In eating disorder recovery, we frequently refer to the concept of brain rewiring as a fundamental part of the process. Unless we use the plasticity our brains have to change our habits and make recovery focused behaviours, thoughts and ultimately beliefs our norm, we won’t attain a lasting recovery.
Frequently though when people talk about brain rewiring in recovery, the most they tend to say is that we need to repeat and repeat recovery actions to rewire the brain. Yes, repetition is important but there are also other ways in which we can increase our brain’s rewiring potential for lasting change.
In my studies of neuroscience, I am now understanding more about how the brain works and applying this to develop other meaningful ways which can help in eating disorder recovery.
In other posts, I have and will speak more about applying brain science to recovery but this post is about why it is crucial that when we ‘rewire our brains’ we apply methods that will wire in positivity and purpose with the recovery based actions.
If we want the rewiring process to happen faster, for it to be more lasting and for the brain to understand that these new recovery based behaviours are a POSITIVE thing then we need to ensure we approach recovery experiences in the right way!
For a lasting and happy recovery from an eating disorder the brain needs to notice recovery based actions as positive and not merely experiences to be endured!
I know this is not simple…. when we are terrified of recovery focused behaviours and when they feel completely wrong, it is hard to teach the brain that these things are in fact positive! But why would our brain learn that eating more is a good thing and worth repeating, if when we do it, we do so with a focus on thoughts and actions that are telling it the opposite is true?
If we go through recovery, barely tolerating the process and then hit a ‘weight restored’ point having eaten fear foods etc but still with a mindset and beliefs that these foods are to be feared and endured rather than enjoyed, then why would the brain decide to wire in these actions as worth repeating?
Well, it won’t… and what will happen instead is that once there is no enforcement to keep eating these foods that create fear, because the brain did not learn that they were pleasurable, despite repeated occasions of eating them, it will not seek to continue to repeat the experience and old habits will rapidly return.
For example, I could eat a tub of Ben and Jerry’s each day but if I am doing so by rushing through it, shaking, believing that this is entirely wrong and almost ‘zoning out’ of the experience then my brain won’t look to repeat it as there was little or no reward.
Ultimately, brain rewiring is about repetition of recovery behaviours but this alone will not change your attitude, mindsets or beliefs and repetition alone will not establish a positive or lasting recovered future because there will be no motivation to keep going.
So, in recovery, we need to make our recovery approach fit the positive, exciting and meaningful recovered future we desire and ensure our brains rewire with a positive purpose as we go forwards into our recovered lives.
Therefore, below are some tips of how to make the rewiring process meaningful and positive so that as you put in the hard work of recovery, your brain will also learn that these recovery based experiences are very much worth repeating and enthusiastically wires them in as habitual!
Tips To Make Recovery Rewiring Positive, Meaningful and Lasting
Tip #1 – Make A Recovery Experience Positive And Intensive
The more intensity that is felt in body and mind to an experience, the more chance it will be rewired into our brains. This is true for negative, as well as positive experiences, although the brain will wire negative experiences much quicker than positive ones… Therefore in recovery, we are battling against the current but that’s ok, we CAN do it!
When an experience is more intense, our brain cells release more norepinephrine which makes the connections (synapses) between the cells stronger so that those little cells will wire together.
And if an experience is more pleasurable than the brain anticipated, there will be more dopamine release which makes the connections between neurons (brain cells) stronger again, as well as making it more likely the brain will seek to repeat the experience.
So make your recovery actions richer, fuller, bigger and more intensive in all ways you can!
Feel excited about it, tell yourself how fucking amazing this is and feel the sensations in your body too.
Notice colours, tastes, textures, positive emotions, joy and pride. Allow yourself to feel excited and energised!
Tip #2 – Make A Recovery Experience Last Longer…
Focus on making a recovery positive experience, not just feel positive but also try to prolong the good feelings and emotions that you derive from it.
When you eat that slice of chocolate cake, let the fear be there but put your focus onto the positive of this experience. Notice the incredible taste, the feeling of exhilaration that you are winning, the pride in yourself or seeing a look of joy in a loved one’s eyes….
Then stay with these feelings and sensations for as long as you can.
The brain notices when emotions are attached to experiences – you want your brain to learn that chocolate cake is a good thing…. so let it know that!
Stay devoted to feeling good about eating that cake for a good 5, 10, 20 seconds or more if you can.
Take breaths with long exhalations which will keep you feeling calmer.
Tell yourself you feel good, you are a fucking superhero and you are safe.
And add in some energising emotions too… delight, awe, curiosity, excitement, affection and full on bouncing pride!!!
