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How An Eating Disorder Affects The Way A Person Thinks


min read


It’s well known that when someone has an eating disorder their body is severely affected. However, many people fail to realize the impact that the problem has on their mind and the way that they think. Eating disorders begin in the brain. Not only that, but they also cause health problems including brain damage, which in turn further impacts on the way in which the sufferer thinks. With southern Clifornia – including Moorpark – having some of the highest numbers of eating disorder sufferers in the country, it’s important to understand the ways in which the mind can be affected.

Doctors, psychologists and scientists are learning more all the time about the way in which eating disorders such as binge eating disorder, bulimia and anorexia impact on the brain. Although much still has to be learned, it’s clear that the nervous system is negatively affected by restrictive eating behaviors. This means that the way in which the sufferer thinks and functions changes too. For example, evidence has shown that there is often a weaker response in the reward circuitry of the brain, and that there is a negative effect on the brain’s emotional centers leading to irritability, isolation and depression as well as problems with setting priorities, switching tasks and concentrating.

Typically, an eating disorder will affect the brain first, although physical effects on the health will soon follow. Eating disorders cause ongoing changes in the brain that make it harder to recover from this disease, but the good news is that with help, it’s possible to restore the sufferer’s mental well-being.

Disordered Patterns Of Thinking

We have all experienced disordered thinking occasionally. However, for those suffering from an eating disorder, those thoughts are very powerful and frequent. This means that they can’t easily be redirected or ignored without extreme effort on behalf of the individual. When in recovery, patients learn how they can use mindfulness effectively to acknowledge those thoughts and then replace them with more positive ones.

Distorted Self Perception

A lot of people suffering from eating disorders will experience distorted self perception. This means that they struggle to see themselves as they really appear.

Lucy, an anorexia sufferer now in recovery says “when I looked in the mirror, all I could see was a fat person. Even when others told me I was increasingly thin, all I saw was rolls of fat. Even when I looked at photographs I never saw what others saw when they looked at me. They saw a slim young woman – I saw a chubby girl.”

Also, sufferers may struggle to evaluate how they feel and think. Having a poor sense of themselves results in problems breaking down those disordered thought patterns and replacing those thoughts with more accurate statements. This is something that eating disorder treatment professionals are able to provide insights and guidance into to allow sufferers to look beyond their self perceptions and actually see the reality.

Emotional Dysregulation

While causative factors vary, being unable to regulate emotions properly affects virtually everybody suffering from an eating disorder. When facing even a slightly stressful situation, sufferers often experience emotions that are far beyond what would be considered reasonable in that situation. For some sufferers, even thinking about stressful events trigger chaotic emotions.

Gloria, who has suffered from bulimia for the past 5 years, reports “I would fly off the handle when the slightest thing would go wrong. Something as tiny as being called into work on my day off because of staffing problems would cause me to go into a complete emotional meltdown. It got to the point where even thinking about the possibility of something going wrong in any given situation would turn me into a nervous wreck.”

Emotional dysregulation tends to result in outbursts which harm relationships with others and which cause more embarrassment and shame. This was something that Gloria knows only too well.

“My emotional outbursts were so bad that my boyfriend of 10 years broke up with me. He just couldn’t cope with the volatile woman I had become. Even my sister started to avoid me because she didn’t know how to talk to me without me having a tantrum.”

Anxiety And Depression

When someone is malnourished and when they experience less social support – two issues that come alongside eating disorders – there is a much greater chance of developing anxiety and depression. In a lot of cases, those conditions also cause disordered eating patterns as a maladaptive coping mechanism. Therefore, it’s hard to know whether the mental health problem or the eating disorder came first. Nevertheless, treatment for both problems must be carried out simultaneously, since both issues compound the other.

Joseph, a 19 year old who has suffered from anorexia since he was 16, is all too familiar with this problem. “As a child I suffered from anxiety due to bullying at school. I already had only a small social circle but when I developed anorexia as a result of my anxiety I became trapped in an endless cycle of isolation, food restriction and increased anxiety.”

After getting help from one an eating disorder clinic in Southern California, Joseph found the help that he needed to begin to get better from both of his issues and he is now on his way to a full recovery.

Problems Concentrating

People who restrict the amount of food they consume find that their brain doesn’t receive enough nutrients. As a result, they have problems with concentrating and this makes it even more difficult to perform at school or in the workplace. When they begin to fail at their job or studies, their stress levels increase and this can result in even greater reliance on their maladaptive coping strategies, including their disordered eating patterns.

Judith, a woman in her late 50s who is now in recovery but who has suffered from an eating disorder since the birth of her second child found that difficulties in concentrating due to her restricted food intake caused her enormous problems in this respect.

