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Remove The Blinkers… Attention Bias In Eating Disorder Recovery

When something stops being an option in your mind for long enough you just stop seeing it.

During my years of heavy restrictive eating, compulsive exercise and movement and painful isolation, my brain learnt and adapted to this being my new normal and stopped paying attention to the fact that anything else was a real option to me.

Yes, other people could eat anything and everything, other people could rest all day and all evening if they chose to, other people could socialise and have relationships but my brain would either blot out that these things were even happening for others or was convinced that these things were not meant for me so avoided noticing them.

This concept is one that is common to the human brain.

Our brains are programmed to have ‘confirmation and attention bias’, where we will pay attention to some things while at the same time ignoring or failing to even notice others.

A high level of filtering is necessary for our brains each day so that we can move through the world and function without complete overwhelm. If we really paid attention to everything we saw, felt, smelt and heard at all times, we would be in so much data overload that we would likely be in a seizure situation!  Therefore, the brain is smart at only paying attention to what it believes it should pay attention to, so that it retains space for other functions and thoughts.

The things the brain believes are key to pay attention to are those that it perceives as a threat (so we are alert to danger) and anything in our environment that we have taught the brain is important, which are things that will support and confirm any beliefs we might already hold.

Research shows that people who hold a strong opinion or belief about something will hold onto that belief and completely ignore or fail to notice any information or data that contradicts it. A non eating disorder example of this might be people who are convinced climate change is not real failing to understand or even notice the huge body of evidence that demonstrates it very definitely is.

Therefore, when we have an eating disorder with strong belief systems that eating without a high level of restriction is wrong, resting is harmful and gaining weight would be a fate worse than death, we develop brains programmed to be blind to the facts that contradict these highly dangerous but real thoughts which drive our even more deadly and disordered behaviours.

This is why we might well have stopped even noticing, let alone paying attention to, the huge range of foods on offer, the reality of afternoons and evenings resting and the people who could be part of our lives, if we let them.

In eating disorder recovery, we have to make a conscious effort to be aware of our brain’s bias towards not noticing all the incredible things right in front of us that support healthy recovery behaviours and really pay attention to them and make ourselves open to the fact these are all possibilities for us too.

In opening my mind up to the possibility of recovery… in really grasping the concept that no food was off limits in type, amount or the how and when to eat and that I needed to rest as an olympic sport: When my brain really started to comprehend these facts, parts of the world I had stopped noticing during the illness truly came back into focus.

Suddenly my mind became open to a world that I had trained my very unwell brain to stop noticing as I could not allow myself to believe I could be part of it.

And, I am not talking about wild and amazing things here – I am talking about things that the rest of the population take for granted every day.

In recovery I started to see foods on the supermarket shelves that for so long I would never allow myself to eat, be too terrified of and never contemplate buying, so I stopped even noticing they were there… These foods had become labelled in my brain as, ‘not for me so don’t pay them attention’.

Now a trip to the supermarket is a world of opportunity – foods with density and deliciousness and foods that were out of focus are there beckoning and I know now I can buy and eat them!

Alongside this, possibilities of coffee shops and restaurants started to become real again as I noticed food establishments that I might have walked past when deeply ill and glanced into but with a certain knowledge that I could not be part of that scene.

The opportunities to rest also became real. Duvet days are not just for other people. Binge watching Netflix? I can do that too!

Eating cake on a birthday when it is offered… That can become a case of why not, not hell no!!

As we force ourselves to pay attention to all the possibilities in recovery, a desire to see people, engage, live, love and laugh again creeps back as a world we stopped seeing as it was only meant for others becomes available to us too in techni-coloured detail.

So, as you navigate through eating disorder recovery, join me in really not just noticing but paying attention to all the things that you have taught your brain to be blinkered to during the illness. Remove your pre programmed and disordered confirmation attention biases and really be in the world and experience it as you always should have done. See all the amazing opportunities out there with curiosity, knowing that this is your life and anything in the world is possible for you too!

3 replies on “Remove The Blinkers… Attention Bias In Eating Disorder Recovery”

On reading this I realise how far my recovery has yet to go. I am still blinkered to certain areas of the supermarket, and newly opened coffee shops are seen as a threat. Lots there for me to think and work on. Thank you for posting it!

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Hi Julie,
Thank you for your comment and reading the post. It’s so easy not to realise the things we have spent years ignoring and sometimes I think it takes determined work to seek out these things and then approach them to rewire them and help our brains not see them as a threat. As with everything in recovery, the whole process is not an overnight fix!
Keep going, sounds like you have already come far xx

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