Image by Debbie Digioia
I was looking through notes I took at a workshop I attended last year on “Calming An Overactive Brain,” and found some ideas which speak directly to why it’s difficult for dysregulated eaters to not reach for food when they’re in internal distress. My hope is that by understanding what goes on in your brain and body, you’ll be better able to manage your emotions and, even when you don’t do so, that you will have compassion for yourselves when you can’t change brain patterns as quickly as you’d like.
The brain processes the environment in two ways. In bottom-up processing, you encounter an environmental stressor that throws your body-mind off balance and your amygdala acts immediately, never mind what your higher-order thinking has to say. Top-down modulation is about controlling automatic reactions to keep the body in balance. Because visual stressors are so powerful in humans, seeing some leftover banana cream pie in the fridge may make you want to eat it without thinking. Unfortunately, without a great deal of practice and brain training, habits, in this case grabbing a slice of pie, move faster than our ability to control them. This is why practice is so important in overriding automatic signals. In fact, I learned in this workshop that the reward system of the brain develops when you are around four years old and the control (top-down) system only comes along in your early 20s!
Top-down control means making correct meanings of perception. If you see the pie and think, “Wow, that would taste fabulous right now,” you’re making a meaning that is likely to lead you toward eating it. Make a different meaning of the pie such as “Wow, that sure would taste good when I’m hungry and if I hadn’t just had a satisfying dinner,” and you have a better chance of postponing gratification. This is an important step to take in changing habits. It will teach your brain to go from “yes” to “no” more quickly.
Here’s an important point about emotions. The sole function of your two amygdala, each residing on a side of your brain, is the avoidance of emotional distress. Yes, it’s true, the amygdala “dislikes” experiencing unpleasant emotion, as it is a disruption to the mind-body balance or status quo to which I referred above. This is why your craving for the banana cream pie drives you toward eating it. The amygdala experiences the craving as uncomfortable and views this discomfort as a negative state. All it wants is to return to balance, that is, stasis or comfort. Ergo, the pie gets eaten.
Note that it’s not that the amygdala cannot tolerate discomfort, but that it is programmed not to in order to return to statis which is about comfort. This is simply how humans have evolved. So, the trick here is to find comfort in other ways. How would you find comfort when you have the craving for the banana cream pie? You would want to immediately close the fridge door so it would be out of sight and be a visual stimulus. Then you might take a variety of actions, including finding a healthy pleasure, busying yourself in another activity, or doing anything else that would erase the craving so that your amygdala will not be in distress and keep telling you to eat the pie.
The more you learn about the brain and stop chastising yourself for not having enough self-discipline or self- control, the easier it will be to develop solutions to eating problems and gain skills for top-down modulation of your appetite system.