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Brain Series: The Role of the Amygdala in Eating Disorders

The amygdala is the brain’s fight or flight center. It is responsible for anxiety, fear, and stress responses. Evolutionarily, it is used to keep us safe in the presence of a threat. For example, if a tiger is running at you full speed, your amygdala will light up and tell you to run, hide, scream, etc. It helps to protect us.


In a normally firing brain, the amygdala is silent at mealtimes and when thinking about food. We feel hunger cues, go get some food to eat, eat it, and continue about our day without our brain telling us that there is anything to be scared of or anxious about.


For someone with an eating disorder, the brain is firing abnormally. During mealtimes, the amygdala is lighting up, and sending signals that say “danger” “protect yourself” “that food will hurt you.” So, imagine how you feel when you are in a stressful driving situation, or about to take a big exam, or experiencing turbulence on a plane. That same fear/anxiety response that your brain sends you in those moments, is the same signal it sends to someone with an eating disorder anytime food is presented.


Many people with anorexia nervosa feel that not eating is protecting them. They are listening to their brain signals and avoiding something harmful. When they do not eat, or do not keep the food they eat- their amygdala is quiet. It feels more comfortable and safer not to eat. We know food is medicine and that not eating is unsafe for many reasons. However, for someone with an eating disorder, their brain is telling them something different.


Mealtimes are often times of high anxiety, short temper, and strong emotions. This is because someone is fighting against their amygdala and going against their instinct. Understanding the level of stress someone may experience around food helps to increase empathy and explain many eating disorder behaviors.


If you have an eating disorder, know that you are not alone in feeling high anxiety around food. It is difficult to not trust your own brain, but the signals that an eating disorder brain sends are not going to keep you safe and healthy. Food is essential to life. While it may feel like food is cause for fight or flight, the science tells us that this abnormal firing is not to be trusted.


If you are supporting someone with an eating disorder, be patient and empathetic around mealtimes. Know that every meal or snack may feel like fighting a tiger, and that your loved one needs you there to get through it. It is not anyone’s fault how their brain fires; it is simply their neurobiology. The more that we practice eating, practice distraction during meals, and practice different treatment tools, the quieter the amygdala will get.


This is not a quick or easy step to take but it is possible to create change within the brain. In the meantime, focus on having compassion for yourself or your loved one, and seek treatment that can help teach skills that will quiet the amygdala.



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