In the last 10 years, the notion that eating disorders are biologically based illnesses has begun to gain significant traction both inside and outside the eating disorder community.
Following “The Decade of the Brain” in the ’90s and the explosion of research in brain chemistry, anatomy, and function, we now better understand how we are susceptible to eating disorders based on a pre-existing neurological status and how our personalities, behaviors, and experiences in eating disorders are all linked.
This body of knowledge is exciting and hopeful, yet also challenging. Often when people hear that eating disorders are biologically based, they experience one of two polar reactions.
For some, this notion helps people with an eating disorder remove the stigma, shame, and blame while providing hope that the biology can be corrected and resolved. For others, the knowledge seems frightening and at times creates a sense of hopelessness.
The good news is the brain is highly neuroplastic, meaning the brain has the ability to rewire itself, changing the way it functions to create new challenges, abilities, and behaviors.
The primary mechanism for creating neuroplasticity is behavior and experience. We know this from our own lives in general. To learn something new or different, we must actually do it. For example, if we want to learn how to ski, we must get out on the slopes, rather than study the techniques in a textbook.
That’s why treatment has become more experiential and behavioral. Each time we eat with others and distract ourselves from negative thoughts, we learn to recognize fears and emotions. By repeatedly practicing healthy behaviors, we will become healthier.
We now know that neuroplasticity is likely one of the prime mechanisms for eating disorder recovery. It is possible at any age for anyone. Though we can’t make promises, our current understanding of the brain is that it has the ability to alter ourselves in ways that will make us healthier and happier.
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