I recently finished reading a powerful and helpful book called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.
It is a GREAT book. He describes the habit loop like this:
Habits are powerful: They create neurological cravings. Most of the time these cravings emerge so gradually that we’re not really aware they exist, we’re often blind to their influence. But as we associate cues with certain rewards, a subconscious craving emerges in our brains that starts the habit loop spinning.” Says Duhigg
We have all been there with habits right? Why we continue some bad habits and are able to break others has a lot to do with our brain. I am not denying that.
A recent study came out identifying a part in an anorexic’s brain lighting up in the habit region.
Both the anorexic and the healthy women showed activation in an area known as the ventral striatum, part of the brain’s reward center. But the anorexic women showed more activity in the dorsal striatum, and area involved with habitual behavior, suggesting that rather than weighing the pros and cons of the foods in question, they were acting automatically based on past learning.” – NY Times
(Time magazine also wrote about it here.)
While I agree with this finding and that the brain most likely is activated this region, I find a great deal of difficulty and harm with creating theories from a study such as this.
Here are the five holes I find in this study:
1. Tiny study. Only 42 women were studied. You cannot just pick out 21 people with anorexia and categorize them all the same. That would be like taking 21 blondes and saying they are all the same. So much more goes into making someone an anorexic and I can assure you from experience, you can NOT simply narrow it down to habit.
2. Depression. It is quite unclear sometimes which arises first, depression or an eating disorder. For me, depression came first, which then led me not to eat. This study suggests, “The anorexic women were more likely than the healthy women to choose low-fat, low-calorie foods and they were less apt to rate high-fat, high-calorie foods as “tasty,” the study found.” – NY Times
For me, this was due to two factors: 1. Severe depression causing me to find NOTHING as tasty. 2. The onslaught of media telling me not to eat certain foods so my brain saw those foods as “bad”. Then when I ate those foods I felt “bad”.
3. Trauma. The article states that, “It helps to explain why treatments we expect to work like antidepressants and cognitive therapy, don’t work very well.”- NY Times
No, these don’t work very well because so many with eating disorders have a history of trauma.
There have been several studies done to demonstrate a correlation between individuals who have had traumatic experiences who later develop eating disorders. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is often a co-occurrence with persons who suffer from an eating disorder. Those who have experienced traumatic events may engage in an eating disorder to self- manage the feelings and experiences related to PTSD.” – National Eating Disorders Association
Until the trauma is dealt with patients need to be offered different modalities of therapy such as working with a trauma therapist, EMDR or other therapies, antidepressants and cognitive therapy will not help. This isn’t just do to this one thing as the researchers are saying.
4. Food. Eating disorders are not about food. Alcoholism is not about alcohol. It is about what is going on to need the lack of food, the abundance of food, or the alcohol. To simplify it to trying to change someone’s habit, is misinformed and continues to spread information to people that is not accurate. I am not denying habit might be involved, but simplifying it to one thing is quite dangerous.
5. Boot Straps. Do you know what happens when studies like this come out? People read them and think they found an answer. When I was deep in my eating disorder, many people told me to “just stop”. Or to, “pull myself up by the boot straps.” Do you know what that did to me? Filled me with enormous shame and sent me to wanting to die. Why couldn’t I eat? Why couldn’t I just stop? What was wrong with me while the rest of the world was able to go along their merry way eating and living? I described this in detail in my book, Table in the Darkness: A Healing Journey Through an Eating Disorder. Eating disorders are mental illnesses and extraordinarily complex.
Researchers are finding that eating disorders are caused by a complex interaction of genetic, biological, behavioral, psychological, and social factors.” National Institute of Mental Health
I urge anyone who reads this study to take it with a massive grain of salt. There are many missing pieces here and if it were as simple as this researcher was saying, then this many people would be able to break the habit right?
In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life.” – NEDA
Instead, I believe it is a whole person approach. Dealing with the trauma, the cognitive thoughts, the habits, the lifestyle, the shame, and the values of the person. Plus soooo much more. These studies make something complex look so simple and I find dangerous to publish so freely.
Recovery IS possible, but it is not as simple as “breaking a habit.”
If it were this easy, this wouldn’t be so funny!