Rewiring the Brain for Success

I wrote this article for The St. Charles County Womens Journal Magazine in Missouri. It appearedin the August/September issue. I got such tremendous response I decided to re-post it for you.  Enjoy!

Lose weight, gain weight, lose it again.  How many times have you started your diet over? Do you find the decision to get away from fast food or cigarettes just doesn’t hold up to the test of time? You slip, you fall, you just eat and say, “What the hell.” I am speaking to the general population of people who are healthy.  I cannot answer to folks who might have issues with genetic conditions, hormonal imbalances, etc.  I am talking about healthy men and women who struggle with weight all their lives.

There are more components to dieting and being successful forever than we might imagine. Still we understand the diet has to be livable and not too restrictive.  We know to exercise to insure success. We’ve heard about changing the environment and developing habits in 21 days. We’re realistic about what we expect. We track our success and journal our diets, but we still fall off the bandwagon and after 6 months have put on all our weight. So, what’s up with that? Why is it some people cannot keep their weight off?  Since I’m infatuated with the brain, I decided to look there for deeper understanding.  As I looked into a the science of the brain I was amazed to learn several things.

The parts we are going to focus on are listed below:

  • Prefrontal Cortex.  This part of the brain does the executive functions. It mediates and tells us good from bad, right from wrong.
  • Cerebral Cortex.  This is the grey matter all over your brain.  It certainly is the one we can consider our conscious mind.
  • Amygdala.  This part of the brain captures emotion memories.  Have an experience and this registers the emotion attached to it.  Next time you have the experience — same emotion.

So, you start a diet.  Your cerebral cortex works out the logistics and a plan to get it right this time.  The prefrontal cortex wired to the cerebral cortex is behind the decision 100%.  It knows the foods are bad for you, the extra weight is bad for you and the right choice is to get it under control.  The messages flow between the two areas.  Then you run into a glitch.  There is a trigger — something outside yourself that makes you lose control.  There is an emotional response to something that shuts you down.  Without realizing it you put on the brakes.

That emotional center (the amygdala) is running in 5th gear, and it’s on its own.  The anatomy of the brain is working against you here.  The amygdala isn’t wired to either the cerebral cortex or the prefrontal cortex.  It has no way of learning their logic and besides it is an emotional cauldron not interested in hearing that this is a good diet.  There is not access in the brain for the amygdala to stop emitting the fear and anxiety surrounding this new venture.

I suppose you would continue with your diet if the emotional responses were joyous and loving, but it seems that often isn’t the case.  For some reason what you are doing elicits the  emotion of fear or anxiety and what you’re trying to accomplish is driven right out of your head.  Science shows us that there needs to be a re-wiring of the brain to help the brain — not the mind — to understand there is not fear or anxiety related to what you are trying to accomplish.  Finding this back door isn’t easy, but you can make a change. The only way is through psychotherapy or with repeated sensory experience.

Psychotherapy speaks for itself and it is a viable choice for people who have the money to afford long-term therapy.  I am proactive and a tightwad and choose to try the sensory experience approach.  So here is a sensory approach in a nutshell.  Take your common lab rat.  Trained with a shock and a buzzer simultaneously, the rat will be afraid of the buzzer.  If you then run through enough sequences of having him hear the buzzer with no shock he can relearn and stop his fear of the buzzer.  In the real world this is being applied to victims of rape.  Role play therapy allows them to physically fight back, and eventually they can stop being afraid.

How does this apply to your fitness program?  It’s a necessary step you must take to make the changes stick.  Rewire the brain by being actively engaged to learn how to get around what might block you from staying the course.   Start with becoming the observer.   Watch what you do, look for your triggers and then make positive changes. 

Look at these bodies.  This situation could apply for either one.

“I’ve just lost weight and am relatively happy with what I look like.  I went to dinner with friends last week and the result of dinner was bittersweet.  They told me I look good.  I got more attention from the men in our group than I have ever had before.  I knew I looked good, but never expected THAT reaction.  So, when it came time to order I had pasta with shrimp.  I really don’t do well with pasta, it makes me want more.  I didn’t eat it all, but I had more wine than I have had in a long time.  The next day I felt okay.  I was supposed to workout, but I had been out late so I skipped.  After that I just started to eat all the bad stuff. I also felt depressed and anxious and that seemed to make it worse. Next thing I know I’ve gained 15 pounds.”

For the sake of this example I am going to suggest a few things that might have happened for this woman.  If we review the story we see the trigger came at dinner when she received attention.  Is attention bad for her?  Not bad, but it did prompt a response in her that yielded a negative reaction, and a subsequent domino effect of more bad decisions.  Perhaps she doesn’t believe that about herself.  Maybe she has issues with low self-esteem.  Regardless, it will take time, but she can learn to watch herself and head off future problems.

She could start by telling herself she looks good and has done a great job.  Accept the compliments and change the subject.  Actively explore a menu and ask to customize her food to match her diet plan exactly.  After dinner with friends suggest a little walk as a group through the park or along the beach.  Change comes slowly and she might still eat the pasta at dinner the next time.  But it is possible that the next day she will get up and hit the gym?  It is a process — life is a journey, and a little help from a psychotherapist might help this process.  The end result is what I have talked about before.  It is a conscious way of living — the approach of ZEN.  Don’t go through life blindly.  Make choices and notice the ripple effect in your life.

Scientists are still exploring the brain.  Dr. Joe LeDoux in his book The EMOTIONAL BRAIN: THE MYSTERIOUS UNDERPINNINGS OF EMOTIONAL LIFE acknowledges how we need to find another way to treat brain issues…or emotional issues.  Oh, wait!  He mentions it in his song on this video below.  His band, Amygdaloids, is a New York City band made up of scientists whose songs reflect the insights from their research of the mind, brain and mental disorders.  Enjoy!  And watch your brain in action to make the changes you want.

Be Well!

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