Last week’s installment of this series focused on the benefits of taking responsibility for your food choices. If you’ve been practicing this skill for the last week, I hope you’re starting to feel freer, more in control, and more empowered. Now I’d like to venture a bit further, and explore that feeling of control and empowerment.
First, a bit of neurology. Our brains are prediction machines. We have vast neurological resources dedicated to filtering and sorting through incoming stimuli, pulling up bits of information from past experience, and mapping out what we expect to happen next. Not only do our brains provide a steady stream of predictions, but they like to be right. Even a small amount of uncertainty triggers a threat response in the orbital frontal cortex, which draws attention to that threat at the expense of other activities. You’ve probably felt this. Ever been distracted from focusing on work or daily life thanks to an unresolved issue, for example, awaiting test results? That’s your brain staying focused on the threat at hand, the uncertainty. As long as the uncertainty continues, it will draw heavily on mental resources.
Just the opposite: when our brains’ predictions are accurate and we feel certainty, we reap chemical rewards in the amygdala and associated neural network known as the limbic system. Familiar experiences, faces and places trigger reward activity, as our brains are able to accurately predict the scenery on the drive to our house, the feel of our car’s steering, and the smile on our spouse’s face. In short: our brains LOVE certainty, and uncertainty poses a threat.
The brain’s hardwired preference for certainty and familiarity isn’t always in our best interest, however. It can explain why it is so prevalent for people to cling to old ideas and truly believe them, despite evidence to the contrary. To avoid facing the threat of uncertainty, we can continue to harbor maladaptive coping strategies, coddle outdated ideas and continue behaviors to perpetuate our current identity even while we desire to change. It’s not hard to see how this can pertain to fitness, nutrition and weight loss.
To recap: Your brain constantly makes predictions based on your past experiences. It’s happy when it’s predictions are accurate, and threatened when they aren’t. This makes change hard.
The damage of uncertainty
One of the most tenuous times for anyone to stick to their healthy eating intentions is when they feel uncertain. Life stress such as changing jobs, relocating, and undergoing medical tests are all common sources of uncertainty. In fact, any big change will cause an increase in uncertainty and an associated threat perception by the brain. I see it all the time in my clients and myself: times of uncertainty place us at high risk for poor food choices. Why is that?
Impulse control and the skill of being able to delay gratification are paramount to weight loss success. To shed pounds, we have to be able to choose the long term reward (a healthier, leaner body in a few weeks or months) over the instant one (the cookies right here right now). While our brains are under the threat of uncertainty, accepting delayed gratification is MUCH HARDER. To the threatened brain, the whole future is uncertain, so accepting the reward right now is disproportionately appealing. All too easily, big life changes can trigger binge eating or junk food episodes in an effort to soothe ourselves from the uncertainty and score an immediate hit of dopamine.
Our inclination to avoid uncertainty can further prevent progress because changing our behaviors challenges the familiar status quo. Losing weight means ordering something healthier for lunch, buying more cabbage and less soda, and venturing outdoors or into a gym to exercise. Without past data to form predictions of what to expect, all of this change is, to our brains, threatening. Changing our thought patterns is equally hard. Let’s look at a common scenario I deal with: A client who has developed a pattern over the years of bashing herself when she gains weight, pouring on the self-reprimands and criticism, which only lead to depression and further poor eating. In this case, I’ll often suggest an alternate mental strategy, such as choosing self compassion instead of self-criticism for a change. And I know from experience, that there is always resistance on the part of the client- bashing herself is in many ways easier than being kind to herself! Doing something different is scary, and brings with it a host of unknowns.
In addition to the threats of changing behaviors and adopting new thoughts patterns, the impending achievement of goals can itself be threatening. Even if we WANT to be slimmer, more athletic, and smart with our eating, to become that person means stepping outside of our current identity. If I’ve always thought of myself as an exercise-dodging vegetable hater who can’t lose weight, I may sabotage my own efforts to change because to my brain, there are too many unknowns – I don’t have enough data to predict what it will be like to actually BE thin and active and healthy. Who will I be then? Staying the same (even if that is overweight and unhappy) is in some ways safe, predictable, and rewarding.
Understanding what your mind is doing when it throws an I-don’t-wanna-change tantrum can help with realizing 1. You aren’t broken because change is hard for you; and 2. If you moderate the uncertainty by reassuring yourself of the things you ARE certain of, you can decrease the perceived threat. Here are some helpful strategies for managing uncertainty:
First: I encourage making a list of certainties. All you do is jot down things you know without a doubt in your mind. I know there will always be a roof over my head, no matter where we move. I know I am good at what I do, so even if I change companies, I’ll succeed. I know I am loved by my family. I know I am a good person who does my best, regardless of what other people think of me. I know I will continue to exercise and eat well. I know I am trustworthy. I know I’ll be able to find a good school for my kids wherever me move. I am certain that even if I do need surgery, I will be able to handle it.…and so on. The act of writing your certainties down can help you regain perspective when your brain is focusing excessively on the one thing that it’s uncertain about. You know many things for sure, and those haven’t budged. You may feel calmer right away. For those who experience growing anxiety as they lose weight, realize that many things do not change when you shed pounds. You’ll still have 99% the same life. You’ll still be you.
Second: When you are trying to change, take small increments at a time. Too much change, too soon, will leave you back where you started, possibly with powdered sugar all over your shirt. No progress step is too small. Forget what other people are doing and how “far ahead” of you they are; find one tiny way in which you can move one smidgen further. Never eat vegetables? Instead of promising yourself to eat 5 a day, try just setting the goal of eating one a week. Much less threat.
Third: Embrace presence. If we remain focused on this very moment, we don’t feel uncertainty. We can only be uncertain when thinking about the future. Reduce your focus on the future, stay in this moment, and you can reduce the burden of stress from change. There is evidence that practicing mindfulness actually causes structural changes in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking. That’s amazing! Even though your brain is wired to make predictions of the future (and wanting those predictions to be accurate can actually make change hard, as we’ve seen), you can retrain it by focusing on the present moment.
What you can do
1. Realize that uncertainty will make you vulnerable to instant gratification. Recognizing this can help you address your uncertainty and reduce it (by making a certainty list or practicing a few minutes of mindful presence) before it sends you headfirst into a bucket of popcorn.
2. Be present. Look for the immediate rewards of eating well and exercising. It’s not all delayed gratification. You can enjoy some benefits immediately: stress reduction, boosted energy, better sleep, feeling proud of yourself, and improved mental health all are instantly available.
3. When trying to change your food habits, thought patterns, or actions, adopt change in small steps. This will keep you from feeling alienated from your familiar life and identity.
4. Remember that change is hard for everyone. Resistance is normal. If you feel resistant to trying something new, ask yourself why you are clinging to the old behavior. It may be functioning for you to perpetuate your identity (I am someone who can’t lose weight) or it may be avoiding the uncertainty of what will happen as a result of the new behavior (I know what happens if I eat cookies every night, I don’t lose weight. I know how this ends. If I don’t eat them every night ….who knows?) Once you can clearly see where uncertainty exists and is holding you back, you can address it head on.
I hope this gives you some tactics to help make a step forward in your fitness and nutrition journey this week. I’d love to hear from you if you have any thoughts to share, just leave a comment below. And if you found this article helpful, please share it with someone who might also enjoy it. I’ll be back next week with Part IV.