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Eating Disorders are Result of Brain Plasticity.

December 28, 2008 – 2:28 pm

What is brain plasticity? And how is it related to developing an eating disorder?

Brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity, is the lifelong ability of the brain to change itself based on new experiences. When we say “the brains ability to change” we don’t mean something mystical or just “spiritual”.

What we are alluding to is the brains ability to reorganise or rewire its neuronal pathways that has lead to certain wanted or unwanted actions or behaviours. For example, in case of people suffering with eating disorders it is unwanted actions like negative thoughts about their body image that lead to the development of at ED. This could have manifested itself by starving, overexercising or binging and purging over a period of time.

When people start having bad thoughts and feelings about themselves their brain begins to develop certain new neuronal wiring (or connections) to produce certain behaviours. When people continue to acting on pathological behaviours like starving, binging-purging, over exercising etc: these neuronal pathways grow stronger and stronger.  Basically it is what you think is what you get.

You see any behaviour we have or regular thoughts we think there are certain brain maps developed and pathways formed.  These new brain maps can start to take up a huge amount of space in our brain until they become all powerful. Eating disorders take up a huge amount of space in the brain because they affect nearly all aspects of the sufferer’s life.

So, when it comes to eating disorder treatment if it does not work on changing the old neuronal pathways it is not going to work.  What has to happen is for the sufferer to develop new neuronal pathways and build them around the old faulty pathological ones that is their ED. When you start using these new pathways (the healthy pathways) they become stronger and stronger and eventually they will replace the old pathological ones (the old pathological ones will fade).

You see, when you realise that it is your brain making you do things in a defective way, you will understand that to create behavioural change you only need to make your brain work differently.  And you can do that by focusing your attention differently when the ED urge strikes you. 

 The capacity of the brain to change doesn’t diminish with age or with the duration of the problem you have.  Many people think that it is easier to stop an eating disorder early on when the disorder first appears; and that if you have had the disorder for many years it is nearly impossible to stop it. 

This is not true and is totally false. People can stop their eating problems at any stage of the process, because the human brain is plastic and changeable with any repetitive activity we do.  Now it does take effort to change the way you think but it is not impossible.

The first thing is to come to the realization that what your brain is telling you to do may not be correct so there is no need to act on it every time. Your brain is not your mind and you can influence it with better thoughts and actions.

Your brain is only an organ sitting between your ears. But your mind is what you do, what decision you make, and what perception about yourself you give to others.  Of course this does not mean you have an abnormal brain, it is only the abnormal thoughts and behaviours that have lead you to having an ED.  It has been proven beyond doubt that your mind, your conscious behaviours and thoughts can change the structure of your brain.

To conclude, eating disorders are the result of brain’s ability to change its own structure in relation to false actions and thoughts over time.  Because you have changed your brains wiring to fit a certain pathological behaviour in your brain map you have developed an ED. You have responded negatively to certain eating disorder triggers that you have built around you over time.

You probably would have never developed an eating disorder if you had responded differently to these triggers. For instance: if you did not get upset when someone at school called you “fat” or if you didn’t care when your ex-boyfriend dumped you for a skinnier girl, or a similar event. You would probably never have an eating disorder now. But because you did pay too much of attention to it, you have to suffer for a long time.

But it is not all bad news. The good news is that because your brain is plastic you can change your brain to the better: exactly the same way you changed it when you developed the faulty pathological behaviour in the first place. With focused attention, mindfulness and by building new neural pathways around the old ones, research has shown you can change you brain and hence your ED. 

This is the only cure for eating disorders – to change your brain using your mind to reverse your old thought patterns that got you into this mess in the first place. 

Dr Irina Webster.