Every human brain (however old) has the ability to learn new skills, behaviours, thoughts and emotions. This is the concept of ‘neuroplasticity‘ or ‘brain rewiring’.
Eating disorder recovery necessitates changing a lot of behaviours and thought patterns that in the years or decades of illness have become deeply wired into the brain, such that you carry them out on autopilot and trying to do anything different (which you have to in recovery) feels clunky, wrong and requires intense focus (and that is before you take into account the fear response to the changes!).
It is possible in recovery to ‘rewire’ your brain to learn new and positive ways of eating without restriction, resting and changing other disordered behaviours you might have but this process is HARD!
This post provides more of the neuroscience behind how the brain adapts and changes or ‘rewires’ when you attempt to learn new skills or change behaviours. If you can understand what the brain is doing in terms of rewiring and what is required for the process then you can find methods to make this process a little easier for yourself in your recovery.
Self-Directed Adaptive Plasticity
The brain and nervous system deal with five main things:
These five functions of the brain can change how your brain wires and works and through each of these you can take some control into helping your brain wire in the right direction!
Neuroscientists use the term, ‘self-directed adaptive plasticity’ when it comes to talking about the brain learning and rewiring in adults.
Neural plasticity does happen throughout the lifespan but happily for children, it pretty much just happens to them as they interact with the world each day, learning and developing…. In children, neural plasticity is a largely passive process. Not so in adults.
An adult brain can and will change but it does require focus and for the adult it needs to be directed from within and adaptive to the situation and direction you want to grow in.
Now… this is where we get onto the fun neuroscience-y stuff which I shall keep simple.
Neural plasticity or rewiring is basically when the brain cells (neurons) form connections (synapses) between one another in new directions. An example might be, you want to learn to eat pizza for lunch as a normal and natural thing to do. If this is not a behaviour your brain has experienced much before then the eating pizza at lunchtime neurons will not have any links between them so those links need to be formed by eating pizza at lunch (the neurons will then fire together) and as you repeat this behaviour, those neurons are repeatedly fired together so that they wire together!
And that is all well and good… you do a new behaviour and repeat it to ‘rewire’ BUT to ensure those neurons form lasting and strong bonds much faster, you need to help the rewiring process along the way.
The likelihood of neural rewiring happening is increased when you apply three core principles to the process: focus and attention, a bit of stress (that part won’t be hard I am sure!) and then a period of rest. These three principles can be explained by what is happening in the brain at a chemical level.
When you apply focus and attention to what you want to learn or change, the neurons (brain cells) release a chemical called acetylcholine. This gives the brain an attentional ‘spotlight’ to what you are trying to learn.
A little bit of stress and anxiety in rewiring the brain is then actually a good thing, as long as you use that stress in a positive direction (i.e. not running from the pizza so the brain only learns the pizza is terrifying!!). Let us face it, in recovery, you are going to be feeling stressed and anxious as you are rewiring these new behaviours but keep focused on the recovery positive behaviours and the adrenaline your brain will be releasing through that stress response will actually help the rewiring process. During neural plasticity, adrenaline release increases your alertness and vigilance to what you are doing and achieving.
At the time that you are focused on the new behaviour (like eating pizza for lunch) the acetylcholine and adrenaline will be released in your brain and will ‘mark’ the relevant neurons at that point in time but the changes to the neurons, in terms of wiring to one another, will not happen at this point.
Instead it is when the brain is in a state of deep relaxation, such as sleep, that other brain chemicals come along, recognise the marked neurons and wire in new connections between them, making them more likely to fire together in future.
This deep relaxation can be actual sleep or can just be a period of brain rest, meditation or relaxation such as daydreaming while still awake.
Therefore… focused attention and alertness, a level of stress or agitation and then a period of rest or sleep are key to rewiring. So in my example, focus and pay attention to eating and enjoying the pizza at lunchtime, feel a bit agitated, confused and stressed by the experience but stay with it and then do some meditation or ensure a good night’s sleep that night.
It is worth reiterating too that this process does have to be self-directed…. these brain chemicals won’t work their magic if someone ‘does recovery’ to you. It is not possible to ‘force’ neural rewiring on another person! And rewiring takes time – it does not happen in an instant, it needs repetition, diversity and rich experiences.
Within this post, it is also worth touching on the additional role of dopamine in the rewiring process.
Dopamine is a chemical that is released in the brain when you achieve something. It is a chemical that makes you ‘feel good’ and gives a sense of reward. In addition to this, dopamine is also released in anticipation of a reward and it motivates you to pursue the full reward. When it comes to changing your behaviours and rewiring the brain, using what we know about the dopamine system will also aid the process (read a bit more about this in my post on wiring positivity into recovery).
If you can add extra dopamine to the process of rewiring, the whole experience will be more rewarding and will happen faster too.
How do you add more dopamine? You add rewards to the new behaviour you are trying to wire in and these rewards are most effective when they are internal (which is also why trying to bribe a person in recovery won’t work as external rewards only take you so far!).
Internal rewards to release dopamine can be generated if you give yourself mini goals that then build to a larger goal and each time you achieve a step in the right direction, you recognise and celebrate it, telling yourself, ‘good job’; ‘I am on the right path’; ‘I am a superhero!’.
This internal praise and recognition of achievement as you take on the new behaviour (eating the pizza) might feel weird but it will release more dopamine, making it more likely that your brain will seek to repeat the experience (pizza for lunch tomorrow too, only this time with ice cream!).
In a future post I will write more about the way dopamine works and can help recovery.
Alongside all of this, add a bit of gratitude practice to release some serotonin and the brain will be awash with chemicals that are pro-rewiring and pro-recovery!
I know this is a long post and a bit science-y but I hope it helps a little. Sometimes knowing why we have to do something in the way we are being told can help us to actually do it!
Just know that brain rewiring is a possibility no matter what!
It is also worth noting that all the processes I have written about here apply to rewiring the brain for any purpose, not just in eating disorder recovery… Be it to learn a new skill (like playing the piano) or to change any behaviours or habits – the neuroscience of neural plasticity is the same for us all!