On eating and rewiring your brain

They say you are what you eat ­čÖé

Hello, friends! I’ve missed writing here. Life has gotten unexpectedly stressful lately, and all my energy has gone into getting through each day, coping with things as they come up and trying to make plans for changes that will make life less stressful. In related news, if anyone knows of an affordable two-bedroom apartment in or near Boston, let me know.

Today I thought I’d write a bit about eating — eating disorders, or disordered eating — and healing from them. I’ve never been diagnosed, but I’ve definitely had times in my life when I was anorexic-ish, starving myself and exercising obsessively to lose weight, and other times when I have been unable to stop over-eating. My weight has swung up and down 100 lbs since college. I’ve written about how I learned to break the cycle of over-eating–> feeling shame–> starving myself at the shame part of the cycle here. Basically I decided to stop dieting and stop punishing myself when I overate; to do my best to eat healthy foods when I was hungry, stop eating when I was full, and to forgive myself when I did eat too much. The forgiveness, for me, was the key. When I recklessly and completely refused to feel shame for overeating, I found myself feeding myself more lovingly, and stopping when I was full more naturally.

Another thing I’ve done is to try to replace overeating with other, healthier coping mechanisms. Meditation and centering prayer (a particular type of prayer in which you sit in God’s presence without speaking) helped me to learn to be still, to quiet my mind and my hands so that I did not need the activity of eating to soothe myself. Candles, incense, and scented oils (my favorites are peppermint, rosemary, and lavender) helped to satisfy the cravings for comfort and stimulation that I often mistook for hunger. And yoga has been a wonderful way to reconnect with my body, calm myself, and exercise without the obsessive calorie-counting I used to do on the gym treadmill. I’m now at about the halfway mark in that 100lb weight swing, and have stayed there for six years. I could lose more weight by dieting, but then I’d be right back in the cycle, losing and gaining, feeling constant shame and frustration, thinking about food all the time. I’m much happier where I am, eating healthy, exercising naturally, and trusting my body to know where it wants to be.

My friend Arwen Faulkner wrote a few years ago about something called neuroplasticity. It’s the idea that our brains are rewriteable, that even programs of reaction and response learned in childhood can be changed. Arwen writes poignantly about what that has meant in her life as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. She says that

Neuroplasticity involves the spontaneous rewiring of neurons, the reassignment of neural pathways. Neurons are able to strengthen well-worn connections while weakening or eliminating others. Imagine, the road less travelled, essentially disappears. A healing process, this gives us the power to literally change our minds.

You can read the rest of her essay here. I’ve been thinking about that lately, and how I’ve done just that: rewired my brain, created new well-worn paths to replace the old ones. I don’t really believe in will power in the context of eating — I think white-knuckling it can work for a time but there will always be payback. My times of extreme self control, eating 500 calories a day and burning them off plus more on the treadmill, ultimately resulted in obsessive eating and a ruined metabolism. The body is hardwired for survival. But I do believe that we can replace unhealthy coping mechanisms with healthy ones. My brain responds differently to food than it used to. I don’t get the same intense rush from binge eating sweet or salty foods. I don’t get the same emotion-numbing effect from piling on the calories long after my hunger is sated.

You know what’s funny, though? I kind of miss it. I’ve never used drugs (illegal, I mean – I’ve used plenty of prescribed drugs for the migraines, and I live in fear of someone discovering that coffee is bad for you) and never drank very much, but I imagine being in recovery from abusing food is kind of like being sober. It’s so much better, here, on the healthy side. But, as I mentioned, the last few weeks have been very stressful. Meditation helps, yoga helps, scented things help (I am currently running a humidifier with rosemary and peppermint oil as I write). Getting outside helps, as does focusing on the moment, on what’s in front of me. Breathing exercises help, talking to friends, reading a good book, writing. I have so many healthy coping mechanisms. But they don’t give me quite the same buzz as overeating used to. They walk me through my problems, bring me to a place of peace that is deeper than the circumstances around me. And they don’t hurt my body and make me hate myself. It’s a much better way, really. But still, as I walked through CVS yesterday, looking at the giant bags of popcorn and candy, I thought of how it would feel to climb back into those bags of salt and sugar, the way an alcoholic climbs back into the bottle. To lose myself again, after all this work finding myself. And I felt a moment of regret that that escape was no longer available to me.

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I don’t really want to write about what’s going on right now, because it seems unfair to vent about my housemate when I have a blog and she (as far as I know) doesn’t. But I do want to say a few things about it:

  1. Thank God for Mark. Really. He is away right now because his mom broke her arm and he is taking care of her, and that makes the current situation even harder, but I am just so grateful to have such a kind, thoughtful, intelligent, and wise friend and housemate.
  2. I’ve had to learn this lesson over and over again, but I think I’m finally getting it: Not everything is my fault, and not everything is fixable if only I can find the perfect thing to say or do, or the perfect way of being. Some things are other people’s faults, God help ’em, and other people’s problems to fix, and all I can do is take care of myself the best I can and leave space open for other people to do their part if and when they’re ready.
  3. This is super hard when the person you’re having a hard time with is living in your house.
  4. Seriously, does anyone know of an affordable two-bedroom apartment?

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How are you all doing? I’ve missed you. What have you been up to lately? What are some of your coping mechanisms, healthy or unhealthy? Tell me here, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

You are not alone, I promise.

Love,
Jessica

 

 

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