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Habits are hard to break but harder to forget

Posted Apr 14 2009 11:06pm
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'reinthat 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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