Achieving change by increasing awareness

A friend of mine came over this morning, looking really upset. She was annoyed because her attempts at cutting out the foods that make her feel bad kept failing. “I can’t understand it”, she said, “I manage to avoid those foods when things are going well but when I wake up in the night, or when I’m stressed, I find myself bingeing. What’s wrong with me?”

The fact is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with my friend, she’s just using the wrong strategy to create real change. To understand why, we need to look at what’s happening in the brain. The willpower she is relying on to stop herself eating unhealthy food comes from the part of the brain called the ‘pre-frontal cortex’. The problem is that, in times of stress, or during the night, when she is half asleep, or when she’s very tired, the pre-frontal cortex loosens its grip on her behaviour and that’s when she binge-eats, hence the phenomena of ‘stress-eating’ and ‘night eating syndrome’.

Achieving change by increasing awareness

What’s more, the psychologist Roy Baumeister and his team studied people’s desire for certain temptations and found that “the more frequently and recently participants had resisted an earlier desire, the less successful they were at resisting any subsequent desire” showing that the more we resist temptation, the more depleted our willpower becomes. Most of us eventually give in.

My advice to my friend was one that is commonly adopted by healthy eaters – just don’t have those foods in the house, so that there is no need to rely on willpower. Don’t try and do battle with physical cravings (some scientists believe that sugar is more addictive than cocaine ), unreliable willpower, hormones and that little voice in your head (called “the chimp” by Steve Peters ) that tells you that just one chocolate bar is OK, as you’ve been so good up to now, or because it will help you feel better, often leading to uncontrolled bouts of sugar-bingeing.

So, what if we can’t avoid temptation completely, for example, with our smartphones? We might want to stop binge-using them but we also rely on them for useful activities such as phoning people, online banking, getting weather updates, using google maps etc.

Judson Brewer, a psychologist Judson Brewer, in his inspiring book, “The Craving Mind” talks about how we form helpful and unhelpful ‘habit loops’. As mentioned earlier, he explains that we need a method to deal with unhelpful habits that doesn’t rely on cognitive control and that’s where greater awareness comes in.

He suggests:

  1. We focus all our attention on our bad habit
    Think about what it feels like and what it results in. In terms of smartphone use, what does it feel like to be constantly interrupted, unable to focus for long on one thing, unable to get what you want done quickly and easily because you keep getting distracted by checking your mobile?
  2. When we get a craving, we should notice what’s happening and then let it go
    When we feel the urge to check our smartphones, instead of trying to fight the urge, it helps us to be curious and pay attention to what is actually happening in our body and our mind and then try to let the feeling go, rather than giving in to it. This method has been proven to work very well compared to traditional methods.

In my own experience, using a combination of putting my smartphone away, so that I wasn’t tempted by it, increasing my awareness of how using it excessively was making me feel and noticing when I was tempted to pick it up unnecessarily, I managed to cut my smartphone usage by over 50%. Now I have more time available for binge-eating!!!

For more information on change and habits, click here for information on our lunch and learn session, Breaking bad habits.

1 Brewer J, The Craving Mind, Yale University Press (2017)
3 Peters S, The Chimp Paradox, Vermilion (2012)
4 Brewer J, Brewer J, The Craving Mind, Yale University Press (2017)


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