The Noisy Brain

My brain is rather noisy- there's a cacophony of chatter always going on between that crack team of me, myself, and I. And here's the thing: this chatter never shuts up. Never. If I'm not fretting about something, then I'm trying to anticipate what I might need to do later, the order in which I need to run errands in order to use the least amount of gas, or just daydreaming about something or other. There is never any silence.

Starving myself didn't necessarily stop the chatter, although it did turn the volume down, especially on the self-loathing thoughts. Because as long as I was restricting and over-exercising, at least I could do something right. One of the many reasons that I found it so difficult to start eating on my own again was the fact that eating cranked the volume up on my ED-phones, and I really missed the (relative) peace that came when I was following my strictly limited diet.

At the 2010 Salzburg International Conference on Eating Disorders, Laura Hill from the Center for Balanced Living spoke at length about how recovery from an eating disorder makes the brain "noisier." This noise--this constant cacophony--drowns out almost every shred of sanity that remains.

Said Hill:

Silence doesn't come to anorexia patients if they're eating. When a person without AN eats, brain is relatively quiet. When a person with AN eats, they experience high anxiety, thought disturbance, and "noise." The noisy AN brain [has] layers of noise. The longer [they] delay eating, the lower the noise gets. Recovery doesn't mean that the noise goes away, it means you understand it and manage it better.

To some extent, you get used to the noise.

Ironicially, Hill said that the noise is at its worst just as you reach a healthy weight--something I can attest to rather well. I asked her what happened to the noise level as you maintain a healthy weight in spite of your brain shrieking that "YOU ARE A FAT F*CKING PIG!!!" I wanted to know (for my own selfish sanity!) whether the noise dropped.

Yes, she said. It did.

This one thing--the gap between when your body reaches a healthy weight and your brain begins to follow--is the most difficult, annoying, and frustrating thing in recovery. For all intents and purposes, you look well. You're eating. You don't cry in restaurants and dressing rooms (at least not every single time). But your brain is still deeply anorexic. This is when despair can take over. The noise is worse than ever and yet everyone thinks you're "fine."

At least when I was visibly sick, I thought, people knew I was suffering.

The noise goes down. This is what I've been telling myself. The noise goes down and I will adjust to eating and being at a higher weight than I've ever been and life will go on.

(Laura Hill's talk was so good, I have another segment for a blog post tomorrow!)


Anonymous said...

Loved this post, so amazingly true. Thanks for showing me that I'm not alone in this. Loved especially the part where it says: The noise is worse than ever and yet everyone thinks you're "fine." I felt so related right now. Thanks.

Kim said...

This was really helpful for me to read. I feel like I was born with noisy brain and I continue to have noisy brain, though a bit lower volume with medication. There is so much chatter in my head. Like you, even if I don't have something concrete to fret about, I will fret about things like efficiency of errands vs gas usage (I really do exactly the same thing as you). It really is nice to know I'm not alone. I did have some silence with anorexia and that helps me understand why anorexia "worked" for me. I do believe recovery is about learning to deal with the noise. I don't think it goes away completely, but it becomes less overpowering, or lower volume.

Coco said...

this is such a great post, and just what i needed to hear right now. i am in that phase where everyone thinks i look better, so that means i am better. i wish more people would understand that weight restoration is only one small part of recovery!

Anonymous said...

I love your blog, but I feel like you negate yourself a lot. Here you say '... in spite of your brain shrieking that "YOU ARE A FAT F*CKING PIG!!!" ' implying that you associate eating and being at a normal weight with being 'fat', yet you protest to the hills that the fear of eating in anorexia is not about fearing getting fat; it is about anxiety reduction, yadda yadda. I think there is quite the dichotomy there!

Anonymous said...

This was really helpful for me to read, too. I think that for me one of the hardest parts about recovery is that the "chatter" intensifies as I do what I am supposed to be doing to get well (which only makes me feel worse). So then it makes it very enticing to cut back so that the noise gets quieter. I guess the work of recovery is acting in a healthy way in spite of the chatter, even if it is increasing.

Sarah said...

Carrie has stated that she used eating disorder behaviors to reduce anxiety and because she had a fear of gaining weight (which commonly worsens as the person gets more and more entrenched in the ED). I think Carrie addresses this in her post about anorexia and competitive scrabble.

While my eating disorder might look a little different from yours, I can say with much certainty that yes, the chatter does die down! I am now able to sit in silence and not have a million (negative) things running through my brain. It's such amazing freedom and I know you will get there someday. :)

A:) said...


The evening before another fucking weigh in tomorrow wiht my dietican, I have to commend you for this post. Things get so much harder once you get to a close to healthy weight and the despair can definately trigger throughts of relapse.

