I’d like to preface this article by saying that I do not have a degree in psychology, psychiatry, neurology, or anything related to the study of the human brain and human behavior. The information I’m going to present can easily be found with a simple search of the internet. I am providing the fundamental framework and tools for overcoming an unwanted habitual behavior, like binge eating. The principles laid out in this article, will at the very least help give you an understanding of what you need to overcome these unwanted behaviors. The subject matter could easily be made into a book. Nonetheless, I’ve done my best to consolidate the information into an easy-to-understand, concise format. I hope you find it helpful.
How are habits formed?
When we talk about habitual behavior, we are referring to the way our brains respond to certain stimuli. If you want to change the reaction, you have to develop a new one consciously. First, you need to understand how the brain creates neural pathways. When a person behaves or responds to certain stimuli in the same manner over a long period, eventually that person builds a neural pathway. Consequently, when the same stimulation presents itself again, the brain automatically returns to that response. This is how we form both habitual behaviors and addictions.
Why is change so hard?
As I said above, neural connections form over a long period of time and are very strong. This is why it seems so difficult to change things about yourself. The stronger the neural connections, the harder you must work to create new ones that are powerful enough to override the old ones. The good news, however, is that the brain is malleable and can change. The medical world calls this neuroplasticity.
Your behaviors don’t define YOU!
As humans, we have the unique ability to stand back and observe what is happening in our personal lives. You have emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. But you are not your emotions, your feelings, or your behaviors. You have to view these things as separate from you. You can recognize a habitual or addictive behavior while understanding that the behavior isn’t who you are. Try seeing thoughts and compulsions as mental events to examine, rather than actual constructs of reality. If you don’t believe there’s a part of you that can view your addiction and your thoughts and emotions, then overcoming your binge eating is going to be next to impossible. Once you learn that the power to consciously rewire your brain is yours, you start to recognize your triggers. Then you can identify your compulsions and urges, and you become the observer rather than the victim.
Components of addiction.
Psychologists agree that there are 4 components of our addictions: doing, thinking, feeling, and physiology.
- Doing is the action you physically perform. Example: you open the fridge
- Thinking refers to the thoughts we have before, during, or after the behavior. They are usually the thoughts we use to justify our behavior. “I deserve these pop tarts. I’m over my calories for the day, but one or two packs won’t hurt. I’ll run longer on the treadmill tomorrow to burn them off.”
- The feeling component is the emotion we get as a result of the thoughts we think. In the case above, you might feel happy or excited after having justified to yourself what you’re about to do.
- Finally, physiology is the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. These neurochemicals are released in reaction to the behavior in which we just engaged, resulting in feelings of pleasure and gratification. Unfortunately, we eventually build up a tolerance for these feelings, and then we require more and more extreme behavior to get the same neurochemical response. So what do we end up doing? We reach for even more food than we had initially intended. The more you do this, the more that neural pathway strengthens, and the more likely it is that you will automatically return to the same behavior, hence overeating and binge eating.
So how do we break the binge eating cycle?
Well, first you have to change the doing component. Luckily this is the one aspect that you have control over. If we change the doing part, we subsequently change the thinking, feeling, and physiological components, too. To do this, however, we must first be able to observe the thoughts and emotions that lead to the doing aspect. We refer to these thoughts and emotions as triggers. Without this awareness of our triggers, we won’t know when to change the doing component.
Act instead of react!
If something happens that causes you to feel sad, angry, depressed, etc., try to stand back and observe that emotion. Consider and examine it before just reacting. Try to see it as something separate from you, and instead of reaching for the fridge, choose a different action than you usually would. Go outside for a walk, take a shower, do some air squats. Congratulations, you’ve just created a new neural pathway! By changing the doing component, you consequently change the thinking, feeling, and physiological components, too. The best way to change your neural pathways is to change your actions. It’s easy to change what you’re doing. The next time you desire to engage in addictive behavior, observe the urge, and then consciously choose a different behavior.
Build the new. Kill the old!
The best way to change your brain is to focus all of your willpower and attention on the new behavior. The more neurons you get to fire on the new pathway you created, the stronger it becomes. Brain scans have shown that old pathways die when they’re not used. New pathways become automatic when accessed repeatedly, and a new habit forms.
You can learn to recognize your triggers and then consciously interrupt the mind’s automatic response. There is a moment in time after you have the urge to walk to the fridge, and right before that behavior is initiated. At this moment you can redirect your attention and choose a different behavior. Try to select a healthy replacement behavior ahead of time so that you’re prepared when that moment arrives. When the urge comes up, practice the healthy behavior, and while you’re doing it, focus all your willpower on it. The more you do this, the more you strengthen the new neural pathways and the more the old ones weaken.
Don’t give up!
Practice this. Practice it over and over. Don’t give up. You can do this. You might fail, and in fact, you probably will fail several times. That’s okay. Get back up and try again. Every time you practice this new behavior, you’re giving your mind the awareness of the new experience, and the old pathways leading to your previous, self-destructive behavior are dying.