In this podcast I talk about the skill of being able to force feed yourself as an adult in recovery from anorexia.
In the process of making yourself eat food you are afraid of you achieve both nutritional rehabiliation and neural rewiring goals. You train your brain that these foods are not a threat to you, and you eat the types of food that your body really needs in order to get out of malnutrition.
When you are faced with food that you are not used to eating, or in larger quantities that you usually allow yourself to eat, you go into your sympathetic nervous system — that’s the fight or flight one. Food doesn’t taste that good when you are stressed about it! But, if you continue to force yourself to eat, your brain learns that the food is not a threat, and in time, you remain calm when eating. This is what leads to the neural rewiring of your brain that these foods are not a threat to you.
The Eating Disorder Recovery Podcast
By Tabitha Farrar
Rehabilitate, Rewire, Recover: Force Feeding yourself as an adult.
Tabitha: Hi there and welcome to this week’s podcast. Just me this week and I’m going to talk about following through when you know that you need to eat something that you’re scared of. I’m going to elaborate pretty deeply on all of this today. I think first of all I should explain that a lot of the things I’m going to be talking about now are going to have a specific context because I finally got this damn book published that explains a lot of this so I feel that when I talk about it I’ve got something to point to as a resource for people.
So the book that I’ve just written is called Rehabilitate, Rewire, Recover. And that’s because I think for an adult in recovery from anorexia or a restrictive eating disorder, there are two aspects, two important things that lead to the success of full recovery for many of us. There is nutritional rehabilitation, that’s the rehabilitate part, that means you have to get your body out of malnutrition and out of energy deficit. To explain that a bit further, for those of us who have the genetic predisposition for an eating disorder such as anorexia when we go into energy deficit, that’s a bit of malnutrition, that’s losing some weight, then it’s like that anorexia genetics, it’s like it flicks a switch. And it turns on and then gradually and before we even know what’s happening, we find that we are scared of eating more than the smallest amount possible to survive each day and most of us get these movement compulsions. All of which support that your body thinks it’s in a famine and is trying to migrate.
So that’s when the anorexia switch gets switched on. Now, say if you’re a 12 year old child and you’re living at home and your parents noticed within a couple of months that you’re not eating as much and your losing weight and they get you into treatment and they re-feed you within a couple of months. Then yes, nutritional rehabilitation will most likely be enough to switch that switch off again and you will probably come out of that and find your personality is back to your pre anorexia personality and for all intents and purposes you’ve kind of fully recovered. You get those mental state shift changes just through nutritional rehabilitation alone.
However, people like myself, adults with anorexia, who had anorexia for 12 years, it’s more complicated than that and the reason for that is, those behaviours which I have been doing for such a long time, year in year out, those behaviours of restriction, of over exercise of OCD stuff that I did, those form neural networks in the brain. Our brains create neural pathways when we repetitively do things over and over again. And those neural pathways become linked to one another. And so if you’re an adult in recover from anorexia, I believe that nutritional rehabilitation is crucial because you have to flip that switch off, of your brain thinking you have to move a lot and eat very little. But as you do that, at the same time, you have to neurally rewire the brain. You have to teach the brain, that the neural pathways that it has created, that support restrictive behaviours, compulsions, binge/purge cycles, whatever it is, you have to teach your brain that it doesn’t need to do that any more.
So, that’s the backdrop that I base a lot of my recovery coaching on, a lot of that work on that you need to nutritionally rehabilitate but you need to neurally rewire as you do that in order to reach full recovery. Because if you don’t, what happens is you nutritionally rehabilitate, which is great don’t get me wrong, that’s fabulous, you get your body out of malnutrition but as you do so you take that neural network and all those behaviours with you. So, you are still adhering to the food rules that the anorexia created, you are still following the exercise compulsions, you’re basically still in the same cage. You’re just in a larger and hopefully healthy body. But your mind might not be, so that’s why I say we need to do both.
What I’m going to talk about in this podcast is going to be an example of doing both. I’m going to talk about force feeding yourself. Hmm. OK so, many of us know as we go into recovery that we have these specific foods, in specific quantities that we feel save and OK eating. And that’s the part that the brain has kind of got used to eating these small amounts of foods in these specific quantities. And we can eat those, you leave us alone, we can eat those foods. But if you push us to maybe eat those at a different time of day, or in a bigger quantity, or eat different foods. All hell breaks loose mentally, we have a bit of a freak out.
