For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by the brain and how it impacts and is impacted by human behavior. Right now, my brain is reviewing memories, making sentences out of ideas, and controlling my fingers as I type on the computer. These tasks rely on the functioning of individual neurons (brain cells) as well as the larger structures they form in the brain and connections throughout my brain that allow it to function as a whole.Not only is my brain using its existing framework to create my thoughts and behavior it is also constantly forming new connections and adjusting its functioning based on experience. This is called neuroplasticity, a concept that describes the human brain as “changeable, malleable, modifiable” (Doidge, 2007).
I was first introduced to the concept of neuroplasticity as an undergraduate student at Lawrence University. The way it was explained to me then, and the way I explain it to the individuals I work with now is through the context of learning to drive a car with a manual transmission. When you first slide into the car it may seem familiar, there are a lot of similar features between manual and automatic cars. You might have the thought, “I’ve done this before, I know how this goes” and the neural pathways associated with driving a car are activated and ready to guide your actions. It can be jarring when you realize that the car won’t even start until you add the extra step of pressing down the clutch. Every automatic movement, thought, and feeling is being challenged. As you start to familiarize yourself with all the nuances of shifting gears your thoughts are intensely focused on each and every new action you are required to do. Although awkward at first, you eventually notice that you have to think less and less and the motions that were once uncomfortable and difficult become automatic.Your brain is changing. A similar phenomenon occurs in the recovery process as individuals are asked to alter their automatic reactions and behaviors and explore new strategies that will allow them to move toward wellness.
Interestingly, Dr. Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself, explains that neuroplasticity allows for the development of resourcefulness and flexibility, yet is also capable of producing rigid habits and behaviors. This suggests that the path into an eating disorder and the path to recovery may both stem from the brain’s ability to be altered by thoughts and behavior. At Avalon, we have had the privilege of working closely with Dr. Doidge and he has helped us integrate new knowledge about neuroplasticity into our treatment process.
At Avalon Hills, we aim to utilize a variety of treatment components to support the recovery process and utilize the plasticity of the brain for positive change. Along with individual, family, and group psychotherapy we also integrate expressive therapies, outdoor recreation, and animal assisted interventions. In addition, we directly target functional changes in the brain through the use of biofeedback tools. Each of these modalities creates an opportunity for clients to actively create recovery focused connections in their brains by practicing thoughts and behaviors that support physical and mental health, positive body image, and successful interpersonal relationships. The more automatic these actions become the easier it becomes for the individual to develop and maintain a recovery mindset. Recovering from an eating disorder can be an uncomfortable process requiring what may seem like an impossible amount of effort. Thankfully, with time, the changes enacted during treatment eventually become less effortful to maintain.
We found an amazing blog by a young woman who has used her understanding of neuroplasticity to overcoming Anorexia. You can read more about her experience here.