Prolong and notice a great recovery experience and it will wire in more intensively than if you let it race by…. ***BUT I do not mean drag out eating the cake for three hours in a messed up and disordered way!!***
Tip #3 – Make A Recovery Experience All Encompassing!
Don’t just eat a frightening food in terror, trying not to notice it and then run onto something else, in a bid to forget. Doing that won’t let the brain notice and learn that that experience was actually not as bad as you thought it was going to be.
Yes, recovery based actions are terrifying but they are also not without positives and pleasure, if you let yourself notice them.
Notice them as broadly as you can!
Let us say you are trying to make yourself sit on the sofa for the afternoon when usually you would be moving or standing…
You want to wire into your brain – sofa = not scary = actually quite nice!!
Therefore, you need to not just sit on the sofa, tensed up and terrified but make yourself relax into it and notice the good things about the sitting.
Feel the softness of the cushions, the warmth, the comfort. Tell yourself this is good and this is safe. Let yourself feel positive about resting.
Put your feet up and take breaths with slow exhales to make your body relax more.
Force into your mind’s eye the future you want in which you are a person who does relax and rest at will.
And remember our mind and our body are joined and one influences the other.
How we act affects how we think, how we think affects how we act.
Therefore, relaxing your body will help to relax your brain and a smile will tell your brain that things are good..
Really make the whole recovery based experience positive and feel it on every level – the sensations, what this experience can bring you, your thoughts (make them positive!); feel pride and safe.
Make the experience all encompassing so the brain knows it is one to hold onto as not just positive but also worth repeating.
Tip #4 – Use Novelty
The brain loves things that are novel and will pay much more attention to anything that it does not see or do on auto pilot every day.
In recovery, this might not be hard to achieve – hopefully if you are in active recovery, you are making changes to your behaviours and thoughts.
BUT if you want all this hard recovery work you are putting in to pay off then start seeing the rewards in all these new and wonderful things you are doing and keep them fresh.
Find unexpected rewards in things and you will have a happily motivated brain.
Don’t be passive in your recovery. Use your mind to actively notice every new stimulus in recovery with positivity and so allow it to wire into your brain.
Even if you have been in active recovery longer and have new habits that are now more familiar, you can still get the brain to wire these in further by seeking unexpected rewards in them.
Have you been eating pizza now for a while? Well, next time you have pizza, notice the delicious taste of it more than you usually would… tell yourself, ‘wow, I did not expect this to taste so good’, and your brain will notice. And this takes us back to dopamine and achieving a bigger dopamine release….
The great thing about dopamine is it gives an instant sense of reward but it also motivates us to repeat an experience that caused this dopamine hit.
No two experiences are ever the same… so notice the differences and novelty.
Find the novelty every day and let the brain rewire and the dopamine motivate you to repeat these awesome recovery based actions!
Tip #5 – Make It Personal!
Rush through that terrifying ice cream sundae, wishing you weren’t there and then rush onto the next thing as if the ice cream event were an outer body experience happening to someone else and your brain ain’t going to really pay much attention and store it as something memorable and worth repeating.
The brain is not interested in things we do or that we experience each day that are not of personal relevance to us. It has too much else to worry about for that!
So, as terrifying as the ice cream experience might be, you have to notice it, be present and make it personally relevant to you in some wonderful ways.
Pay attention to why this experience is going to help you and how… why is eating this ice cream and having this memory valuable to YOU?
Focus in on that.
Visualise what ice cream experiences like this can bring to your future. Make it personal and make it relevant.
Try to keep as relaxed as you can too when you are in the experience.
Take breaths with long exhales and broaden your visual field which all helps keep you in the parasympathetic nervous system.
Tell yourself, ‘this is right for me’; ‘this is what I need’ and ‘this is fucking delicious!!!’.
Perhaps you can call to mind times you had relaxed and fun ice cream experiences as a child that are personal and relevant and store this new memory with those old ones.
It is always tempting to rush through recovery actions and not notice them but rewiring really requires attention and knowing why this matters to us. Make sure all your recovery experiences are meaningful to you and remind yourself (and your brain) why and how they are!
So, there we have it. Apologies for a lengthy post, but I hope that it will help you to understand that if you want a lasting and meaningful recovery, rewiring the brain takes more than mindless repetition of a behaviour alone. Mindless and impersonal rewiring in recovery will only prolong the process and probably not achieve lasting results, so speed up your recovery by making recovery action positive and meaningful!
If you want to read a bit more about how to apply principles of neuroplasticity to eating disorder recovery, I have a new website (including a blog) with a post on just this topic… Why not have a read of that too?
I now work as a coach and mentor, working with people who are overcoming eating disorders, disordered eating or low body confidence. If you are interested in knowing more about my coaching work, then please take a look at my coaching website: www.hellybarnes.com