The other thing that most of us know is that we spend the vast majority of our time, thinking about food, fantasising about food, planning food. All of this…yeah. Food porn, it’s your brain telling you that you’re hungry. It’s your brain telling you that you’re in malnutrition and that you need to eat all the time. And so what happens when we are in recovery, we want to encourage people to eat the whole time, just like their brain is telling them to do, just like their brain is communicating that they need to.
And this all very well in theory but what most of us find in practise is say, well I’ll give you an example that used to happen to me all the time. I’m be driving home, I’d be driving somewhere and while I was driving, while I was in the car, I would be thinking of all the food that I was going to eat when I got home, I would plan to eat pizza, chips with it, I was going to have cheesecake afterwards and ice cream and I was just mentally planning all this food that I really wanted to eat. And then as soon as I packed the car, as soon as I walked through the door, walked into the kitchen, walked into a place where there was actually the threat of me getting food, food was present in the kitchen, suddenly I didn’t want to eat any more. Suddenly I wasn’t even hungry. Suddenly the thought of pizza was just disgusting, no I’ll just stick to my usual safe salad thank you very much.
And I think that’s a really common cycle that all of us get into and to explain why that happens, that’s because when you’re driving home and food’s not present you are in your parasympathetic nervous system, that’s the rest and digest one, that’s the calm not freaking out nervous system, that’s when your healthy brain can come through and tell you all about all the foods you want to eat and you’re like yeah, I’m going to do to it. Then, as soon as you walk into the kitchen, you switch into your sympathetic nervous system. Your sympathetic nervous system is the fight or flight one because suddenly, here is the threat of eating, your brain shifts into the sympathetic nervous system and goes oh hell no, I’m not even hungry, I don’t even want any food. Who was thinking about food? Not me! I’m not hungry.
So, then you end up, not following through with eating what you want to eat. So that’s the first part. That you may have great intentions, you may be mentally wanting to recover, and your onboard with recovery. But then suddenly when you’re faced with the opportunity to eat, you’re not hungry any more, don’t even want it.
This is when force feeding yourself comes in. I first learnt about force feeding when I read that feast forum, really early on in recovery. I was reading about parents force feeding their children. Initially I thought. Holy crap, that’s horrible, who would do such a thing?! And then I realised that these parents were not vindictive, mean and evil. They were just trying to save their children’s life. Children dying from malnutrition from anorexia, their parents were forcing them to eat. When I say force feeding, they were sitting them at the table and they were saying, you’re not leaving this table until you eat that entire plate of food. And you can throw that plate of food at the wall, as many times as you want, I’m just going to put another one in front of you because life stops until you eat.
And that was when I realised that these parents loved their children, they were force feeding them out of love. And then it clicked with me I had force feed myself. Out of love for myself, out of wanting to live, to survive, to get better. I was going to have to force feed myself. So that meant that I had to sit myself down at the table, with that pizza and regardless to how much my brain was telling me, I’m not even hungry, I don’t even want pizza right now, I was going to sit there and force myself to eat it. Pick up a slice, put it in my mouth, chew, swallow, repeat.
Now what you can expect when you first do that, is you will be in your sympathetic nervous system, that’s the fight or flight one. Your body is not made to digest food when you’re in fight or flight because it thinks you need to be running away from a lion or something. So digesting food is not a priority when you’re in your sympathetic nervous system. So, you can expect the experience of eating food to be not very fun, you won’t even taste it that much. I remember the first time I did sit there and force feed myself the pizza. I couldn’t even really taste it, I couldn’t tell if it tasted nice or not. It’s like my taste buds weren’t working and it felt like lots of concrete going down my throat.
But I still forced myself to eat it and here’s where the neural rewiring part comes in. So the feast force feeding myself, yes that nutritional rehabilitation. Eating things like pizza was exactly what I needed to do in order to get my body to out of malnutrition. The neural rewiring part was me making myself eat that pizza, despite the fact that my brain was freaking out about it and saying, something really bad is going to happen if you eat this pizza! The neural rewiring part is not running away from the pizza like I’d done for so many years, but just sitting there, well brain…I’m going to prove to you that this pizza is not going to hurt me. And the only way that you can prove to your brain that food is not going to hurt you, is by eating the damn food.
So despite the fact that my brain would be freaking out as I ate it, and I have eaten so many meals shaking and crying, but I got through them and I forced myself to eat them. Your brain will learn through that experience that nothing bad happened at the end. I ate the pizza, nothing bad happened. And then what you need to do, is you need to force yourself to do it the next day or sooner! You need consecutively show your brain this food is not a threat to me. And you do it through repetition because that’s the way the human brain learns just like tying your shoe laces, you learnt that through repetition. We wire the brain and rewire that fear response by repetitively doing the thing the brain is scared of.
