This month I was delighted to be invited to speak in Dubai at some of Good Habits support groups – a fantastic group helping people manage weight and lead healthier life styles.
‘We work better as a tribe than as individuals’ – having the support of a friendly group like Good Habits has helped so many people reach their personal goals and I was amazed how members were doing so brilliantly in reaching their goals.
I think most people would agree though that weight management for many is not the easiest thing. There is so much differing advice out there, so many books on weight loss and lose weight fast gimmicks that it can be quite bewildering.
However, if we think about how our brain works we can begin to understand why we think, feel and behave in the way we do when it comes to eating and this can be useful.
The primitive mind
In tens of thousand of years the primitive mind has not changed. This part of our brain is all about survival, we are programmed to eat and our brains were hard wired to eat when food was plentiful as primitive man didn’t know when the next meal would be available, this is why for many of us when we go to brunch or a buffet we overeat, even though we are no longer hungry! This has been hardwired into our brain.
When our anxiety level rises we release cortisol (stress hormone) which can makes us feel fearful, negative or angry as our primitive mind takes over. So, often when we feel anxious we tend to operate from our primitive mind as opposed to our intellectual mind – the thinking, rational and positive part of our mind. Our primitive mind is negative, obsessive and vigilant making us feel fear and discomfort giving us a strong desire to eat, so we build up reserves for the ‘fight’ ahead – useful when we were cavemen but not so helpful for us in the modern world. Cortisol also makes us store fat rather than release it. The primitive mind neither cares how we look or how healthy we are.
Subconscious childhood memories
As well as being hardwired to eat for survival we also hold subconscious memories from childhood that often associate happy times with food (love and security) and this is why some of us develop emotional eating.
If we over eat when we are feeling anxious or when our mood is low, we are telling our primitive mind that this behaviour is a useful solution to help us feel better, however, we only feel better for a short while before we usually regret our overeating. This can then become a pattern of behaviour we repeat because the primitive mind is not an intellect and it will always refer to previous patterns of behaviour. If what we did yesterday ensured our survival we are encouraged to do the same again.
So what can we do to help ourselves manage our weight better?
Reduce any anxiety
3 P’s: Positive action, Positive interaction, Positive thinking
By practicing these 3 P’s every day we are ensuring that we are producing Serotonin the feel good hormone which makes us brave, happy, optimistic and helps us cope better. Serotonin reduces anxiety as we are more likely to be operating from our positive, intellectual mind making sensible decisions rather than from our negative primitive mind.
Be in the moment when it comes to eating, focus on the food, and be present. Sit at a table, turn off the TV and really appreciate the food that you are eating, notice its texture and flavour and notice what you enjoy about it.
Avoid guilt trips and negative rumination. Its too easy to blame ourselves about a past event, if we’ve eaten a piece of cake let the thoughts go, there is no point worrying as that will just make us feel unhappy and serves no purpose and only adds to feelings of stress.
Avoid worrying about the future (negative forecasting. For example, if going out with friends for a meal, focus on the event, of having fun and enjoying your time together rather than worrying about what you are going to eat. You will feel more confident and able to make sensible decisions if you’re having a lovely time and feeling good, enjoying the moment and the positive interaction your having.
Our brain is designed to see change as a threat. This is why we often hang on to old mindsets and habits. Much of our eating is habit based but we can disrupt habits and interrupt neural pathways by changing the routine, for example sitting somewhere different, using a different cup or stopping for coffee at a different time. The good news is that we can create new habits and patterns of behaviour as the brain is plastic and can create new neural pathways ( more information on this is in my January 2020 blog). By repeatedly focusing our attention, for example on a thought or action the more likely the new habit will be wired into your brain. Repetition is important, the more we affirm that thought or desire the stronger the wiring will be to support that change you wish to make. Old habits and previous patterns of behaviour will then diminish.
Self talk – when we force ourselves to do something the primitive mind will often try to rebel. Self talk can be very negative so reframe and take a new perspective :
“ I should exercise / I must stop eating these biscuits”, replace with “I could go to the gym / I can go for a walk”
Rather than “what can I eat”? Think, “what can I do”? What activities could you do to replace some of your eating habits?
You can do it ! Keep going, the more we do something the easier it becomes !