Body image issues, low self confidence, anxiety, etc. preceded my AN and AN did make them "shut up." Recovery has brought them back along with addition insecurities.I need to learn to manage them along with the fears that go with gaining weight. This is a large task when getting dressed in the morning is a feat.

Sometimes I don't think clinicians and others understand just what it means to feel "trapped" in a healthy body and disgusted, horrified, revolted, anxious, fear with oneself to such an extent. These are emotions that never really go away in the 24hrs that makes a day. I DREAM about being fat.

I told my therapist that I wish there was no dichotomy between psychological and physical recovery. The lag seems so cruel. . .


Anonymous said...

I wonder if the chatter will ever leave. I doubt it. It's there whenever I feel bad about myself or feel lonely. It's like a voice that just tells me "you can just throw up what you ate, don't worry," or "you need to get up and do sit ups before bed fattie." It just pesters me until I do it and a lot of times it won't be quiet until I give in. Sometimes the voice just echoes all the mean things others have told me about myself reminding me to "behave" myself food. This is the menacing part of the eating disorder that few people talk about.

Cathy (UK) said...

Wow; this sounds like a great talk.

I have always had too much chatter in my head. This was not just a feature of anorexia nervosa (AN) - it is a feature of me. I had it pre-AN.

I think it's linked in some way to OCD, at least in the context of intrusive thoughts that seem to 'spill' into one's mind - both incessantly and unexpectedly.

When I was recovering from AN, the noise in my brain was all about my urge to engage in food and exercise rituals - and the fact that these were forbidden. As I have recovered, and remained in recovery for over two years, the noise is still there but the content has changed.

I obsess and worry nearly all the time. My psychiatrist suggests I have constitutional high anxiety. AN was such a good tranquiliser, but AN kills. I've had to develop alternative, less dangerous means of controlling my anxiety.

Anonymous said...

I, too, tend to have a noisy brain. But as I recall, any quiet I got from AN was temporary. Mostly, I think AN intensified the noise. I have experienced much longer periods of quiet (especially in terms of self-loathing thoughts) while at a healthy weight than I ever experienced with AN.

Melissa said...

This is so incredibly head does not shut up and it never seems to need a break. When my eating disorder was active, it was planning planning planning - and then deathly quiet where I was bingeing or purgeing or playing the behaviours out. Now that I've sustained a physical recovery, it is even noisier and the physical exhaustion is less so it also continues into my sleep.

I'm glad that it gets quieter. I hope, also, that when it gets quieter, I can manage 'just being'. Thanks for another great post. xx

anne56 said...

Other than weight restoration and maintenance, did she have suggestions for quieting the 'chatter'? Yoga? Meditation?

Carrie Arnold said...


Yes, eating disorders are a baffling dichotomy! I will say that an eating disorder isn't just about wanting to lose weight. I think it's more of a fat-phobia than a thin-philia at work (if that makes any sense- people with AN and body dysmorphia are afraid of gaining weight, not "dying to be thin.") An eating disorder isn't about wanting to be thin and then oops! going a little too far. It's way more complicated than that. There is often body dysmorphia, yes, but the AN behaviors also serve a purpose to decrease anxiety, whether it's about getting "fat" or about any other of the mundane issues of life.

Maybe, too, it's that the body image issues have different roles to play in the development of an eating disorder and the recovery from an eating disorder.

Am I making sense?


No, she didn't. I'm very happy (and rather curious!) to email her and ask. I will keep you posted!

James Clayton said...

Really, really helpful. The thoughts about the never-ending chatter and the reassurance hat it does quieten down give me strength.

Until we get a remote to turn the volume down on our noisy brains I guess we've just got to get used to it until it's overpowered...

charlotte UK said...


I am not an and never have been but have always had a noisy brain. Just too much stuff to think about sometimes to be able to do anything.

It has taken me a long time (aobut 20 years) to teach myself to shut off the downside bits (particularly difficult at 3am!) and push the upside bits, which allow me to go to sleep, drive the car, not loose the dogs on a walk.

To combine this perpetual chatter with an eating disorder - I stand in awe of your courage, strength and determination in recovery. You are my hero.



Cammy said...

I know some therapists discourage this because it's not very "mindful," but I prefer to read while I eat, because it vastly helps to calm the chatter in my brain, or at least refocus its energy. I still notice the food, but don't obsess over it. Plus I value my reading time!

Anonymous said...

Awww, she's the CEO of my treatment center! She's an incredibly kind woman and cares very deeply about people with eating disorders. Did she bring the headphones to her talk?

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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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