“My food intake was so low that I could hardly function normally. I just didn’t seem to be able to focus on anything, and remembering things became a major problem. I had been working as a chef since I left college but I ended up losing the job that I loved because I simply wasn’t capable of doing it any more. I was making mistakes, forgetting essential things, and my work just wasn’t up to scratch.”

Isolation And Guilt

When someone engages in disordered eating behaviors they often feel ashamed and guilty. As a result, they begin withdrawing from their circle of friends.

Tevin, who has suffered from binge eating disorder for the past four years, says “as a man, it felt very shameful to suffer from an eating disorder, so I became more socially isolated. I didn’t want to talk to my family about my problem and I was too embarrassed to tell any of my friends. It felt like I was all on my own.”

His isolation gave him an easier way of concealing his bingeing habits while also giving him an easy way to avoid confrontation. Yet as his isolation worsened, he had no outside insights or perceptions to consider. This allowed him to continue his behaviors for even longer.

The Urge To Engage In Dysfunctional Behavior

When someone has disordered thoughts, they often feel the urge to engage in dysfunctional behavior that, at first, feels soothing. In just a short space of time, though, those behaviors cause further stressors and difficulties that only serve to make life harder. Yet as life gets more difficult, the need to engage in those dysfunctional behaviors in an attempt to soothe themselves becomes even stronger. This traps sufferers in an endless cycle.

Brain Changes In Eating Disorder Patients

It has been proven that people suffering from eating disorders experience actual changes inside their brain that impact on the way that they think and function.

People who have eating disorders struggle, for example, to experience pleasure and find it easier to abstain from experiences that are actively pleasurable. Not only that, but they struggle to enjoy rewards because they are just too worried about consequences.

A study was carried out into the brains of anorexia sufferers and it was found that their brain didn’t respond at all to food or even images of food. Far beyond food, the research also showed that there was even different neural brain activity in eating disorder sufferers when it came to winning money. This shows that those with eating disorders often struggle to distinguish between negative and positive feedback, and this is one of the reasons why they find it so difficult to appreciate the possible consequences of their behavior or to motivate them sufficiently to get the treatment that they need.

The way that the brain changes depends on the kind of eating disorder that the individual suffers from.

In people suffering from anorexia, there is likely to be an altered response to rewards. Anorexics are also less motivated, less interested in food and less likely to experience any enjoyment in eating. They experience a total absence of any pleasure when eating or thinking about eating – in fact, they may be terrified, sad or anxious in this context. For anorexia sufferers, food is associated with fear and anxiety, not pleasure. They also have less sensitivity to rewards but an greater sensitivity to negative feelings and punishment.

In those with bulimia, negative moods and stress are primary triggers. Sufferers are trying to escape negative feelings and have an exaggerated reward response that only drives their need to overeat. They also have a greater response to taste as well as more interest in eating and food than anorexia sufferers.

For people with BED (binge eating disorder) there is often a greater drive and want to eat, however the experience of enjoyment is minimized. Eating isn’t pleasurable but individuals feel that they have to carry on eating so that they can find some pleasure in the experience. They lack the sense of reward from eating that they desire and this causes disappointment which, in turn, causes increased bingeing.

Reframing The Way The Mind Works In Recovery

There are many traits that are frequently seen in eating disorder sufferers. These include perfectionism, persistence, a drive to be thin, obsessive tendencies, impulsivity and harm avoidance. Those traits are viewed as undesirable and have negative impacts on the sufferer’s life. Yet, those traits may be reframed during recovery so that the sufferer can gain a more positive view of themselves and their own abilities.

People who are persistent may learn to refocus their efforts on being committed to their recovery. People who are already perfectionists have very high standards, and this is an excellent trait in anyone who is going to find and achieve lasting success when it comes to getting better. It isn’t possible to change the way the brain is wired, but it is possible to help sufferers learn better ways of managing those traits to their own advantage.

Lunch - Eating Disorder - Meadowglade

In Southern California’s eating disorder treatment centers, counsellors and medical teams reframe negative traits in their patients so that they can learn to harness their potential in a more positive way. For example, in those who are anxious about food and eating and who are harm-avoidant, putting in place routines and systems so that they can get their eating experience “just right”,  it’s possible to use sensory interventions like aromatherapy, mindful breathing, yoga or meditation to help the sufferer to calm down before mealtimes. This gives the individual the sense of control that they need when it comes to eating but in a healthier way without the negative behaviors that were previously at the forefront.

Even though eating disorders affect the way that sufferers think, it is possible to recover in the long run, and to begin to enjoy normal patterns of thought once more when help is sought and treatment is received. Reach out to The Meadowglade to find out more about how we can help!

Fight for yourself, not with yourself.

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