Minding Our Brains To Change Our Lives

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The Non-Diet Book Club started a new book this morning. I can tell already that it is going to be a fantastic group series. We are reading Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson. It’s a true non-diet book because it is not even about food. So, why, you might ask, are we reading this in our group? Well, the group voted it in because there is something very exciting about the relatively new understanding that we can change the neural pathways of our brains. Repetitive, unhelpful ways of thinking and being in the world can be shifted when we consciously work to change the fabric of our minds. Traumatic events may shake us and change our brains in profound ways, particularly when our brains are forming when we are young. But through contemplative practice and techniques that target our unhelpful ways of thinking, we can literally change the way our brains are wired. Science has confirmed it, too, for those who might be skeptical without proof.

So, how does this connect with our relationship to food? Many of you are like my clients. You are interested in changing the way you operate around food. My clients are distressed enough about the way they handle food that they are looking for some help in order to change. I’ve discussed in this blog just how hard change is. (See last month’s post Diving Into September and last year’s post Change and Resistance.) When we’re feeling stuck — when we want to change but seem to find ourselves falling into the same destructive patterns — it’s comforting to know that we really are in charge. We really can move toward significant change if we have the right tools. With small positive acts daily, we build new neural structures in the brain that lead to larger changes as time goes on.

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I’ve written about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) before in this blog, too. It’s the framework that I aim to practice from. Since discovering ACT, I’ve literally gobbled up (pun intended) everything that I can find about it and applied it to my nutrition therapy work. As a result, I have found that clients use the techniques and feel empowered as they work to change their behaviors — and, in doing so, their brains. The term for this brain changeability is neuroplasticity, which means that our brains are really like melty plastic and can be molded. I love what one of my group members said this morning. She said that everyone else’s brain is plastic, but hers is titanium. Everyone laughed and agreed that it can feel hard to imagine change when we feel stuck, shuffling our feet back and forth over the same grooved path of self-destruction. I have found, however, that the techniques of ACT, and specifically the practice of mindfulness, create profound change and allow clients to travel down the road less traveled towards health and well-being.

One technique that we discussed this morning was the concept of thanking the mind. This might sound strange to you. It sure did to me the first time that I encountered it. Why the heck would I want to thank my mind when it criticizes me harshly? But I tried it… For example, I was walking on a cooler morning and noticing that my neck felt cold as the wind blew against it. My brain said, “You idiot. It’s fall now. You should have brought your scarf.” Not the most helpful, warmth-inducing thought, huh? So, I remembered the ACT technique and said, “Thank you, Mind. I hear what you are saying, but I think that pulling my jacket up around my neck and buttoning it might help me stay warmer than calling myself an idiot.” I took a default critical-comment pathway and shifted to a pathway of self-care. Instead of saying “I’m an idiot!” I said, “How can I help take care of myself right now in this moment, given that I am cold and uncomfortable?”

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I needed to be WAY slowed down in order to even observe and thank my mind for the familiar and instructive comment that led me down the path to self-care. Let me repeat that because it’s so important. I had to be WAY …  slowed … down … If you can do this, you will find that there is something about saying, “Thank you for the teaching moment,” that feels much more supportive of change than saying, “Yup, you screwed up again.” And how many times do we choose the latter rather than the former?

This technique can be applied to negative body comments that automatically come up the way criticism did for me that cold morning. It can also be applied to food behaviors. After an overeating episode, try saying, “Thank you, Mind. I hear that old story that I screwed up. But instead let’s look at what happened. I don’t feel good right now about how I ate. Why was it that I overate? Maybe I can understand this better so that it is less likely to happen again. What can I do to take care of myself and prevent this from happening in the future?”  or  “Thank you, Mind, I hear you, but I’m choosing to be curious instead of harsh to myself right now.”

This may feel so alarmingly foreign, but I promise you that if you practice it regularly, you will actually change your default so that you turn less to criticism and self-flagellation. Instead, you will be more compassionate towards yourself, curious about your eating behaviors, and more truly prepared for making changes. Even if you don’t believe what you are saying at first — even if you feel that you don’t deserve a more compassionate stance — try it. You deserve to use the kind voice in your own mind that you would use when you give a friend or loved one the benefit of the doubt. We are all human and imperfect and really deserving at our cores. Create the intention to learn from your stumbles instead of becoming them.

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Okay. Full disclosure. It took me hours to finally sit down and start writing this blog post. I was doing the self-flagellating thing at first. There you go, Heidi, procrastinating again. You are lazy, out-of-focus… I even tried to blame all the people who were interrupting me by phone and email. All of this was not helpful, and did not allow me to sit down and write. Then I stopped, observed my mental chatter, and said, “Thank you, Mind. These are old stories and justifications that aren’t helping me do what I really want to do.” What really helped was slowing down and taking care of myself in a few targeted ways. I acknowledged that I had some unfinished business that I really wanted to attend to first, in order to feel clear and ready to write. I also had to allow myself the break that my mind needed after seeing clients and before I started to work on writing. Once I slowed down, listened inside, got clear on what I really wanted to do,  and acknowledged the resistance to starting to write, it became much easier to just sit down and begin. I wasn’t beating myself up anymore — or trying to flee from that beating by busying in another way. When my mind stayed open to what was really going on and got rid of that old story that I was just a procrastinator, lazy, unfocused, well, then… the work flowed.

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You are not an idiot who will stay stuck as a binge-eater forever and be powerless in the face of sugar. Stop saying that to yourself (or insert another familiar negative story about your eating or your body). Thank your mind for making the story so clear, and work on creating a new story that is more helpful and supportive of change. Get help with this, if you need to, from a therapist or trusted friend. It can be hard to create new stories when the old ones are so potent. But I do believe, with all my heart — and I’ve seen this over 16 years of practice, as well as in my own life — that you really can change your thoughts and habitual patterns. We now know, by looking at MRIs, that our brains are malleable. We are learning that, with mindfulness, meditation, and thought diffusion, you can actually change your brain. But, in my view, the most exciting part about all this is that with regular practice, you can ultimately change your life.