In this ‘brain post’ I want to explain a little more about two important brain regions that play big parts in how we think and act and how these two different parts of the brain often work against one another, trying to take the driver’s seat in guiding our behaviours.
The two parts of the brain that it is key to know a little about are the pre-frontal cortex (rational brain) and the limbic system (emotional brain), which frequently work at logger heads with each other in trying to guide our actions in a tug of war that we often don’t really appreciate is going on!
In my eating disorder recovery (and subsequently when I consider other decisions I make day to day) it has really helped me to understand a little more of the neuro-biology that is at play inside my head.
When you understand more about these brain regions, it can be easier to forgive yourself for the amount of conscious focus and mental energy that recovery takes (particularly at the beginning).
The Pre-Frontal Cortex
At the very front of your brain (just behind the forehead) is the pre-frontal cortex (PFC). Often described as having ‘executive function’, the PFC could be considered your ‘rational’ brain as it is in charge of reason and logic, judgement and decision making. It is from here that conscious thoughts arise and where you might deliberate the pros and cons of a particular action before taking it.
Eating disorder recovery means having to repeatedly take actions that the brain perceives as a threat and so it will try very hard to drive you to avoid those things.
In recovery, you have to keep fully focused and consciously choose the recovery action (and that choice is made using the PFC) each time until your brain learns that there is no threat and the new recovery focused behaviours become wired into your brain and eventually they become habitual. Once the new behaviours are ‘wired’ into your brain sufficiently through enough repetition and positive reinforcement, other parts of your brain will take over guiding you to take that action in future, with less need for your PFC to get involved, freeing it up to focus on other (more important) things!
Therefore, in eating disorder recovery, it is in your PFC that recovery really needs to start, with the conscious decision to change and your applying focus to make the necessary changes happen.
You need to keep your PFC focused on recovery and use it to ‘choose’ recovery action each time you need to engage in a recovery behaviour (which at the start of recovery is most of your waking hours!), if you want to prevent those old habitual and automatic disordered behaviours, and you will have to keep doing this until your brain has rewired sufficiently with recovery.
The Limbic System (including The Amygdala)
Buried deep within the brain is your limbic system, which is made up of several brain structures and has the role of focusing on fear, survival, risks and desires. It is here that anxieties and phobias arise (even when the threat is not real, such as with eating disorders).
The limbic system will automatically guide your behaviours based on what it perceives and it does not understand reason or logic. The key focus of the limbic system is to seek pleasure or find relief from a perceived threat and the force with which it guides actions can be so powerful that it will override any rational sense.
In addition, within the limbic system is your amygdala and it is from this structure that the ‘fight or flight’ response to a perceived threat is generated. When the brain perceives a strong threat to your safety, the PFC (rational brain) is completely bypassed and the amygdala will instantly ‘hijack’ your brain and guide your actions in a reactive and non-thought out way.
An example of amygdala hijack in eating disorder recovery might be when you have made a rational and conscious decision to go to a fast food restaurant, order and eat a burger but when you get to the restaurant and the reality of facing that burger meal, you find yourself reacting blindly. This might be by either escaping the situation (fleeing the restaurant) or even throwing the meal away (or at a well meaning friend or family member!). It is only afterwards when the threat is no longer present and your brain has come out of fight and flight mode that you review what happened, usually with frustration that the ‘eating disorder won’ again.
Conflict between the Pre Frontal Cortex and Limbic System in Eating Disorder Recovery
In any human brain, there is constant conflict between the PFC (rational thought) and the limbic system (emotional or even fear responses), each trying to guide our day to day actions.
As stated above, in eating disorder recovery, this plays out as making a rational decision to take a particular recovery focused course of action (using the PFC with reason and logic) but when the time to do so arrives, fear and emotion takes over (from the limbic system) and despite not being able to engage rational thought as to why, the emotional and fear based drive is so strong that the eventual actions you take are disordered.
What is Needed for Recovery?
In order to rewire the brain in eating disorder recovery (and actually recover!), it is necessary to find ways to override the automatic and over-active limbic system with its inappropriate fear responses (mistakenly trying to protect you from the ‘threat’ of food and rest or of weight gain). Instead, you must repeatedly manage to decide upon recovery action and stay focused (using your PFC) so that you engage in the behaviours you desperately need to wire in, despite that fired up fear response.
The more you manage to override the fear response (which is not easy but definitely possible), the sooner you retrain and rewire your brain to recognise that food and rest and weight gain are not any threat to your life (and can actually be quite pleasurable!).
Therefore, as you continue in your eating disorder recovery, try to notice what your brain is doing – which part of your brain is guiding your actions in any given moment? Are you about to take an action based on an emotional, anxiety or fear based response or are you focused and taking the more executive or ‘intellectual’ recovery based action this time?
As a final point, I also want to highlight that the things our brains can consciously focus on at any given time are limited. In recovery, it is so necessary to keep that space available for conscious recovery decision making over and over again each day. If you are trying to also work, study or do a million other things with your conscious mind, then it is only natural that recovery will be pushed to one side (and your usual disordered behaviours will instead show up as they are habitual). So, please, know that recovery takes mental effort for a time and it is usually necessary to make space in your brain (and life) for recovery to take priority.
Please also look out for future posts on things you can do to override the fear reaction when it shows up in recovery!
If you like to listen, as well as (or instead of read!) then I have also made this blog post into a podcast episode which you will find on my podcast series, Feck it, Fun, Fabulous and Free in Eating Disorder Recovery… available on all mainstream podcast platforms!