And usually for me it took two or three times of doing something before my brain would suddenly stop freaking out about it and be like OK this isn’t as scary and the good part is, when your brain stops freaking out about the food, you then start to eat that food and your parasympathetic nervous system which is the rest and digestion one and then it’s quite enjoyable. Pizza started tasting great. (laughs) It still does, I’ll tell you that. One of my favourite foods.
So that is an example of nutritional rehabilitation plus neural rewiring, two birds with one stone. Do you get to do that if you just stick to your safe foods? No. If you just stick to your safe foods, if you eat enough of your safe foods, you will nutritionally rehabilitate, you will gain weight. Because that is your underweight body’s number one priority. However, you will gain weight with those fears and rule sets still in place. Right? So that’s one example of nutritional rehabilitation plus neural rewiring which I believe is crucial for adults who have had anorexia for more than 10 minutes. Adults who are in recovery from anorexia and now that I’ve published this damn book, that took me ages to write, well it didn’t, it took me 8 months which for me feels like a long time because I’m a very impatient person. Now that I’ve published this damn book, I’m going to in these podcasts, talk a lot more and bring these terms nutritional rehabilitation and neural requiring in and hopefully you guys can know what I’m talking about and have a reference point.
Also if you listen to these podcasts but you have not yet find my YouTube channel. I talk about this stuff a lot on my YouTube channel. YouTube video are really usually quite short, sort of three or five minutes long and each day, I try and post each day but usually it’s more like 3 times a week. But however often when I get the chance I just make a quick short video on something which is usually neural rewiring plus nutritional rehabilitation.
This example of force feeding. So back to force-feeding for a second, because I can not emphasise how much, if you are an adult in recovery from anorexia how important a skill this to. To be able to make yourself eat food when you don’t want to. It’s like a super skill for recovery. If you work on one skill in recovery, work on being able to force feed yourself, because you can do anything once you can force feed yourself and this skill comes in handy because say you get through the first 6 months of recovery when you’re really rewiring and your forcing yourself to eat tones of food and your making yourself eat all your fear foods. You go through so much in that first 6 months or so and then things start to stabilise a bit.
Hopefully you were successful in getting your body out of malnutrition or starting to because that process can take years, but hopefully you’ve lifted yourself up over a hump in that first 6 months to a year of recovery. You will have rewired many things in your brain in that first 6 months to a year, but there are some life experiences that in your first stages of recovery you won’t go through. So the things like the big life changes, like moving house, losing your job, changing your job, losing someone you love so bereavement and grief. Any of those large life changes for many who have had anorexia and restriction and done things like event restricted for years and years and years, what will happen or what people often find happen when they go through a stressful time, that default reaction to restrict, or to go to compulsive exercise comes back.
That’s because you haven’t yet had the chance to rewire your stress response. Because for years that’s what you have been doing when you get stressed right? You restrict food, or you exercise or whatever. So you might not come across in those first 6 month, 12 months of recovery, you might not come across a stressful enough event that triggers that response, that already wired through the years to responding to stress via restriction or exercise. You haven’t had a chance to rewire that yet because you haven’t had a huge time of stress to live through. And so what you find, or what I found, that having that ability to force feed myself in my back pocket at all times, came in handy it was like my winning card when I went through times of stress.
Even post recovery when most things were all sorted out and I was doing really well. Times of stress hit me, it would come back, that desire to restrict. But because I knew how to force feed myself, I was then able to do that in those times. And that meant that my brain started to learn that restriction and compulsive exercises were no long appropriate responses to times of stress. And so now I don’t have that response in a time stress. I have no inclination to do anything restrictive in terms of my diet or exercising compulsively in times of stress. Because I rewired that as well. But the ability to do that really came from that super skill that honed in recovery of being able to force feed myself.
And remember, force feeding yourself if you have anorexia, that is an act of self love. That is important to distinguish. Alright, so that’s this weeks podcast. Force feeding yourself, nutritional rehabilitation plus neural rewiring, getting you to full recovery. If you have any questions or any ideas for podcasts, guest you’d like me to talk to as always reach out to me my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and I mentioned the YouTube videos earlier, if you just search Tabitha Farrar hopefully that will come up, I don’t know if there are any other Tabitha Farrar’s that are also doing anorexia recovery coaching it’s possible, but hey. Cheers and until next time. Cheerio.