Thursday, March 5, 2009

it's not you, it's your brain.

Every month, I get in this … mood. I look in the mirror and think – KNOW – that I am the most hideous person on the planet. I wonder how my boyfriend can stand to be with me. I wonder how my friends can stand to put up with me. I consider just staying home, as a favour to the general public. Surely they should not be put through that kind of horror. Surely there is enough wrong with the world right now that no one needs my hideous hosebeast face as the cherry on that sundae.

Then it hits me: It’s happy special lady time! (Also known as ‘that time of the month’.) I am not actually hideous just wracked with hormones.

Suddenly, all those feelings, which were throwing me into a pit of despair, are bearable. They don’t go away, but I know what they are and why I feel them, and now I can buckle down and power through them until they go away. Because now I know for sure that they WILL go away: they’re just chemicals in my brain trying to trick me. It’s not me, it’s just my brain.

Those realizations are important in weight-loss too – in fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the number 1 reason I’ve been successful so far this time around. It’s the reason I have an easier time staying on plan, not being derailed by hunger, not giving into weird cravings.

Because I’ve realized: it’s not me, it’s my brain.

Let’s take this example: I get this and I’m sure lots of you do too. I plan to eat a nice soup and salad for dinner but by the time I get home I’m STARVING. All my thoughts of soup and salad go out the window – the idea of vegetables is downright offensive. I want a bag of chips. Or an entire box of macaroni and cheese. I want two bagels: one with mayo and cheese, and a ‘dessert’ bagel with cream cheese and jam to follow it up. Maybe I could get a brownie for later. Ooh, and opening a bottle of wine would be nice too.

EEEEEEERRRRRRRCH! (That is the sound of my squealing brakes.)

I used to fight so hard against these feelings. I’d beat myself up just for having them – you just love food too much, I’d say to myself. You can try to resist but you know you’re going to give in soon so why not just eat it all now and save us the waste-of-time. So I would.

But now I realized this: hello, there is 10,000 years of human history working against me here! Think about our caveman ancestors: finding food was a constant struggle. When food was available, you ate as much of it as you could, as fast as you could. Because who knew when you would be able to eat again? When would you find a wild boar to kill, when would you find some berries that weren’t poisonous? So eat as many calories as possible right now.

That’s what my poor brain is feeling when I get hungry too. We evolve as humans but we I don’t think we ever lose those survival instincts. My body feels hungry and my old caveman instincts tell me to eat as many calories as possible, right now.

As soon as I realized that, it’s like a switch went off in my brain. Or maybe that I FOUND the switch. I control it now. Recognizing how instinctive those feelings were gives me so much more control of them now. My subconscious brain might be encouraging me to eat as much as possible, but now my conscious brain can step in and say:

“Look, instinct, I know you’re scared. But there’s really no shortage of food here. Have the soup and the salad, and in 20 minutes you’re going to be full. And you’re going to feel pretty silly for panicking.”

And you know what? This works EVERY TIME.

Almost every food desire I have can be traced back to brain chemistry. Those times when I have a crappy day and want to eat ‘comfort food’: I know it’s just the endorphin receptors in my brain that want a ‘hit’. If I have a taste of something sweet and suddenly feel compelled to eat 58 more of them, I know it’s those some endorphin receptors, having gotten over-stimulated. (Similar to what happens when you drink, and you always want ‘one more’, even though you’re clearly drunk.)

For some reason, thinking about it as being ‘my brain’ and not ‘me’ is so liberating. I used to beat myself up like crazy for wanting the things I did, in the amounts I did. I felt greedy, and gluttonous. I felt like a pig, quite frankly. How can anyone who WANTS so much ever be ANYTHING but fat? So I would give in to those cravings, again and again and again.

So realizing that it’s not really ‘me’ has opened me up in a way that I’ve never felt before. I feel success is possible. I feel control is possible. I can reign in that crazy part of my brain, when I need to. And it’s a lot easier to think about it that way, than to think I have to change who I fundamentally am.