When we talk about addictive behavior, we are referring to the way our brains respond to certain stimuli. If you want to change the reaction, you have to consciously develop a new one. It is important to first understand how neural pathways are created in the brain. If a person behaves or responds to certain situations, emotions, or events in the same manner over a long period of time, eventually that person builds a neural pathway so that when the stimulation presents itself again, the brain automatically returns to that response. This is how behavior is formed and this is how addiction is formed.
As humans, we have the unique ability to stand back and observe what is happening in our personal lives. You are not your emotions, your thoughts, or your behaviors. You have emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. You actually have to observe these things as separate from you. There is a part of us that is not addiction but can observe the addiction. You can regard your thoughts and compulsions as just mental events that can be considered and examined 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, but once you believe you have the power to consciously rewire your brain, you can begin noticing your triggers. You can identify your compulsions and urges, and you become the observer rather than the victim.
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.”
FEELING 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 convinced yourself that what you’re about to do is okay and justified.
PHYSIOLOGY is the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. These neurochemicals are released as a consequence of the behavior we just engaged in.
Because of these neurotransmitters, we feel pleasure and gratification, but we eventually build up a tolerance for them and therefore 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 to. The more you do this, the more that neural pathway is strengthened, 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 this cycle?
- Well, first you have to change the doing component. Since we always have control over the doing component, if we change that part, we subsequently change the thinking, feeling, and physiological components too. In order to do this, however, we must first be able to observe the thoughts and emotions that lead to the doing aspect. Without this awareness, we won’t know when to change the doing component.
- So if something happens and you suddenly feel sad, angry, depressed, etc., try to stand back and observe that emotion. Consider and examine it. Observe it as something separate from you. Then instead of reaching for the fridge, choose a different reaction than what you normally would. Go outside for a walk. If you change the doing component, you’ll consequently change the thinking, feeling, and physiological components, too. Congratulations, you’ve just created a new neural pathway. 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 get the desire to engage in an addictive behavior, observe the urge, and then consciously choose a different behavior.
- Your goal should be to replace the old pathway with a new one. The more neurons you get to fire on the new pathway you created, the weaker the old ones become. In fact brain scans have shown that previous pathways die out when they’re not stimulated. You must do this over and over until it becomes routine, until it becomes habit. This is how you developed your unwanted behaviors in the first place. You did it for so long that it just became normal.
I’m not saying any of this is going to be easy….. It won’t be
It takes a lot of effort to change yourself, but once you achieve the necessary willpower, you can literally direct your brain to react differently. Effort and discipline are the keys to changing your lifestyle.
You have to learn to recognize your triggers and then consciously interrupt the mind’s automatic response. New pathways must be created and accessed repetitively until they become automatic. In the moment after you have the urge to walk to the fridge, and right before that behavior is initiated, you have the ability to redirect your attention and choose a different behavior. Try to choose ahead of time what that reaction will be so that you’re prepared when the moment arrives, and choose a behavior that is healthy. 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.
This is the fundamental idea of it all. 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.