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Many of you do fine with food when you’re busy with activities or socializing with people, but as soon as you’re alone, you get all squirrely and head for the fridge. Well, it turns out that humans seem to have a bias against solitude, according to “People find solitude distressing” (Science News, 8/9/14, p. 12). Perhaps better understanding how humans—and how you—feel about solitude will help you avoid mindless eating.
Says Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, “The human mind wants to engage with the world.” He and his colleagues maintain that thoughts are difficult to control, as is trying to make sure they’re pleasant. It helps to hear that this is true so that we don’t think we’re the only ones trying—and failing—to keep a clear and positive mindset. Wilson goes on to say that “Mammalian minds evolved to track external dangers and opportunities. Only humans acquired an ability to focus solely on internal thoughts …For many people, being left alone with their thoughts is a most undesirable activity.” I know from talking with clients that many of you heartily agree.
Jonathan Smallwood, a psychologist at the University of York in England, however, describes why solitude is important: “Solitary thought helps people to make sense of past experiences, a vital but difficult exercise that may explain the discomfort that people” feel. This makes enormous sense if your experiences are distressing, especially in childhood when we develop the ability and habits of introspection and reflection. It’s one thing if you have a basically happy, functional family situation which isn’t disturbing to think about when you’re alone. But quite another if there is significant ongoing turmoil in your home life. No child’s mind can easily make sense of stressful and frightening experiences and the natural inclination is to move to turn them off and shut them out.
When did you develop the habit of feeling distressed when you were alone with your thoughts—as a child, adolescent or adult? If you say in adulthood, I would encourage you to reach back further and consider if you really enjoyed solitary thought before then. For example, if you were someone who always wanted to be busy, maybe that was your way of escaping quiet reflection. And maybe you had a good reason for this avoidance.
Now, as an adult, you will benefit from being able to tolerate solitude, in part because it’s so difficult to avoid it completely and, in part because you can learn so much about yourself and life through introspection and self-reflection. Next time you’re alone, don’t head for the fridge. Instead, stay with your thoughts and be curious about them.
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