation to really give ourselves the very best chance to not just be recovered but be masters in recovery!
The model I will talk about is called REFIRE – ‘REFIRE to Rewire!‘ and was created by Dr Sarah McKay.
Below I have applied the concepts of this model to eating disorder recovery, which I hope might help you really find the skills, courage and motivation to kick-start the rewiring process in your own brain (if you have not done so yet!) or to persevere if you have started the recovery process but are feeling deflated.
The REFIRE Model To Rewire The Brain
REASON – What is your why?
What do you want to achieve? Write it down and keep referring back to it… set an overall goal (i.e. full recovery!!) but also break this into micro-goals to aim for along the way.
Saying, I am going through this difficult and seemingly never ending process to reach full recovery, when full recovery feels years away might not be entirely motivating… So have micro goals… to eat certain foods, to be able to sit and watch a film without anxiety, to grow out of certain clothes, to re-engage with family and friends etc…
Achieving these micro-goals will help trigger the reward pathways in your brain and keep you motivated to get that positive feeling again through continued action.
ENGAGE – Fully focus and appoint cheerleaders as you persist through the process!
To rewire the brain with anything takes full focus… not multi-tasking or putting it low down the priority list! I have written before about why recovery has to be our top priority and to prevent your brain burning out, as you learn new and healthy recovery skills and behaviours, it has to be with your full attention.
Recovery can be a lonely journey and we do have to be autonomous in our recovery but that does not mean we should not also have and use a cheerleading team!
Use a coach, a mentor or a team of peers… In eating disorder recovery there are now more options than ever for people to support you in this process.
Rewiring the brain is hard, it feels wrong and clunky and it is exhausting. Using people to talk to, to give feedback to and share wins or feelings of defeat with will all help keep you motivated and focused. Your cheerleaders are not there to tell you what to do though… you have to be the master in this process and recruit people who will support you in maintaining the autonomy to really own your recovery!
FEEL and Find your Flow!!
The brain learns and develops new patterns best when it is activated and engaged but not when it is bored or over-aroused to the extreme.
We need to be immersed and focused on our recovery ‘project’ and achieving the micro-goals we have set.
A recovery that involves following a simple meal plan, sticking to safe foods and following the same routine each day will be boring and the brain is not going to be engaged in that.
Recovery action does have to be frightening and create anxiety and difficult emotions but if you are completely flooded with extreme levels of fear then the over-arousal of the brain will not help confident rewiring.
Therefore, it is finding a spot between boredom and lack of stimulation in recovery and complete panic or overwhelm!
Use your micro-goals to make them anxiety provoking and challenging but not completely overwhelming and keep building on them each and every day.
IMAGINE – Rehearse Recovery Action And Positive Emotions In Your Mind’s Eye
The brain is an incredible thing and we now know from brain imagery that the brain does not know the difference between real life action and mental rehearsal or visualisation.
Using visualisation and imagery in your mind to practice new skills and behaviours will help to rewire the brain to develop that new skill, almost as well as actually performing the task does.
Musicians use this method – they often mentally rehearse the music they are about to play before the curtain comes up and it helps fire those brain circuits together and strengthen them.
Mental rehearsal can also be used quite remarkably to practice how we might respond emotionally in a situation or when carrying out a task or new behaviour.
In eating disorder recovery then, mentally rehearsing and visualising recovery action before doing it or between ‘live rehearsals’ will aid in the rewiring process. Visualise eating that burger – the sight, feel of it, smell and taste and as you do, rehearse positive emotions and feelings you would want to experience in the moment… enjoyment, pride, joy, feeling relaxed and engaged with those around you.
Or.. one I used to visualise due to my history of compulsive movement was being able to lie on the sofa, with food and feel relaxed and at peace. And having used the visualisation methods and practised this behaviour repeatedly too, the mental picture I once aspired to is now real…. attesting to the fact this method does work and the brain really can rewire!
REPEAT – Deliberate repetition and practice
In neuroscience there is a much used saying,
‘Cells that fire together, wire together‘.
We have to keep making sure that our brain cells are repeatedly firing together in new patterns and behaviours so that they start to wire together and so that their new links are strengthened.
Nobody becomes a master of anything overnight!!
Becoming a master in recovery takes deliberate repetition, grit and ongoing courage.
Repetition is boring and tedious but it is essential and we can keep spicing it up along the way!
Without repeating and repeating and repeating new habits, eating new foods, facing fears and accepting body changes, our brains will not develop and strengthen sufficient new connections between the brain cells to enable us to become masters of our recovery.
Another great quote from the course I am taking that made me stop and think was,
…’Amateurs practice until they get it right, professionals practice until they cannot get it wrong.’
Going for a burger once or twice and thinking ‘done that’ because you got through, despite it being difficult will leave you with an amateur level of recovery. To become a professional master in recovery, you need to eat burgers without compensation until doing so has no significance and is a mindless act. REPETITION!
EGO – WHO are you becoming?
This final point in the REFRAME model for rewiring the brain is one I love and I highly recommend putting into place in your recovery.
WHO are you becoming…
How we talk about ourselves in the process of rewiring our brain matters and will impact on how motivated and positive we are.
So… are you, ‘anorexic’ or are you, ‘in recovery from anorexia’?
Are you ‘trying to recover from an eating disorder’ or ‘actively recovering’?
Are you the person with the eating disorder or are you the daughter / son, sister / brother, husband / wife, amazing friend? Are you the artist or scientist, the book worm or film buff, are you the animal lover or computer buff?
All these things – the people we REALLY are become squashed and suffocated by the eating disorder but becoming these true versions of ourselves in recovery should be our ultimate goal…
So focus on WHO you are becoming when embarking on recovery and let that version of yourself through as you persistently rewire and hard wire those brain cells!
Learning new skills and behaviours for anything in life is hard and as adults it’s really hard as the brain does not rewire as easily as it did when we were tots.
In eating disorder recovery, we have to rewire our brain in so many new directions and all at the same time, if we want to truly hard wire healthy and non-disordered pathways. Brain re-wiring is a lengthy process for any new skill or behaviour but if we truly apply ourselves to it and persist then the brain cells that need to ‘fire together’ really will ‘wire together’.
Having made progress in my recovery over the past year, I can attest to the fact that the brain does change (even at the age of 40 and after over a decade of illness). Embarking on behaviour changes in recovery does feel incredibly hard and clunky at first but using approaches laid out above to aid the rewiring process does start to slowly work and things that once felt clunky and difficult become easier and automatic.
So get firing those brain cells of yours together and allowing your neuroplasticity to work its magic for your full recovery!