Hey there! Have you ever gone on a diet but found yourself unable to stop eating sugar and junk food? Have you ever felt powerless over your sugar cravings? At the end of a long day, you find yourself stressed and compelled to grab anything quick from the cupboard. Given the choice of heading to bed early or reading a good book, why does it seem like ice cream and Netflix always win? It’s not as if you don’t know which option will move you towards your goal of losing weight and regaining your energy. So why do you choose the chocolate, wine, and TV over the self-care?
The truth is our brains are wired to make these kinds of changes feel impossible. Working against the way our brains are wired, is fighting an uphill battle.
So here’s the deal. Your brain is ruled by an ancient part called the reptilian brain or for science geeks, the amygdala. It’s been part of the human brain since the time of the cave dwellers.
That means the outdated software of Homo Erectus is driving our thoughts,
reactions, and behaviours. It’s crazy when you realize that your brain is running software akin to an old floppy disc. The caveman floppy disc in your brain has one program that overrides everything—seek pleasure, avoid pain, and do them as efficiently as possible.
For the cave dweller, this program worked well. It kept her alive long enough to procreate and populate, keeping the species alive.
All mammals have this programming software. A raccoon would much rather dine at a garbage-buffet than expend energy scavenging for insects or climbing trees for eggs. All mammals come with the innate program to avoid pain, seek pleasure, and expend as little energy as possible.
If you’ve set some lifestyle goals with your modern more rational brain, you’re going to have a heck of a time when your reptilian brain perceives those goals as painful, difficult, or time consuming.
Picture this. You’ve been overlooked for a promotion. Although you’ve been working overtime and giving it your all, your boss has failed to notice your efforts. You arrive home feeling some really uncomfortable emotions: jealousy, anger, sadness, fear. Your reptilian brain perceives these thoughts as pain and you can guess what happens next. Your brain wants to move away from pain and towards pleasure in the quickest and easiest way possible. Now, depending on your past life experiences, your brain will zero in on any number of fixes, be they wine, drugs, bingeing, overspending, etc. Chances are, if you’re reading this post, your drive is toward a mess of chocolate almonds, chips, ice-cream, and candy.
In this situation, it’s normal to start blaming, shaming and should-ing yourself. C’mon, I’m on a diet, I should be able to control myself! Why can’t I just say no? Why can’t I eat like normal people? What’s wrong with me?
Shaming and blaming, while common, do not make the situation better. They create more anxiety and stress so once again your brain seeks out further handfuls of chips, or more scoops of ice-cream, anything to move away from the pain of the negative thoughts in your mind.
Beating yourself up has never worked in the past and it won’t work now. It goes against everything we know about behaviour change.
How to work with your reptilian brain?
Instead of passing judgement on the fact that you have human instincts, why not bring some gentle inquiry into the situation? Ask yourself what problem you are trying to solve by eating this way. What is going on in your life? What do you need in terms of support? Who could you talk with to feel better? What is going on in your environment that makes you feel that eating these junky foods will solve your problem?
Craving foods doesn’t make you a bad or weak person—it’s human biology. The practice of reframing your thoughts with gentle inquiry can help lower the amount of stress you feel thereby preventing your brain from compelling you to run back to the fridge.
The next step is to find a creative way to demonstrate to your brain that a desirable behaviour can also be a pleasurable one. This doesn’t happen overnight.
The trick is to explore WHY you want to DO the new behaviour. You want a WHY that is more immediate than, “I want to lose weight” or “I want to get off medication.”
Let’s say it’s Sunday afternoon and you’ve been planning to make Mason jar salads. But you forgot to buy the ingredients and your brain just wants to flake out on the couch. Shopping and prepping food seems painful to your brain. To retrain your brain, don’t focus on the shopping & cooking, focus on what this behaviour will get you, the outcome—hassle free, healthy, energy producing, waist-reducing meals for the entire week! Hell yes! Focus on the prize.
The new behaviour then registers in your brain less as pain and more like pleasure. It really works. To sweeten the pot for myself I cook with a good movie playing in the background. It now feels like a nice break.
Knowing that our brains seek to gain pleasure without expending much energy is what you need to remember to break your goals into achievable actions. THIS IS HUGE. If you tell your brain, I’m going on a diet, going to learn 25 new recipes, and cook everyday from scratch—as good as your intentions may be, your brain is going to say, whoa there, that sounds like way too much energy! Let’s go eat some chocolate.
Even if you say, I need to make dinner, cook the meat, peel the vegetables, guess what? A bowl of cereal looks so much easier to your brain. Instead, and I do this quite frequently, I say, okay brain, can you cook two eggs and reheat these veggies? My brain says, okay, that’s not too hard. It’s fast, easy, and will fill me up. Then I can crash.
Work with what you have. Make your goals doable. Combine easy doable goals with creative WHYS and over time, your brain will get on board and be drawn to healthier choices.
If you want to learn more about making healthier choices, especially in menopause when your brain can be exceptionally cranky, head over to my Happy Hormone Sister Club or check out one of my awesome free resources here.