Here’s a list of habits that may be having a negative impact on your health and happiness:
- Nail biting
- Going to bed late
- Negative self-talk
- Criticising your body
- Using your phone in bed
- Obsessively checking social media
- Obsessively weighing yourself
- Obsessively counting calories
- Obsessively tracking macros
- Eating when you’re bored
- Eating when you’re emotional
- Skipping meals
- Binge eating
Now, I know it’s not common to see eating disorders described as a habit. However, this new perspective helped me escape my unhealthy relationship with food. And if I can escape mine, then I believe you can escape your’s too.
The Habit Hypothesis
Whether it’s calorie counting, an obsession with healthy foods, emotional eating, or a diagnosed eating disorder, finding freedom from disordered eating involves understanding how your unhealthy relationship with food developed to begin with. Not necessarily in terms any emotional issues or hurts from your past that may have triggered it, but in terms of how it developed and is maintained as a habit in your brain.
Now, I’m not a neuroscientist or an expert on the brain, but I have learnt enough to completely free myself from anorexia and build a healthy relationship with food. And I’ve seen my clients achieve the same freedom too.
In reality, treatment of disordered eating has not improved in the last 50 years, so, although what I’m presenting are not scientific facts, they are useful concepts based on research (like this), theories, and professional opinion that offer a new way of looking at our relationship with food.
I’ll start off with a basic description of how the brain works and how habits in general are formed, maintained, and changed before applying these theories to disordered eating using one of my clients’ experiences.
Up until I developed this understanding, I merely accepted that I would spend my life on an anxious quest for the perfect diet and perfect body. Now I know what I know about the brain, I know this quest was merely a habit. And knowing it was habit, gave me the power to change it.
The two brains
The brain is infinitely complex, but, for the sake of simplicity, the brain is made up of two parts: the lower brain and the upper brain. The lower brain (including our hypothalamus, medulla, and cerebellum) is an evolutionary old part of the brain responsible for automatic functions such as thirst and hunger as well as hormones and habits. For example, when we hear our mobile ring, a pattern of neurones fire in the lower brain (formed by us repeatedly answering the phone when it rings i.e. a habit), and we get the automatic urge to answer it.
The higher brain (including our cerebral cortex, limbic system and basal ganglia) is the conscious, decision-making part of the brain; it is the evolutionary advanced part of the brain which is responsible for awareness and voluntary action. When the lower brain throws out automatic messages such as urges and habits, the higher brain (home of our true self and our goals, hopes and dreams) gives us conscious control over how we respond to these messages.
Going back to the earlier example of our mobile ringing, if our lower brain throws out the automatic urge to answer it, the higher brain can make a conscious choice whether or not to act on that urge by answering the phone or to dismiss the urge and choose not to answer it (because we are driving, with friends, working…).
The same is true for disordered eating habits (e.g. binging, meal skipping, calorie obsession…). If our lower brain throws out the urge to binge, our higher brain can make a conscious choice as to whether we act on the urge by binging or to dismiss the urge and get on with our lives.
What are habits?
Habits are thoughts and behaviours that we are not born with, we do repeatedly and then become fixed, and appear to occur automatically in response to a trigger or stimuli.
Neurologically, habits live in the lower brain.
Dieting, binging and over-exercising all fulfil the definition of a habit. When we diet, binge, or over-exercise repeatedly over weeks, months, or years, we create neural pathways in our lower brain and the behaviour becomes largely automatic.
How are habits formed?
In terms of the brain, habits are created when we repeat a thought or behaviour several times. Every thought, feeling and action is the result of electrical signals passing through neurones which then form neural connections. When neurones fire simultaneously, the neural connections between each thought, feeling and behaviour strengthen, and the habit strengthens too. These habits can be thought based (e.g. fears and obsessions) or action based (e.g. dieting and bingeing).
There are two processes involved in habit formation:
- Goal-reward learning (also known as action-outcome learning or conditioning)
- Stimulus-response learning.
This is how we build new habits.
For example, one of my clients, Gemma* came to see my because she was caught in a cycle of almost daily bingeing. Her first binge had occurred after the breakdown of her relationship and she had turned to food for comfort. Her and her ex-boyfriend used to spend most evenings together going out to dinner or seeing friends, and she replaced this with evenings of eating to fill the void.
So, in Gemma’s case, the original GOAL of her bingeing was to ‘ease the pain of her break up’ and her REWARD was ‘comfort’. This goal-reward learning formed a habit involving specific neural pathways in Gemma’s lower brain which linked feeling heartbroken to bingeing.
