Changing the Brain
Neuroplasticity and Eating Disorder Recovery
The annual Wilderness Therapy Symposium is a great opportunity to meet and share best practices with clinicians, instructors, researchers and guides from wilderness programs all over the world. For me, one of the highlights of this year's symposium was a pre-conference workshop on current research on outdoor behavioral healthcare. Findings related to the impact of treatment interventions underscored the significance of non-structured time spent with clients. This was followed by a workshop addressing the latest findings in the field of neuroplasticity and the implications for behavioral health.
Until recently, it was thought that the brain stopped developing after the first few years of life, and that if part of the adult brain was damaged, the nerve cells could not regenerate or form new connections. However, ongoing studies are demonstrating that the brain continues to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life in response to changes in our feelings, thoughts, experiences and the way we use our bodies. As we engage in habitual behaviors, such as eating disorders or substance abuse, neural pathways become entrenched, increasing the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated. But the plasticity of the brain means we can retrain the brain to develop new neural pathways that support recovery.
Research on the mechanism of neurological change indicates that several driving forces need to be present for neurogenesis to occur:
- Exercise – One of the key locations in the brain for the production of new neurons is the hippocampus. Studies show that this area of the brain contributes to memory formation and organization. Exercise can increase blood flow to the hippocampus and improve the acquisition of new learning as well as memory. A study by Henriette van Pragg installed running wheels in rat cages. She found that wheel running produced both increases in hippocampal volume and improvements in memory and maze running. Interestingly, forcing the rats to exercise, rather than allowing them to exercise, negated the neurogenic effects, as did stress. Running appears to create optimal conditions for new neuronal development, however as little as three hours a week of brisk walking has been shown to halt or even reverse the brain atrophy that begins in middle age. Through increased blood flow to the brain, exercise triggers biochemical changes that help generate new neurons and new inter-synaptic connections.
- Mindfulness – Meditation in various forms and other mindfulness practices, including mindful eating, provides a context for change to occur. Awareness of the workings of the nervous system and how it impacts behavior is the first step toward choosing to change, letting go of limiting beliefs and creating a recovery mindset.
- Novelty – Our brains are hard-wired to appreciate and seek out novelty. Animal studies have shown that exposure to a novel environment or stimuli increases the brain's ability to create new connections between neurons by activating the midbrain area, increasing dopamine levels, and motivating us to explore our environment in search of potential rewards.
Neuroplasticity is revolutionizing the field of behavioral health and underscoring the critical role of experiential therapies. Mirasol is proud to offer eating disorder treatment programs that maximize the conditions for new neural patterning, including EMDR, yoga, TRE, art therapy, polarity therapy, somatic therapy and circus arts. Our adventure therapy and wilderness programming add an element of novelty, encouraging clients to expand and discover innovative solutions to challenges and uncover hidden strengths. As clients participate in service projects that expose them to new groups of people and circumstances, they become more skillful at reframing their perceptions of themselves, creating their own pathways to lasting recovery.