anorexia and hoarding

Your Brain on Malnutrition: Anorexia and Hoarding

I blogged about the scarcity mindset last week. Now I will go a little more into some of the more common behavioral repercussions that I have noticed people with malnourished brains tend to develop. This blog post is about hoarding. Not all of you reading this will have developed a tendency to hoard food, but I know for many of you there will be aspects of this.

(For those of you reading who have the “I’m not sick enough” thoughts: Your degree of hoarding behaviour is not an indication of the “severity” of your eating disorder. You can have a long and enduring eating disorder and no hoarding tendencies. just seems to be one of those things that some of us develop and some don’t.)


Why do some of us turn into hoarders when our brains are malnourished?

Despite the fact that it makes perfect biological sense that a creature living in an environment of scarcity would hoard items, this is another behaviour that isn’t picked up on consistently. It is one of those things that you probably think is something weird and specific to you. It isn’t, many of us turn into super-storers when our anorexia is active. These are observations from my own experience, and the hundreds of emails I get a week from people with anorexia.

For the evolving human, food scarcity would have been one of the biggest threats to survival. I think that most of us can agree on that. The ability to hunt and gather food was essential to our development as a species. In times of food scarcity, humans would have to move to find more food. Or die. Either way, food scarcity would have been pretty stressful. Food scarcity would also probably have led to scarcity of, and competition for, other resources. In general, food scarcity would mean that there were fewer resources in the immediate environment than were sufficient for everyone.

I think that the human brain links prolonged food scarcity to general resource scarcity. Hence, many of us feel a strong urge to gather and store items that are important to us. We feel more secure and less stressed when we know that we have a stockpile of essentials. On the other hand, depleting this stock leads to feelings of stress and anxiety. Quite rightly, as if resources were scarce, running low would mean you were up shit creek without a paddle.

When you don’t eat enough food, your brain perceives that food is scarce. When your brain perceives that food is scarce, it may also come to the conclusion that general essential resources are scarce. Hence, the desire to hoard all sorts of items after prolonged energy deficit. (And you get that restricting food is what leads to the perception that food is scarce, and energy deficit, right?)

 

Food hoarding

This is the most common hoarding behaviour I’ve noticed with eating disorders. Duh! Of course your brain might decide that hoarding food is a good response to perceived food scarcity. I used to hoard all sorts of food — even food that I didn’t allow myself to eat, but mostly my “safe” foods. I would also buy up lots of anything that was “safe” and on sale. So those disgusting “lite” yoghurts that are so chemically enhanced to make up for the lack of taste that they last for months in your fridge. Yeah, if those went on sale I’d buy the lot. I would also then try and freeze them. Freezing and then defrosting a “lite” yoghurt makes it separate and taste even less like food, in case you were wondering.

Cereal bars (the low-calorie ones that taste like aspartame cardboard) that went on sale because nobody in their right minds would buy them filled my cupboards. Dried fruit, and anything tinned. I liked acquiring tinned foods because the threat of me eating them was low and this felt safer. I would have to open a whole tin and couldn’t nipple the edges like I could do with things like chocolate bars. I used to freeze chocolate bars to deter myself from eating them. I used to freeze many things actually for the same reason. So my freezer was always full, but this didn’t allow for very spontaneous eating. Just the way my eating disorder liked it. The knowledge that I had a lot of food stored in the house was calming to me. The knowledge that I couldn’t easily eat it without some planning and effort was even more important.

 

Non-food hoarding

Here are some of the non-food things I used to hoard:

  • Plastic bags
  • Cling film and baking foil cut offs
  • Zip lock bags
  • Toilet roll
  • Cotton wool, and medical supplies like plasters and disinfecting wipes
  • Shampoo, conditioner, and soap
  • Sanitary pads (I didn’t even have a period but would collect these things in case)
  • Sunscreen
  • Toothpaste and toothbrushes
  • Petrol in my car — okay so you can’t really stockpile this but I did hoard it in the sense I would never use the car for fear of using up petrol. I did have an unusually large supply of windscreen wiper fluid in the garage.
  • Clothes, especially underwear! I had so many pairs of tattered knickers that I would not throw out!
  • Tights. Not that I ever wore skirts as my legs looked horrible but for some reasons pairs of tights were a precious commodity to by brain.
  • Kitchen towel, serviettes.
  • Plastic cups, paper plates, plastic cutlery. I would wash off paper plates and store them. Nothing weird about that at all, is there?
  • Pens and paper. I would keep every opened envelope and even junk mail to use as writing paper.
  • Wrapping paper. Should someone give me a gift I would carefully open it so not to rip the paper and then store the paper in case I ever had to give a present. I would store gift boxes and bags too if given them, even the coloured tissue paper that is used inside gift bags.
  • Bubble wrap. In case I needed to bubble wrap something.
  • Pins, tacks and paperclips. Because in an apocalypse I guess one might need to pin a notice up?

Anything disposable really. Just like my brain was preparing for armageddon. Who knows why I thought plastic cups would save me if that happened. But I guess the real point is that this hoarding didn’t have much logical thought behind it. It wasn’t as if I thought to myself “Ohh, bubble wrap, that’ll save me when the zombies come.” No, I was just reacting to an desire to make myself as economical as possible. Doing so made me feel good. Simple as that really.

Hoarding is a protection from future resource scarcity. When your brain is in malnutrition it has the perception that resources are scarce. If you hoard when you have active anorexia, you can likely expect this tendency to decline in the first year or so of recovery until there are no hoarding urges left. It could not enter my head now to wash and save a piece of tin foil.

 

What to do if you have anorexia and start hoarding?

Eat without restriction. Rest, and allow your body to relax. You have to convince your brain that you are not in an area of scarce resources. You do this by allowing unrestricted food first and foremost.

When you feel the urge to save something, be it food, calories, or toilet roll, you should identify and classify this urge as an indication that your brain believes there is scarcity. The correct action when you feel the urge to keep things and stockpile is to eat more food. Right then and there in that moment. Consistently show your brain that there is no scarcity, and it will stop behaving as if there is.

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