As we engage in these rewarding behaviours repeatedly (a process known as overtraining) we become insensitive to the reward itself. So, Gemma’s bingeing was no longer dependent on whether she felt comfort. She had the desire to binge regardless of whether it brought her comfort or not.
Her bingeing became less of a choice to ease her pain and more a compulsion.
Years after the break down of her old relationship (and now in a happy relationship), Gemma was still bingeing most evenings. She no longer felt pain from her break up (the original ‘goal’ of her to binge) or any comfort from bingeing (the original ‘reward’) but feared anything that might interfere with her evening of eating. This is because her binge habit had shifted from the goal-reward stage of habit formation to the stimulus-response stage. Again, it involves neural pathways in the lower brain but they are slightly different from the ones involved in goal-reward learning.
Gemma’s STIMULUS was simply being at home in evening and her RESPONE was bingeing. There was no longer a GOAL like there had once been (Gemma had moved on from the heart break of her ex and was now in a relationship with someone new) and she no longer felt any REWARD in bingeing (she felt shame not comfort like she once had). And yet, despite the shame, she felt as though she just could not stop bingeing. This is because the link between being at home in the evenings and bingeing was now so strongly wired into her brain (because she had repeated the action so many times) that it was now an automatic habit.
Whether it’s bingeing, meal skipping, over-exercise or of obsessing over calories, the habit hypothesis of eating explains why it is often so difficult to change our unhealthy eating behaviours even though we know they are not giving us the health or happiness we are after. Once habits are engrained in the brain, we have to make a conscious effort to change them. And, although this feels uncomfortable and challenging, it is 100% possible and 100% worth is.
For a full example of eating disorders as habits read: How My Eating Disorder Became a Habit
How do you break habits?
If your unhealthy eating behaviours are at the goal-reward stage, then you can break these unhealthy habits by identifying the triggers and the reward.
Going back to Gemma’s example, if she had been at the goal-reward stage of habit formation (which she wasn’t as she’d been bingeing for years by the time I began working with her), she could have reflected on what was triggering her bingeing – in her case feeling upset at the break-down of her relationship, and how she was finding bingeing rewarding (e.g. by comforting her).
Once she had identified the triggers and the rewards she could then focus on eliminating the trigger (e.g. by getting rid of anything that reminded her of her ex) and find healthier ways to get the same reward (e.g. having a bath, reading a book, or speaking to friends to feel comforted).
All this sounds simple, however, usually by the time we realise how much out unhealthy relationship with food is restricting our lives, our destructive eating habits and food obsessions have become habitual – neurologically, they have been wired into the lower brain through stimulus-response learning.
By the time Gemma realised her bingeing was a problem, she no longer felt any reward from her evenings of eating but felt powerless to stop. This is because our lower brain treats habits like our survival depends on them. It pumps out urges for us to engage in the habit automatically. And the more we respond to these urges, the stronger the neurological connections become, leading to more frequent and more intense urges.
Every time Gemma got the urge to binge and acted on that urge by bingeing, she strengthened the neural connection between the urge to binge and the action of bingeing, reinforcing the habit and making it more difficult to escape the binge cycle.
When the neurones urging Gemma to binge fired in her lower brain, she felt the only way to ease this anxiety was to binge.
This all changed for Gemma when:
- She ensured she was eating enough throughout the day.
Gemma had got into another unhealthy habit of skipping breakfast and only having fruit for lunch in an attempt to ‘undo’ the previous night’s binge. This had the unwanted effect of increasing her urge to binge due to biological drives caused by undereating. In order to reduce these biologically driven urges to binge, Gemma began eating a balanced breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
- When she embraced the power of her higher brain.
Like I said previously, habits are housed in the lower brain but conscious control resides in the higher brain. This means we can separate our urges from our true selves. For example, Gemma began the process of separating her urge to binge (which was caused by neurones firing automatically in the lower brain) from her true desire for a healthy and fear-free relationship with food (coming from her higher brain).
Although we don’t have any control over the thoughts, fears, and urges that appear in our awareness, we do have control over whether we act on them. Neuroscientists call this ‘free won’t’ – we can’t control what thoughts and urges the lower brain throws out but, by using our higher brain, we can choose whether we act on these urges.
For me, and my experience with anorexia and orthorexia, after I learnt this, I found the anxiety and fear I had around food and weight gain didn’t disappear right away but it felt less consuming and less intense and I felt it less frequently. As I began to see my anxiety around food and urges to lose weight as nothing more than fleeting thoughts, the easier it became for me to dismiss them. And, the less I acted on them, the weaker the neurological connections became in my brain. Because the neurological connections were weaker, it meant I experienced the destructive thoughts and urges less until they fizzled out altogether. Effectively, I had rewired my lower brain so it no longer produced the unwanted thoughts and feelings I had around food.
