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Calm Your Limbic System’s Overreaction to Food


Author:  Wendy Busse, MSc, RD

Updated: October 2020

Conditioned food sensitivity is the physical manifestation of a limbic system overreaction to food.

Calming the limbic system will ease, and eventually stop conditioned food reactions.

The Limbic System Explained

Your brain’s limbic system scans your environment for “danger cues” and initiates the fight-flight-or-freeze system when needed. These reactions are quick and automatic without conscious thought. For example, when an animal detects a predator, it is instantly ready to fight or run (flight).

The Limbic System’s Role in Conditioned Food Sensitivity

If food becomes a “danger cue,” these automatic reactions can be detrimental. The limbic system operates at an unconscious level. Conditioned food sensitivity may happen, even if the person is not consciously thinking about the food at the time.

Ease Your Conditioned Food Sensitivity

We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.

Sheryl Sandberg

Here are my top seven strategies to help clients calm their limbic system’s overreaction to food and stop their conditioned hypersensitivities (i.e. freedom from the Food Avoidance & Sensitivity Trap). Pick one place to start. Making progress with one strategy naturally improves the others (e.g. meal planning → less time thinking about food → calm response to symptoms).

These strategies are simple but can be challenging to put into practice. If you would like expert guidance and caring support, please complete the FAST Freedom Program Needs Assessment. We will help you take the steps needed to end your restricted diet struggles!

StrategyWeakens Conditioned Food Sensitivity by:
Plan your meals.Eliminates the “What am I going to Eat?” daily stress and repetitive thoughts.
Spend less time thinking about food and symptoms (e.g. decreased research).Reduces exposure to fearful food messages.
Critically examine your food beliefs.Makes you aware of your negative food assumptions. For example, noticing the thought, “Green pepper gives me a rash” and softening it, “The rash could be something else” or “This may be a conditioned reaction, and I can change it.”
Change your Symptom – Food Associations with positive visualization.Replaces your Symptom-Food Associations with food-pleasure associations. Food is no longer a danger cue.
Reset your nervous system with check-ins and breathing/self-compassion breaks.Keeps your body in “rest-and-digest” rather than “fight-flight-or-freeze.”
Respond to your symptoms (rather than overreacting).Calms your worrisome thoughts, which prevents symptom escalation and impulsive actions that are detrimental in the long-term (e.g. internet research and starting new treatments).
Slowly reintroduce conditioned food triggers.Minimizes your limbic system’s reactivity.

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