DAY 8: Seizing conscious control of addictive behavior
At its most basic level, addictive behavior is a coping mechanism.
Though we’re aware of the behavior (regularly eating beyond satiety, habitually making unhealthy food choices), and we may even acknowledge that our behavior is self-destructive and desperately want to change, doing so is impossible if we don’t do two things:
- We must seize conscious control of the behavior.
Last week we talked about the chemical reactions happening in our brains that are characteristic of a stimulus-response disorder. While it’s important to know that the cue-urge-reward-habit cycle isn’t our fault, it doesn’t really give us the key to unlocking the hold that highly arousing food has on us.
This week we’ll be talking about strategies to change our behavior and our thinking. We’ll talk in tomorrow’s video chat about overcoming “I was born fat, and I’m gonna die fat” futility and “But unlike drugs and alcohol, I need food to live!” rationalization, so don’t miss that. Other topics this week include: “Why avoiding food triggers works better than trying to ‘resist’ them,” “Dealing with cravings,” and “Exercise: a new reward.”
Food addiction – conditioned hypereating – loses its power when we bring our awareness and our desire to change right to its’ front door. And though there are powerful forces (our behavioral and neurological conditioned responses to food triggers, the crazy food carnival in which we live, our own conflicted feelings about assuming responsibility for recovery) we are not helpless victims in this situation by any means. We each have the power to climb out of our food nightmare. Seizing conscious control of the behavior is the first step to doing so.
- We must understand what drives the behavior.
This is the real bug-a-boo. The big kahuna. When we crack this nut we drastically improve the odds of seizing conscious control of our behavior.
Over years of conditioned hypereating I unknowingly rewired my brain (via the cue-urge-reward-habit pathway) to allow food to be the salve the calmed my feelings of anxiety, frustration, inadequacy, anger and resentment. In me, those feelings created an intolerable unease. I felt helpless to deal with the situations that brought them on and was routinely flooded with these negative emotions. I didn’t know how to change the underlying issues (oppressive financial strain, loneliness in my closest personal relationships, overwhelming responsibilities), and that conflict created an intolerable internal distress that I learned to soothe with food.
If you too live under this kind of psychological stress you may know that it also causes physiological stress in the way of sympathetic nervous system chaos. Though not directly part of the food addiction equation, it does impact our hormones (insulin and cortisol most notably) that, when elevated over long periods of time, give way to weight gain, inability to lose weight, and inability to build muscle.
It is a tremendously vicious cycle.
It has taken me years to unravel this very painful mystery. And as enlightening as it is to know all of that, I still fall prey to the cue-urge-reward-habit cycle when somebody sets a plate of chocolate chip cookies in front of me. After all, happy or sad, conflicted or not: highly arousing food will always be highly arousing food to me.
The good news is that once we understand what food addiction is and how it alters our behavior and our thinking, we can actively choose different behavior and different thinking.
Controlling our responses to food stimuli, according to Rajita Sinha, PhD, director of Research Program on Stress, Addiction and Psychopathology at the Yale University School of Medicine, is about “keeping your frontal cortex active.”
More tomorrow. Until then, stay strong.