And Gemma reported a similar experience. As she began to see her urges to binge as automatic thoughts that had no more power than the power she gave them, she felt she had a choice as to whether she acted on them. And the more she chose not to act on them, she found that her urges to binge slowly reduced to alternate days, then weekly, then fortnightly… And now it’s been over four months since she’s binged. She says she still occasionally has the urges but they no longer feel overpowering and she knows that just because she has an urge to binge, doesn’t mean she has to act on it.
We have the power to write our brain’s programming by what we repeatedly do. This is known as self-directed neuroplasticity. When we don’t obey our urges, the neurological presence of those urges in the physical structure of the brain weakens. When you stop giving power to your anxieties around food and urges to binge, restrict or over-exercise, there is no neurological energy to maintain them.
When you begin to see the urges to binge, desire to step on the scales for the fifth time in a day, and fears telling you that ‘sugar is toxic’ and that ‘you’ll gain weight if you eat more than 800 calories a day’ as powerless and stop giving into them, you will begin to rebuild a healthy relationship with food – similar to the intuitive, carefree, innately healthy relationship you had as a kid before the world scared you into believing that food is a form of poison.
When I was caught up in an unhealthy relationship with food it meant that neurologically, everything else took a back seat in my life. Now, I don’t give as much attention to these food fears and urges, it has literally freed up space in my brain to devote to more meaningful goals.
Habitual Voice Recognition Technique
I go into this in more detail here: How To Break Unhealthy Eating Habits, but this is a technique that I used to recover from my eating disorder and that I use with most of my clients to help them identify and find freedom from unhealthy eating habits and the thoughts and feelings that drive them.
Understanding that you have the power to dismiss your anxieties around food is a simple insight, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. This is where the Habitual Voice Recognition Technique (HVRT) is helpful. The HVRT is a variation of the Addictive Voice Recognition Technique (AVRT) developed by Jack Trimpey as part of his Rational Recovery program for addictions.
The HVRT helps you to distinguish between your Habitual Voice (HV) – the meaningless messages produced automatically from your lower brain (e.g. urge to binge, preoccupation with calorie counting, obsession with ‘clean’ foods, unhealthy desire to lose weight…) and your true self – the innately healthy, habit-free part of you with a deep desire for wellness.
For example, my HV would produce messages like: ‘you’re addicted to sugar so you need to avoid it’, ‘you don’t need carbs as you haven’t exercised’, and ‘have your coffee black – using milk is a waste of calories’.
My true self preferred a dash of milk in my Americano and wanted some sweet potato chips with my dinner, but my HV was producing messages telling me I needed to restrict. By separating what my true self wanted, from the destructive messages of my HV, I was able to listen with detachment.
As the destructive thoughts and feelings around food surfaced, I was able to observe them as if they were not coming from me until the fizzled out. Whereas previously I had felt powerless against them, I now knew I didn’t have to take my food fears so seriously anymore. And the less I reacted to them, the more they left me alone.
Practical stuff you can do to help:
1. Goal-Reward Habits
Make a list of any unhealthy habits you have around food that you feel are at the goal-reward stage of habit formation and then identify the trigger and the reward. Once you’ve done this think of how you can remove the trigger and get the same reward from a healthier behaviour. For example:
Trigger: Feeling stressed from workload
Goal: To ease stress and feel calmer
Reward: Easing stress
Ways to avoid trigger: Speak with boss about workload, ask colleagues for help
Healthier rewards: Practice yoga and meditation, socialise with friends, have a bath, walk in nature
2. Stimulus-response habits
Take some time to reflect on any disordered eating habits you have which happen almost automatically and often feel overpowering. These could be thoughts, feelings or actions and can often take a period of time of reflection to bring them into our awareness. This is because, a lot of the time we unaware that we are even doing them or why we do them. For example:
Stimulus: Choosing what to have for lunch
Response: Calculating calories in your head
Stimulus: Having the house to yourself
Response: Bingeing on ice-cream
Stimulus: Eating one cookie
Response: Eating the entire pack of cookies
Stimulus: Feeling hungry
Response: Drinking coffee
Once you’ve made a list of these unhealthy habits around food identify what exactly the Habitual Voice says (e.g. ‘eating carbs after 6pm will make you fat’) and practice dismissing this voice using the power of your higher brain and doing the opposite to what your HV is telling you to do e.g. eat some rice with your dinner if your HV is telling you to avoid carbs, eat lunch without tracking what you ate if your HV is telling you to input your lunch into your fitness app, eat breakfast if your HV is telling you not to…
This is how you take your power back. This is how you find freedom.