Why are changing our habits and behaviors so difficult? To answer this question, we have to get a little scientific. This knowledge can truly help anyone in Eating Disorder recovery as well as a person who just want to break or form habits!
Have you ever heard of “Neuroplasticity?” It basically is the concept that we can actually physically wire and change the structures of our brain through different ways; ie. therapy, changing thought patterns, different emotional regulation techniques, etc.
Now, how does this work? Our brain develops what we call “neuropathways” which is how we develop habits that are hard to break. Let me give you a concrete example to explain this. Let’s say someone binge eats when they feel sad. Feeling sad leads the person to engage in the behavior of binge eating. Because the binge eating seemed to help the feeling of sadness, the person continues to resort to binge eating whenever they feel sad. The neuropathway is basically the following equation “I feel sad…therefore I will binge.” Of course, this may not be happening at a conscious level. Each time the person binges, the behavior is reinforced and the neuropathway is strengthened.
Let’s say you’re building a bridge. This example may not be correct according to a construction worker, but will illustrate my point. You build the 1st layer of the bridge (1st time you binge eat when feeling sad). The bridge (pathway) exists now. You add to the bridge more layers (the next times you binge eat when feeling sad), now the bridge is stronger and harder to knock down.
Basically, when you keep repeating something, your brain learns it and turns to it because it’s what the brain knows. If you want to retrain it, you need to weaken these neuropathways, which is hard, but not impossible, though it may seem that way at times.
In the example of binge eating, let’s say you notice you feel sad and start going to the pantry to start binging. At any part during that binge or before you begin if you can, change direction. Even if it’s just 5 minutes. You feel sad, walk over to the pantry, can you take 5 minutes to pet your dog or cat? Create space between the instigating event (feeling sad) and the behavior (binging). This helps to start weakening the pathway.
The more you make an effort to change the path, turn around the path, make a U-turn or whatever, the more you weaken the pathway. This is where coping skills and distraction can be really helpful.
Most importantly, you need to be patient and forgiving toward yourself. You will resort to binging during this time, and you may have times that you didn’t think to try something else or just didn’t want to. It’s ok. Just keep trying and working forward.
It’s also really helpful to be working with an Eating Disorder therapist who can help you with your particular struggles if you are suffering with some sort of eating issue or Eating Disorder. They can help guide you every step of the way and be there to offer insight when you feel jumbled. If you are not seeing an Eating Disorder therapist currently, consider checking out this guide on finding the right help.
You may find these videos helpful:
Getting the Right Help
Why Habits are so Hard to Break and How to Change Them
or these other posts:
Have Some Compassion...for Yourself
Recovery is Not Linear
Why Can’t I Stop Binging?!
Binge And Restrict Cycle
Eating Disorder Specialist
Healthy Self Vs. Eating Disorder