Neuroplasticity and How Rewiring is Important to Recovery
One of the toughest parts of recovery is the process of changing those strong automatic eating disorder thoughts…those thoughts that can keep us stuck and that make eating disorder recovery so hard. How can you change these thoughts that feel almost unchangeable? Is it even possible?
It sure is! Although it is incredibly tough to consistently fight back against the eating disorder thoughts and create new ones in their place, it is most certain doable. You 100% have the ability to do this. Don’t let your eating disorder tell you otherwise. You have the power to start quieting this eating disorder voice and start making your authentic voice louder. This process is called neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the propery of the brain that enables it to change its own structure and functioning in response to activity and mental experience. Brain cells are able to constantly communicate eletrically with one another and form and re-form new connections, moment by moment...a unique kind of healing.
“There are billions of pathways that light up every time you think, feel, or do something. The pathways that are well traveled are our habits and our established ways of thinking, feelings, and doing. Every time we think in a certain way, do a certain task, or feel something specific, we strengthen that pathway. When we strengthen the pathway, it becomes easier for our brains to automatically take that same path.” -source
The good news for recovery is that when we start to think, feel, and do things differently, we carve out a new road. However, because this road hasn’t been traveled, it isn’t too strong and our brain doesn’t easily take that path. However, the more you activity take this new pathway, our brain will start using it more and then this pathway will become easier to take, more automatic, and eventually become your new normal. The old path is used less and weakens. We all have the ability to rewire our brain and with repeated and directed attention to the changes you want, you can experience these changes first hand.
Do you know what this means? That the story your ED is telling you doesn't have to be the ongoing story....you can create a new story. Those ED thoughts that seem like they will forever be there won’t stand a chance in the end.
So…I am sure you are asking, how can we create new pathways and weaken the old ones?
Although we can not control the reality that these thoughts will pop up…we can choose what comes next (and this choice will, in turn, help to decrease these thoughts from coming up until they no longer show up).
Step 1: INCREASE SELF-AWARENESS
The first step is self-awareness. How can we change something we are not aware of? We need to become more aware of what behaviors, feelings, and thoughts are reinforcing the eating disorder voice in order to change them. Stop here and try and take a second to reflect. What are you currently doing that is reinforcing the pathway? Are you restricting calories? If so, you are telling your brain that you have to restrict calories because your nourished, natural body is not acceptable. This then reinforces the eating disorder thought saying that your body is not good enough. Are you keeping certain foods off limits? This is pathway in your brain that says “foods are not neutral and food should be feared” even stronger. Are you comparing your body to someone else’s body? This is strengthening the part of your brain that says that you need to find body acceptance in the comparison of someone else’s body.
Step 2: PAUSE
Here is were you need to take an active participation with your thoughts and behaviors. Taking active participation in your thoughts will help you also take active participations in your beliefs, behaviors, and feelings. Reflect on that thought. Where does that unhelpful thought lead you? Does it end up hurting or harming you? You have the choice to not jump on the thought train. When an unhelpful or unwanted thought comes up, do not continue to lead yourself down this road. Choose to stop entertaining and reinforcing that thought. When you engage in the thought and choose to entertain it, you strengthen that pathway, which will work against your attempt to create new helpful thoughts.
Step 3: REPLACE
Replace the thought or behavior with the thought or behavior you would like to be in its place. Choose something that feels right for you. Every time you replace with this new thought, feeling or behavior, you create stronger pathways that are more aligned with recovery. For example, if you want to live a life where you aren’t fearing cupcakes, eat a cupcake. Do it over and over and over until your new learned behavior and thought is “I eat cupcakes” has a stronger pathway than the eating disorder pathway that says “you can not eat cupcakes.”
STEP 4: REDIRECT
If you want to go even further with the process, after replacing, try then redirecting yourself to your values to start creating a life centered around your values. Choose to take the focus off of your eating disorder and place it on the values of your authentic self.
This process is by no means an easy one. It will most likely feel uncomfortable and foreign at first. That is because you do not have these new pathways to easily travel down yet. This activity also requires you to be an active participant. The pathways don’t just carve themselves. If you want them, you have to create them and what you put in to this is what you will get out. Find your grit in your recovery and keep trying.
Now go and start being an active participant. Your eating disorder doesn’t have to be the boss.
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