Learning How Not To Be Afraid

Fear and anxiety are a large part of eating disorders. Fear of food and gaining weight, or not being able to purge or exercise, etc, are the key hallmarks of the disease. A lot of recovery means unlearning those fears.

And it ain't easy.

Yet experiments have shown that in patients with OCD, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy called exposure and response prevention can physically change the brain (Adobe Acrobat required to view the link). The fears of OCD, though biologically driven, are also learned in some sense. They aren't innate, and the rituals and habits of the illness often ingrains them in the brain- literally. The brains of people with OCD look different than the brains of people who don't have the illness.

So if these fears are learned, then, they should be able to be unlearned. Which is not only true, but also leads to changes in the brain.

A study from the October 9 issue of Neuron found that "learned safety" can alter the size of the dentate gyrus, which plays a role in both memory and stress and depression.

From a press release:

The behavioral changes observed in the mice squelched anxiety as effectively as antidepressant drugs such as Prozac, said [lead investigator] Eric Kandel, who is at Columbia University. 'It's a little bit like psychotherapy,' he noted. 'This shows that behavioral intervention works.'

The new study is noteworthy because it reveals in elegant detail how behavioral conditioning can affect the brain. According to Kandel, knowing how behavioral intervention works at the molecular and cellular levels may prove to be an interesting route to identifying novel drugs to treat depression and anxiety disorders.

Intriguingly, genetic analyses revealed that in the amygdala, the brain's fear center, learned safety tunes the expression of key components of the dopamine neurotransmitter system and the neuropeptide system. Both systems are thought to influence learning, mood, and cognition.

The point of the study is not about drug discovery, at least not to me. Rather, I think it shows how powerful and important it is to learn how to eat without fear. Moving through those fears is so powerful that it can literally change your brain.

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mary said...

This is really great info Carrie. Many situations can create patterns where thoughts literally get stuck and the best way out is by learning our new escape routes. CBT is a much better option than sitting around chewing on why one is feeling so crappy, so scared, or stuck forever with a sickness. It's amazing what one small change can begin. A whole new way of life. ; ) It can get better....way better. Believe it!

Anonymous said...

Very cool stuff, Carrie. I love reading the stuff you dig up. Eric Kandel is a very interesting guy.

A said...

Carrie. . .

Have you read "the Brain that Changes Itself" by Norman Doidge? It has a lot of this type of information and a section that relates to OCD

:) I love this kind of stuff.

However, erm. . .studying for bio psychology (what I am supposed to be doing at the moment). . . is another matter

Ai Lu said...

Amazing research. Thanks for bringing it to our attention, and for making the connection to EDs.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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