Tending Your Brain Garden

Have you ever noticed that your brain wants you to believe that things are much worse than they actually are?  Your anorexic teen believes she will be in danger if she eats the plate of food you have placed in front of her.  You believe you have failed as a parent because she has an eating disorder.  Her world is crumbling because you are asking her to eat.  Your world is crumbling because she refuses to eat.  While it is easy for us to see that her thoughts about food causing her harm are not true, it can be much harder for us to identify when our own thoughts aren’t true.

Anorexia hijacks a teenager’s thoughts to the point that self-loathing is on autopilot. It isn’t uncommon for thoughts to be so rigid that a teen believes that he or she is only acceptable at a lower weight and a thinner appearance.  Your teen’s brain may decide ahead of time that she will feel miserable until she hits whatever “perfect” target she has set for herself. When she doesn’t achieve the perfection she seeks, she continue the pursuit with no allowance for any feelings of joy. This creates a pattern of striving that is driven by negative emotions—fear, self-loathing, anxiety, and all for reasons that are ultimately not useful.

Imagine, for example, someone’s goal is to win first place in a competition. This person decides that winning is her only option. She focuses on the outcome. She stressfully prepares, barely sleeping, spending most of her time practicing and approaching the event with the belief that this time she’ll win and live up to her potential because she has worked so hard and she knows she can do it. She isn’t looking for her own growth, enjoying the process, or carefully planning how to prepare. She is grasping, clinging, desperately clawing her way to what she hopes is the win because it is the only thing in her mind that will prove to her that she is good enough.  So when she gets 2nd place among amazingly talented competitors, she can only see it as proof that she still isn’t good enough. In her mind, she is still a loser because she didn’t get 1st place. She didn’t reach her goal.

How many of us do this to ourselves? How many of us set ourselves up to stay in a place of disappointment and discouragement? This type of rigid thinking is one of the hallmarks of anorexia. The rules and restrictions, the self-deprivation, the life of misery that has no useful purpose are things parents of anorexic teens are used to observing in our anorexic kids. Our teens are in the habit of looking for evidence that they are as horrible as their brain keeps telling them they are.  But, how aware are we of our own tendency to do the same?

Like weeds taking over a garden, negative beliefs about ourselves can take over. It is harder and it takes longer to grow what we want when our garden is overcome with weeds. We have to pull the weeds out on a regular basis for our gardens to grow. When we let the weeds go unsupervised, we keep ourselves from enjoying a plentiful harvest.

The patterns, the neural pathways, are so deeply embedded that it seems impossible to interrupt or stop the thought errors long enough to ease up on ourselves and choose a new way of thinking. It takes commitment. It takes practice. It must be done.

As a parent caring for your anorexic teen, chances are you are constantly exposed to your teen’s feelings.  How often do you take the time to pay attention to your own emotions?  Are you feeling good about your parenting, or have you noticed a dip in your confidence since your teen’s diagnosis?  How are your own beliefs about your teen’s anorexia impacting your emotional state and your behavior?  Does it seem like you don’t have a choice but to suffer because your teen is suffering?  If you are finding that negative emotions are the only emotions you have felt since your teen’s diagnosis, then you have gotten focused on thoughts that seem true, but that are not helping you or your teen.  That’s okay.  But I want to offer you a choice.  When believing all of the negative sentences in your brain doesn’t provide anything of value to you or your teen, you have the option to counter those beliefs with better ones.

It requires intervention. Constant intervention. Redirection. Practice and more practice. Focused self-awareness. It requires discipline to go from completely restricting joy to regaining it. Much like requiring your anorexic teen to eat, requiring your brain to think new thoughts will be met with much resistance. You will need to learn to push back with confidence. It is time consuming. It is exhausting. It is exasperating. It is the next level of taking charge of your teen’s recovery.  Because when you think, feel, and act like the parent you truly want to be for your teen as she battles anorexia, you are empowered. You put yourself on the front lines. You become a warrior for your teen.

When we learn to step out of the thought weeds that many of us get stuck in, we are able to objectively observe how often our brains are telling us things that aren’t true.  How do we do this?

Here are some strategies you can use to remove the unintentional thoughts(weeds) to make room for intentional thoughts (garden):

1. Start looking for evidence that things are going well.

Build up a reserve of these things by keeping a journal. Instead of cataloguing the catastrophes, keep track of things to celebrate. Even neutral things are better than all of the losses you may be used to tallying up and using as ammunition against yourself.

2. Use bridge thoughts to go from extremely negative reflections of yourself to more neutral thoughts and ultimately to positive ones.

By neutralizing negative thoughts, even slightly, you can create an emotion that feels different and takes the edge off. For example, if you are thinking, I am not strong enough to do this, you can start with a bridge thought of, I am learning to be strong or my love for my child is strong.  

3. Take time outs from yourself scheduled on your calendar.

During these time outs you may not allow your brain to torment you. Whether it is yoga, meditation, listening to music, a fun activity, or time reading a good book, make it a priority.  When the negative thoughts about yourself pop up, you can acknowledge them as just sentences in your brain that aren’t true, and move on.

4. Rewrite your version of the story so that instead of having a negative reaction to something, you are able to look at it in a different way.

For example, if you have been ruminating about how badly you handled your teen’s refusal to eat dinner last night, instead of repeating the story that you aren’t good at getting her to eat, try focusing on the progress you have made at remaining compassionate during even the toughest mealtimes.  Your story about your ability to support her even when she is having a hard time will be much more helpful than your story about last night’s dinner gone wrong.

5. Ask, “what would I need to be thinking in order to feel (pick a less negative emotion) in this situation?”

It is easy to get angry and frustrated if after weeks of progress, your teen shows signs of resistance.  You might automatically find yourself thinking that you are all the way back at square one.  It isn’t surprising that you might feel like the rug has been pulled out from under you, and you may want to revert to all of the familiar feelings you had when your teen was first diagnosed.  If you do feel the fear, distress, or panic, that’s okay.  Just remind yourself that it is a normal part of recovery for your teen to have ups and downs.  Allow your feeling to pass without avoiding it or reacting to it.  Then, when you are calm enough to see the setback as part of the journey, you can work on coming up with a thought that you can call on when the next setback happens.  For example, it can be really helpful to practice thinking that nothing has gone wrong.  If you tend to become anxious when your teen shows anorexic behaviors that you haven’t seen in a while, try practicing thoughts that will allow you to remain calm and compassionate.  When you practice thinking, I know how to be compassionate when she is struggling, for example, you will be much more prepared to keep your cool no matter what.

If you can plant the seeds of thoughts that are useful to you, and learn to recognize and “pull” the weeds, you can grow a beautiful garden that will nourish you as you nourish your teen.  What thoughts are you currently thinking that could be weeds?  What thoughts do you want to add to your garden?