Your Brain on Malnutrition: Eating Disorders and Money

I know I have blogged about eating disorders and money before. I have even done some podcasts on it. But I want to make sure that people link anxiety around spending money, and the scarcity mindset that food restriction creates.

Scarcity mindset:

For the evolving human, food and resource scarcity would have been one of the biggest threats to survival. 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 believe that when we restrict food and enter malnutrition for a prolonged period of time, our brains begin to assume general resource scarcity, and our behaviours change accordingly.

More blogs on scarcity mindset here

Anorexia and money

I found that gradually, as the length of time that I had an eating disorder increased, my levels of anxiety over spending money increased. It wasn’t as if all of a sudden I jumped up and declared that I wasn’t going to spend anything, but I do remember that I began acting and feeling a little odd around money within the first couple of months after initial food restriction. The trouble was, as I was planning to go away to uni that fall, I put it down to just being sensible about saving for going away. I excused it as that, even through a part of me knew it was more than that.

That first summer that I began restricting food, I also starting working extraordinarily long hours at my various jobs. My friends noticed, and a couple of them commented. Of course, I just told them I was saving for uni. But I also began to act really tight. I remember this one occasion late summer, when we were all in the local pub. There were around 4 of us around the table and people were buying rounds. I felt a growing anxiety the longer we stayed, as it became more apparent I was going to be one of the people left whose turn it was to buy. I ended up making an excuse and going home early. My own behaviour felt odd to me, and I was stressed and wondering why I felt that way. That was also, incidentally, the first time I ran home from the pub — the long way, in the dark — rather than taking the shortcut I had always taken before.

It all snowballed. The running, yeah, the weight loss, yes, but also the money-spending stress (as well as the other scarcity mindset behaviours I have been writing about.)

When I say I felt stressed around spending money, I don’t think that people “get it.” I mean like a searing “fuck no” response.  Not a little “oh well, I know I should save really” sort of response. It. Was. Horrid. My reaction to spending money was on par with say if you asked me to strip naked and walk down the high street. It was an extreme aversion to doing it. Right in line with my aversion to eating more food than the minimal amount needed each day. They were the same mixture of feelings. Unsafe. Threatening. Dangerous. Hazardous. Perilous. Risky. Serious. Oh yes, really serious. For someone who had been the class clown in school, eating food and spending money were serious.

If you’ve never waited in a toilet until there is nobody else in there so that you can pop a couple of loo rolls into your bag without anybody hearing you, then I doubt you will be able to comprehend the length of my aversion to spending money. I could not by loo roll. This, by the way, had nothing to do with financial circumstance. I could afford to buy loo roll. I could not mentally do it. It was everything about spending money. If I spend money on something that I could easily attain without buying it (such as loo roll) that felt even worse. Funnily enough, bigger purchases were easier. Things like uni fees and rent were not stressful. The less tangible the purchase the easier. It was the day-to-day necessities and what I call “optional” purchases that were hard.

Optional purchases are things like buying someone a birthday or Christmas present. A round of drinks at the pub. A meal out. A new pair of shoes. In a sense, some “necessities” such as loo roll are actually optional purchases as one can easily take them from public restrooms. This got to the point, where I would walk 15 minutes to my local library in order to use the public toilet rather than use my own. The reason was 1) not using up my own toilet roll, and 2) flushing the loo uses water and water costs money. I would also only shower at the gym, never in my own flat.

Now that you know that, you will likely also understand why it stressed me out to have people over to my flat. I would spend the whole time fretting over them doing things like using the loo. That, by the way, is fucked up.

Yes. Money was an incredible problem for me. And that tightness filtered down to the point where I was not asking friends over because I didn’t want them to potentially flush the loo. As you might be able to imagine, at the time, I just thought that I was totally mental. The reason I never, ever, told anyone about all this is because I knew it was nuts and didn’t want people to lock me up. More to the point, I know that if I told any of my family about this, they would be really really worried about me.

My relationship with money was just as affected by anorexia as my relationship with food was. It is important for people to understand that an stress linked to spending money is a sign that your brain thinks that resources are scarce. When you can understand this, you can understand that every time you restrict food, you also further increase your inability to spend money. Get it?

How to overcome money-spending stress if you have anorexia

Your brain thinks that you are in an area of recourse scarcity because you are acting as if you are in resource scarcity. Stop it. Stop restricting food. Start allowing yourself to spend money.

Get yourself out of malnutrition. Get yourself out of energy deficit. Eat as if food is not scarce. Eat without restriction. Change your actions to inform your brain that resources are not scarce.

Ask for the help and support that you need in order to do these things. It is so very worth it.


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What do you think?

  1. This is so interesting to me. I can identify A LOT with it. I had no idea this was a common theme in anorexia. Thanks for shedding light.