Habits are hard to break but harder to forget

ED behaviors are obviously way more than just a bad habit, but they can be habit-forming. I buy a certain brand of cereal because that's simply what I buy (and choosing a new brand is complicated, plus I like this cereal). I exercise at 8pm because that's just what I do.* Or the weighing rituals I used to have. Though ED-driven, they are still habits. I do them almost without thinking.

Of course, humans are creatures of habits and we all have these things we do without thinking. If we had to think about every little thing we did, we would never be able to process all of the information we needed in order to survive. Habits can be useful.

And new research shows that although we can break old habits, we never forget them. (h/t Lola via Twitter)

"There's an expenditure of energy involved in changing behavior," says Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Bethesda, Md. "That's where motivation comes in."

Scientists theorize that in acquiring a habit, be it good, bad or innocuous, you typically start out with "goal-directed behavior," meaning you perform a certain action in a certain situation because you expect to reach a certain goal. But if you repeat this same action in this same situation over and over, you get to the point where you take a particular action in a particular situation simply because you're in that situation. Your goal has dropped out of the equation.

The findings [from animal studies] also show that once you have a habit, you may break it -- but you don't forget it, says Graybiel, senior author of the study. "The minute you put the reward back, it's back."

Which helps explain why avoiding relapse in eating disorders can be so difficult. In our diet-centric culture, we are literally bathed in the triggers that set off our ED habits, and the "rewards" of these behaviors (eternal happiness! less anxiety! weight loss! perfection!) are thrown in our faces. These cues can take our brains back to ED central and recovery can be literally flushed down the toilet.

I don't know how to peacefully live with all of this. I ignore it as much as possible, but I'd have to be a modern day hermit to avoid it entirely. There's something to be said for learning to see through the garbage, of understanding that people want to make a quick buck and that every diet ad is essentially bogus.

Our brains are built to overvalue the rewards we can get right away and undervalue those we might only receive later. Similarly, we tend to avoid any small unpleasantness we'd have to face now even if we know it may mean bigger difficulties down the road.

So if ED behaviors are the immediate reward our brains crave, what are we to do?

Three words: develop new habits.

I may never not get a starvation high when I stop eating, so I need to find really good reasons to keep eating. I need to get new habits (waking up 10-15 minutes earlier to eat a proper breakfast, taking rest days from exercise) to replace the old ones. It's hard, when ED served its purpose so well, and those rewards will never disappear, not entirely. But good things exist outside of the monotony of the eating disorder, rewards that give life rather than take it away.

*Well, not since I got The Boot.

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Clare said...

great post! I always fall back into my bulimic "habits" when I see the reward of not keeping all those calories I just consumed. Fortunately, I've finally learned to avoid that instant gratification...most of the time anyway.

Anon Mom said...

And it's more than just the memory of habit when you maybe have a brain with too much dopamine and high serotonin ... and starvation and exercise bring some kind of chemical salvation/tone down the hyper motor activity and drive to go, go, go, do, do, do ... do yourself in, for no reason really other than you just need to keep pounding away at the one thing that seems to help until you hit some elusive concrete wall and can finally stop (or the head from hell feels like it can). Unfortunately, by that time, you probably *have* run yourself into the ground and may have self-"medicated"/remedied the neurological chaos but are left with physical devastation that only sinks in once the spinning stops. At least that's me.

Sarah said...

fantastic post, Carrie

Carrie Arnold said...

Anon Mom,

You're right- ED habits are more than just what-TV-shows-I-watch-on-Thursday-night habits. That they are so strongly driven by biology makes them harder to overcome and harder to recognize. The behaviors themselves aren't habits but they can become habitual.

I'm still working on finding better ways to get that soothing effect from starving and exercising- hence my latest attempt to switch meds.

Kim said...

Great post! Like you said, humans are creatures of habits. That said, I can't expect to just not have habits; I just have to have new ones. I've accepted that I'm a person who likes her routines. Yes, my anorexia is far more than a bad habit, but there are things I do without thinking that I could replace with new habits. That's far less overwhelming than thinking I have to become a "less habitual" person :)

Jen said...

Great post, Carrie. For me, its sometimes hard to realize what 'my' body needs (rather than what it usually does) in relation to exercise when society always rewards more, more, more.

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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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