If you haven’t read Is My Eating Disorder a Habit?’, then I recommend reading that first to give you a better understanding of the brain.
What is The HVRT?
The Habitual Voice Recognition Technique (HVRT) pretty much changed my life when it came to healing from my eating issues. And it is one of the most transformative techniques underlying my work.
The HVRT is based on a simple insight: YOU are separate from your thoughts, emotions, and urges. And because you are separate from them, YOU have the power to dismiss them. These automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) and urges will pop into your mind all on their own and leave behind a mess of uncomfortable emotions (anxiety, guilt, fear, anger, sadness…) which then trigger more negative thoughts, keeping you trapped in self-destruct mode.
The HVRT gives you the power to see these ANTs as meaningless messages, and, instead of believing them or acting on them, you can dismiss them live your life on your mindfully and intentionally – with peace instead of anxiety, and compassion instead of criticsm. But, whilst the HVRT is simple, simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy and it takes conscious effort to disrupt the poisonous cycle of ANTs and rewire the neural pathways in your brain so instead of triggering anxiety, anger, and guilt, your automatic thoughts fill you with a feeling compassion, peace and love.
It works like this:
- Identify your true self – the real you that has a deep desire for health, happiness and freedom
- Identify your Habitual Voice (HV) – you will probably find that your HV sends out similar messages (thoughts, feelings, urges) again and again
- Separate your true self from your HV
- Dismiss your HV – don’t react to it (i.e. engage with it emotionally by judging yourself or giving it your attention) or act on it (carry out any behaviours it is encouraging)
- Take actions that will strengthen your true self and get excited about life – nourish yourself, meditate, spend time in nature, do things that make you happy
I want to point out that the HVRT is a process. It is how you begin your recovery. It is how you break old habits. It is how you create a new normal. Yes, it will take a lot of work to start with. And it might even feel like you’re slipping backwards because you might not have even noticed your HV before and now you will be hyper aware of everything your HV is saying to you. But, with practice, the HV will fizzle.
For some people, this takes weeks. For other’s it takes months. And even then, at some point, years in the future, you might get a random negative thought or urge to binge or restrict. But, because by then you know how to identify your HV and dismiss it, it won’t be an issue. You’ll simply acknowledge its existence and get on with your life.
To really simplify the process, when it comes to binge eating, this is how the HVRT works:
- “I will never binge”.
- *any thought, feeling, or urge that encourages bingeing*.
- Go to 1.
This article will introduce you to what the Habitual Voice (HV) is and how to recognise your own HV when it comes to eating. You can look at this from both a scientific and spiritual approach so I will share both understandings in this article so you can choose a perspective that makes sense to you.
This can be quite a lot to get your head around so, once you understand things theoretically, then have a read of how to apply the HVRT practically in whichever article resonates with your more – How To Stop Anorexic Thoughts or How To Ignore The Urge To Binge.
A Spiritual Approach To Healing Your Relationship With Food
My whole perspective on my struggles with food shifted after a yoga session back in 2010. Up until then I had always thought yoga was pointless because it didn’t burn as many calories as cardio. But my body was tired and I was so desperate for freedom from the food and exercise obsession that I was willing to try anything. After just a few sessions I started to see that I could do more with my body than starve it or hate it and I began exploring meditation. I stumbled across the inspirational writing of Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, and one sentence blew my mind open:
“You are the sky. Everything else – it’s just the weather.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but those 10 words would lead me to finding complete freedom from my struggles with food.
Although I have never really considered myself spiritual until fairly recently (and by spiritual, I don’t mean religious, I mean living ‘in spirit’ – living an inspired life), I began seeing how the lessons I learnt through yoga and meditation could free me from my unhealthy relationship with food.
When I read that sentence, something just clicked. And once it had clicked, no matter how strong my urges to starve myself or over-exercise were, it just wouldn’t unclick (this is known as an ‘insight’ and, having an insightful understanding of something is far more likely to lead to behavior change than having an intellectual understanding of something.
This is how I see it:
The sky is me.
The weather is everything else (the Habitual Voice) – the urges to stave myself, the compulsions to calorie count, the obsessive thoughts around ‘clean’ food, the fears around weight gain, the desire to binge or restrict or over-exercise…
So, the sky is you. Your true self. The person you are underneath all the stress and anxiety and fear. It is always there. Even when there’s a thunderstorm and all you can see when you look up is thick grey clouds, you know the sky is there – beautiful, and limitless.
Unlike the sky, the weather changes. Storms begin. And then they end. The sun shines. And then it fades. It’s windy. And then it’s calm. And in the same way the weather changes, everything else (other than your true self) changes too. Negative thoughts, fears, urges… they all pass. And you don’t have to do anything for them to do so.
You’ll notice that if you sit with an urge to binge without reacting to it or acting on it, the urge will pass. And if you eat a ‘fear food’ and feel guilt and anxiety about it, and then you sit with the guilt and anxiety without judging it or acting on it (by restricting at the next meal), those feelings of guilt and anxiety will pass all on their own. It takes patience, and practice, but just like all storms end, all those destructive thoughts, feelings and urges will pass too. Until eventually, as brain rewires, they fizzle out altogether.
