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Habits and StrategiesHappiness

Making it a Fair Fight

By December 20, 2023No Comments

We have a wonderful deli/bakery nearby that has great, healthy food, and very yummy, not-so-healthy treats – cookies, éclairs, pastries… very tempting stuff. Every once in awhile I’m seduced by these delicacies, and when I am, I almost always notice something afterwards: I don’t feel as good as I did before.

It’s not a severely bad feeling, and I can easily ignore it if I want to. But if I pay attention to the sensations in my body, there’s a clearly different feeling from my insides; it’s not as pleasant as it was before I had eaten the sugar and fat filled morsel.

This is the key to making our fight against bad habits a fair fight.

About 80 percent of the nerves connected to our viscera are afferent – meaning they send signals to our brain from our organs. These are sensory nerves, designed to give feedback about what’s happening within our bodies.

Until recently medical texts claimed that there was little or no sensory information coming from our organs. We now know that’s not true; there are well understood pathways from a part of our vagus nerve that send these sensory signals. Interestingly, Charles Darwin wrote about this over 100 years ago, but it never became widely appreciated until now.

But it’s also extremely common for us as we grow and deal with our challenges and goals – and peer pressure, and impatience of our fellow humans – to learn to ignore much of what these signals are telling us.

By ignoring the sensations of our bodies, we effectively deprive ourselves of one of our great strengths to overcome short term temptation…

including the cravings for sugar and refined carbohydrates that have been fueling the alarming rise in obesity in recent decades.

In Walter Mischel’s “Marshmallow Experiment,” Young children were presented with a marshmallow (or cookie or other treat – they were given some options from which to choose), then given the opportunity to earn a second treat if they could wait for the experimenter to return – about 15-20 minutes later.

A lot of kids had a very hard time doing this, until they were told a very simple secret: they could imagine the treat as though it were only a picture of a treat. This turned the sensory stimulation of that immediately seductive treat into an abstract thought; and this very simple shift in attitude allowed children – who had zero resistance before – to now almost miraculously resist temptation.

By turning the immediate temptation into an abstraction, it lost its seductive power.

What does this have to do with body sensations, afferent nerves, and obesity?

When I’m in the bakery, and I smell that lovely odor, and see the beautiful presentation of these yummy treats, I’m experiencing, tangibly and immediately, just how satisfying it would be to taste one of those treats (in the words of Winnie the Pooh, “I wasn’t going to eat it, I was just going to taste it!”). This craving reflects a promise of relief from stress that the chemical dopamine brings to a certain part of my brain.

This dopamine hit is nearly irresistible. It’s the same mechanism that has brought experimental rats to cross a painfully electrified floor to stimulate an electrode to release dopamine in the same part of their brain as the pastries are promising in mine.

It’s the same mechanism that keeps us tied to our automatic habits – good and bad – day in and day out. So when we try to resist that powerful urge with an abstract idea, like, “I want to eat a healthier diet,” or “I want to lose 15 pounds,” guess which side wins?

The pastry, of course! There’s no contest. It’s not a fair fight to pit something concrete and certain (immediate pleasure of the taste) against something abstract (I want to be thinner, or healthier, sometime in the future).

We might win that fight once in awhile, but over time we’re sure to lose many more of these fights than we win. So let’s make it a fair fight.

We do that by bringing our entire arsenal to the conflict. That’s where body sensations come in; in contrast to abstract thoughts, body sensations are immediate and tangible.

From the Marshmallow Experiment we know that turning that pastry into an abstract idea of a pastry – a picture – can weaken its allure. Add to this an awareness of how our body will feel immediately after eating it, and we’ve then turned our own physiology into a powerful ally.

For most of us, this isn’t a natural thing. To really make use of this innate strength takes some practice, but we all have it in us (literally), ready to use.

The first step is to begin noticing what you do sense in your body. Purely physical sensations: warmth, heat, cold, tension, relaxation, vibration, shaking, tingling, movement, lightness, heaviness… There are metaphors that we’re used to that often are just sayings now, without the direct connection to the actual physical sensations from whence they came: “I have butterflies in my stomach,” “My heart leapt,” “He has ants in his pants,” “It’s a heavy burden.”

The key from there is to begin to refine your sense to be more and more specific. “I feel anxious.” Where? “In my chest.” What do you sense there physically? “Tight, and my breathing is shallow.”

Then what happens if you slow and deepen your breathing a little bit? (not too much) Often the emotion of anxiety can lessen, and other physical sensations can emerge.

By paying attention to your physical sensations over the next few days and weeks, you can begin to get a familiarity and a vocabulary that can become very useful data, to the point where you can also begin to know what you’re likely to sense when you do certain things – because you will have noticed it over and over.

Which brings us back to the tasty but unhealthy treats.

Before you eat something you know isn’t good for you – sugary, fatty, refined carbohydrates – notice what you sense in your body, particularly in your belly. Then go ahead and eat it… but then notice the physical sensations in your belly. Do you feel better? Worse? What specifically do you sense, and where?

Maybe you feel great! That can happen, but keep noticing what happens over time. The chances are that every once in awhile you’ll feel fine after eating something like that, but most of the time you’ll feel a little less comfortable in your belly.

If eating these kinds of foods is a problem for you, you might also notice how you feel emotionally later – disappointed, regretful, unhappy about having done it. Those are tangible experiences, too.

You now have a powerful weapon to bring to bear. When you see that pastry, first make it abstract, see it as a picture. Then remember how your body is likely to feel physically after you eat it, and how you’re going to feel emotionally about having eaten it.

Pit the concrete information of what you’ll sense and feel afterwards against the temptation of the treat, and now you have a fair fight. You still won’t always win of course, some things are just too yummy, and our awareness is imperfect. But you will win more often than not, and that can make all the difference.

PS: My course, Mastering Emotions, Moods and Reactions can help you with this part of your life in much greater detail, with deep understanding and practical skills for mastering these systems and living well. And now you can purchase the workbook for this course separately for $29.95 plus shipping. You can still get the online course with the downloadable workbook at a deep discount, for $99, if you use this code: LB99. (To give as a gift, simply use the email of the person you would like to gift it to when you order, and the access will be sent to them)