What’s really going on when you find yourself exhausted at the end of a long day and you decide to dig out those sweet or salty snacks and pour yourself a glass of wine instead of doing some journaling and heading to bed early?
You know which option is healthier. You know which option will move you closer to your goals of losing weight and not feeling tired all the time…
…so why do you so often choose the snacks, wine and TV rather than the self-care?
Well, in large part, it’s because you’re trying to work AGAINST your brain’s natural wiring, instead of WITH it.
You’re trying to wrestle your brain into doing something it’s not programmed to do. And, since that’s a David and Goliath-style battle, you’re mostly losing.
Let me explain why…
Even though it’s 2018, your brain is still largely wired in the exact same way that it was hundreds of thousands of years ago.
That’s right, despite all our modern advances in technology, insights into the universe, and invention of fidget-spinners, when it comes to the thing that’s driving your thoughts, reactions and choices all day, every day (your brain) you’re still mostly working with caveman software.
This means that, just as it was for our Neanderthal ancestors, your brain is hard wired with ONE, singular focus: to avoid pain, seek pleasure and expend as little energy as possible while doing so. The goal back then was to use this programmed mission statement to keep you alive long enough to mate and pass on your genetic material so that the species could continue. It’s biology at it’s best and all living things approach life through the same lens.
The monkey feels hungry and eats the lowest hanging fruit on the tree. The bean plant grows away from the shade and towards the sun in a straight line. The racoon avoids the cold of winter by moving into your already built and toasty attic.
They all do this because nature programs all living things to avoid pain, seek pleasure and expend as little energy as possible while doing so. This is how we stay alive. No matter what plans you’ve made or what goals you’ve set with the more modern, rational part of your brain, that old caveman software is not going to allow you to deviate from this programming.
So, when your brain senses pain in the form of exhaustion, overwhelm, worry and stress, it immediately locks you on a path in search of what it perceives to be the quickest path to pleasure. For some people that could be shopping, drinking, gambling, drugs, toxic relationships or social media, but, if you’re reading this, I’m guess that, for you, it’s very often FOOD. And not steamed kale, but some form of sugar and/or highly refined carbohydrates. I’m talking about chips, ice cream, chocolate, pretzels, chocolate covered pretzels, etc.
Typically, what we do when we find ourselves falling into these familiar behaviors is we beat ourselves up. Why can’t I say no? Why can’t I stay on track? Why am I so weak? Why can’t I do what other people do?
This actually has the OPPOSITE effect that we want because your brain registers that nasty internal judgement as more pain and immediately sends you searching for more pleasure to get away from it. This means one more bowl of ice cream or another handful (or five) of those chocolate-covered-pretzels.
So, what should we be doing instead?
What we should be doing is thinking about how we can work WITH our brain’s natural wiring, instead of against it. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!
First, remember that your brain is wired to avoid pain and seek pleasure.
So, instead of immediately judging yourself and beating yourself up when you’re craving foods that don’t serve you, replace that judgement with curiosity and compassion. Step outside of yourself for a moment and take an objective view. How are you feeling? What’s going on in your life, your environment, your body and your head right now that’s making it feel like this food would solve everything? It’s not a character weakness to crave ice cream every night, it’s simply neurochemistry. Reframing the picture in this way will help remove the added pain of the judgement and guilt and thereby reduce your brain’s instinct to seek out even more pleasure.
Also, we want to do everything we can to turn the healthier choices we want to be making into something your brain perceives as pleasure. This is part of the reason that I’m always asking my students to spend some time thinking about their “WHY”.
Why do you want to eat better, move more, lose the weight and live a long and healthy life? What would you get to do? Who would you be able to love longer and better? How would your life change? Who would you inspire? Take some time thinking about these questions and getting super specific about the answers. You should be able to see this future life of yours like an incredible movie in your head.
Once you have that amazing movie playing, THAT will start to feel like pleasure to your brain and you will instinctually start to be drawn to the choices and behaviors that align with it and move you closer to it.
No more tug of war!
Second, remember that your brain is also wired to use as little energy as possible to get from pain to pleasure.
Your brain’s motto is: “Always take the path of least resistance!”
If the elephant has the choice between some tasty bushes that are five miles to the left, or some tasty grass that’s a hundred feet to the right, you better believe it’s turning right.
Your brain works the same way the elephant’s. If your brain is feeling pain (exhaustion, stress, worry) and it sees the choice to be between going to the gym and going to bed early on the left (which you know is the healthier choice), and a bowl of ice cream and the couch to the right, you better believe it’s turning right – just like that elephant.
The pleasure of the ice cream and the couch is much closer and more immediate. That’s why it wins.
This is why we need to start doing everything we can to reframe the healthy choices that we want to make into more immediate pleasures that our brain will be drawn towards. There are two ways we can do that:
1.Get super clear on an amazing WHY as we talked about above. Going for a run when you’re exhausted does not sound like pleasure (it often sounds like more pain).
So, instead of the actual running, try putting your focus on what the running is going to get you (that strong, lean body you see in your mind; a deep sense of pride and accomplishment; and a soothing mental break from the crazy business of work and home – aka some “me time”). When you do this, suddenly the run starts to register in your brain less like pain, and more like pleasure, which makes it start to feel much more desirable to your brain, and thus much easier for you to get yourself to do.
2.Break your big goals down into “winnable” baby steps. If your brain is always trying to avoid pain, seek pleasure and use as little energy as possible to get there, then thinking that you need to “give up sugar” or “work out five days a week forever” feels like way too big an endeavour for your brain. It registers this as far too much energy to expend (even if you have a great WHY waiting for you at the end), and it will start looking for a more immediate, and more easily accessible pleasure – hello ice cream!
Instead of setting these huge all-or-nothing goals for yourself, start thinking about breaking your goals up into baby steps. “Give up sugar” feels huge and really hard. But, “have one small square of dark chocolate tonight instead of the bowl of ice cream” feels very do-able. Combine that do-able feeling, with your big WHY for making this healthier choice, and you suddenly have something that your brain perceives as pleasurable and easily accessible. This is the magic combination that will make your brain feel automatically and naturally drawn to that healthier choice. WIN!!
Check out this video on my YouTube channel where I go even deeper into how you can end the fight with your brain, and start winning the battle to eat better more often. And make sure you subscribe to my channel to get notified each week when a new video comes out!