This was a really powerful insight personally because I started to be able to separate ME from the barrage of thoughts and worries around food, weight, and my body that, up until then, I believed I had no power over. I began to be able to create a mental space between the destructive thoughts I had around food and what I really wanted deep down – freedom, health, and wholeness. And, in creating this separation, I saw how these thoughts and fears were not actually me at all – just like clouds in the sky, they would pass. I was the sky, my thoughts and fears were just the weather.
A Scientific Approach To Healing Your Relationship With Food
At the same time as I was exploring yoga, I was completing my Master’s degree in Psychology and finishing my dissertation on post-traumatic growth (the way we can grow stronger from adversity rather than remain devastated by it). During my research I became particularly interested in brain imaging studies that suggested our brain physically changes in response to our thinking and how, by using various mindfulness and behavioural techniques, we can rewire our brain and escape automatic negative thoughts and destructive thinking patterns – including our destructive thoughts and fears about food.
This was another moment of insight for me:
Maybe I could rewire my brain so I no longer struggled with food?
Maybe my unhealthy relationship with food had nothing to do with my perfectionism, anxiety, emotional issues, or past hurts like the therapists over the years had told me?
Maybe I didn’t need to fix my flaws before I could eat with freedom?
Maybe I simply needed to rewire my brain?
I started looking into the neuroscience of eating behaviour further and found two books that changed the way I’ll see our ability to find freedom from any obsession, compulsion or addiction forever.
The first was Rational Recovery: The New Cure for Substance Addiction, by Jack Trimpey, and the second was Brain Over Binge, by Kathryn Hansen. Both books captured exactly what I was discovering through my own research – by changing the wiring in our brain, we can find freedom from eating disorders, chronic dieting and unhealthy relationships with food any time we choose.
Both books explained that in order to find freedom from my food struggles I needed to understand my own brain (which I explain in more detail in Is my eating disorder a habit?). After dieting, starving and obsessing over food for years, my unhealthy eating behaviours were essentially habits that had become wired into my brain. By repeatedly starving, restricting and obsessing over calories, I had made physical changes to the way my brain was wired so my anxious thoughts around food and the urge to diet were now generated automatically. Each time I gave meaning to my food fears or acted on my urges to diet, I strengthened the neural connections that represented the habit in my brain, making the fears and urges stronger. I was never diseased, I had just innocently created neural connections in my brain through chronic dieting that, out of habit, now caused thoughts, feelings and urges that encouraged disordered eating.
I’ve explained habit formation in this article: Is Your Eating Disorder a Habit?, but I thought I’d break it down again here to make things simpler to understand (because neuroscience can be pretty confusing!).
Habit Formation In The Brain
Goal-reward habits generally begin in the part of the brain known as the pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for decision making). For example, when your behaviour is goal-directed, you make the decision “I want to skip breakfast in order to lose weight” which means your goal is to skip breakfast and your reward is weight loss. So, every morning you wake up and think, “I am going to skip breakfast this morning” and you leave the house without eating.
Or you might make the decision, “I’m going to eat a tub of ice-cream this evening because I’m stressed and it will give me comfort” where your goal is to eat the ice-cream and your reward is temporarily easing your stress. And then the next evening, you come home from work and feel stressed and think, “Eating that ice cream last night eased my stress so I’m going to eat another tub tonight”, and you start doing that every night in order to feel better.
Whether it’s breakfast skipping or ice cream bingeing, once you’ve repeated the eating behaviour over and over again, it gets encoded in a different part of the brain (the dorsal striatum) where, instead of being motivated by achieving a goal (weight loss, easing stress…), it becomes a stimulus-response habit. So, you will no longer ‘decide’ to carry out the behaviour – it will happen automatically.
Even if you’ve lost the weight your wanted to lose or realised the breakfast skipping is not the best path to take (which it’s probably not), when you wake up, eating breakfast will no longer cross your mind because waking up is the stimulus and breakfast skipping is the response.
And, going back to the ice-cream eating example, once your evening ice cream eating has been repeated enough times, it will become a stimulus-response habit.
You will no longer be consciously making the decision to eat ice cream in the evening to ease stress. When you get home after work in the evening, you will have the urge to eat ice cream because evening time is the stimulus and eating ice cream is the response.
The Pleasure of Wanting Ice-cream vs. Eating Ice-Cream
The other place in the brain where habits form is the ventral striatum. When this area generates a goal-directed behaviour, dopamine (the ‘happy hormone’) is released which makes you want to do the behaviour again (to get your hit of dopamine).
So, for the ice cream eating example above, not only is easing stress the reward, dopamine release is also the reward.
When it comes to reward, it’s all about getting you to want to do the behaviour enough so you do it. The trick is getting you to want to eat the ice cream enough so you actually eat the ice cream. So, the brain releases more dopamine when you want to eat the ice cream then when you’re actually eating it – wanting the ice cream becomes more pleasurable than actually eating it. This is why, even though overeating, or emotional eating or binge eating itself doesn’t bring you any pleasure, you still have the urge to do it – because your brain is releasing dopamine so you want to overeat. So, it’s not eating the ice cream that necessarily becomes addictive, it’s wanting to eat the ice cream that is the reward.
This is not a matter of lacking willpower. This is a matter of your brain. And once you begin to understand this, you can stop beating yourself up for finding it challenging to resist the urges to binge or skip meals or calorie count or engage in any other eating behaviour which you know is not making you healthier or happier and instead redirect your energy into letting go of these unhealthy habits so you can live a happier, healthier, more meaningful life.
Learn how to apply the HVRT practically in one of these articles: