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Friday, 14 August 2015 12:51

Willpower: It's All About the Brain!

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If only we had more willpower right? We all want that illusive willpower. We blame our failures on dieting because of a lack of it. But willpower isn't actually what you might think. And lack of it isn't totally your fault. And I bet you are relieved to hear that right?

"I can change. I can live out my imagination instead of my memory. I can tie myself to my limitless potential instead of my limiting past."
~ Stephen Covey

Jeffrey M. Schwartz, MD, is a research psychiatrist from UCLA School of Medicine and a seminal thinker in the field of self-directed neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to take on new functions based on a person's changing needs and actions.). Rebecca Gladding, MD, is clinical instructor and attending psychiatrist at the UCLA Stewart and Lynda Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital and the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. Both of these doctors are authors of a groundbreaking book, You are Not Your Brain. They tell us our bad habits and learning to control our unhealthy behaviors might have a lot more to do about the brain and how it is 'wired.' They have a lot to teach us in terms of how our habits and behaviors are so impacted by our brains.

In fact habits are formed because of what goes on in your brain. First you do something. Say the results are favorable, so this reinforces the habit and you remember it. Then you simply repeat the experience. It's important to be aware though that each time you repeat the behavior the stronger your brain becomes 'wired' to continue having that same experience. Because it's pleasurable it can readily become a habit. But some pleasurable yet unhealthy habits can become addictions - drinking too much alcohol, smoking, overeating and gaining weight in response to stress, and unhealthy snacking to name just a few.

Making a Habit

Here's more of a real life example of how a habit is formed. You have a stressful job. So every day at a certain time you take a break, go to the vending machine or break room. To take the edge off your stress you might treat yourself to your favorite flavored coffee and high calorie snack. The more you keep repeating this experience the more neuroplasticity you develop. Neuroplasticity is the brain circuitry that's formed directly in your brain every time you perform an activity of some kind. This is similar to making a trail in a path. You make those paths in your brain in the same way. A path becomes a well worn trail because it is used over and over. Your brain forms a path from the neuroplasticity within the brain. After awhile this becomes an engrained habit and somewhat hard to change, it may even seem impossible for someone trying to lose weight and who has the strong vending machine habit every afternoon. This habit is literally 'wired' into the brain just like all habits are. This is where willpower is all about the brain.

So now the question is how does a person change this kind of unhealthy habit if it becomes so wired into our brain and becomes such a strong habit? How can anyone develop the willpower required to make healthier choices? In Dr. Schwartz's book, You are Not your Brain, he explains this entire intriguing process in more detail in layman's terms and how you can develop the needed willpower you need to manage your weight. If you have struggled with dieting your whole life, particularly with stress or emotional eating, this book offers a solution for you if you are willing to work at it. It's got science backing it all up with real proof that it can work for those motivated enough to put it into practice.

Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz's 4th Step Plan from You are Not Your Brain:

So here's how to do it:

Step 1- Relabel: Become aware and really notice your thought patterns and feelings causing you to perform an inappropriate behavior. By learning to understand where these thoughts and feelings come from, and how they deceive you, you can learn to relabel them as they occur. This relabeling of thoughts as they occur can be very empowering and gives you a hint of the willpower already beginning to evolve.

For example you admit you are a stress eater. Stress is hitting you in the face. You will have to endure being a bit uncomfortable until new habits form. So instead of running to the food, understand, feel, and say, "I are uncomfortable; I are feeling pressured and overwhelmed and I want to eat." But remain strong here, and before you go to the food, take the needed timeout from this negative thinking and relabel this thinking, this desire to go to the food, "is a deceptive brain message." Or you might say, "It is old thinking from my past. It is useless mind chatter. I have always used food to cope with any stress, and the idea that eating will make me really feel better is a really an old "deceptive brain message" from my past." -This is one of the strongest messages Jeffrey Schwartz shares directly with his readers over and over, and it can be empowering to know that this urge, this craving to eat when we are stressed, is really an old faulty brain message! It's not entirely our fault we want to eat when stress happens.

Step 2 - Reframe: Basically this step is helping you name and identify the brain's deceptive thought pattern so then you can change your personal unsatisfying relationship to the thought. It asks you to literally change your interpretation of the value of the thinking that food makes you feel better when stressed.
It encourages you to explore what the direct cause is to your stress and how you can deal with it better rather than holding on to the thought that the eating helps ease the stress. Past faulty thinking automatically reinforces the idea in your head that food really fixes stress, even though you know on another level it's really not true.

Reframing this old thinking makes you see stress eating like it is, an old unhealthy habit probably stemming from childhood or a previous stressful time in your past when food helped you cope with a trauma of some kind. But now having gone through the past trauma you can realize eating in response to stress only contributes to your frustration around your weight problem and certainly does not 'fix' any problem at all. In fact it probably causes you even more stress.

Step 3 - Refocus: It's important at this point that you realize this step does not specifically ask you to ignore or make the feeling of stress go away. You still need to sit with and feel any uncomfortable feelings and acknowledge any negative emotions. And while you still acknowledge any stressful feeling, this step now also asks you to focus on a more satisfying activity to simply redirect the focus of eating in response to stress, to put your focus elsewhere.

What else can you do to redirect your feelings? Can you do some deep breathing for a few minutes? What else would give you the distraction you might need to take the energy away from the stress you are feeling? This is obviously the hardest part of the 4 steps but remember that each time you give in to the old behavior you are actually strengthening that bad habit of eating in response to a bad feeling! The idea at this point is to start "re-wiring" the brain circuitry with a new and better new brain pathway, similar to making a new pathway on a trail.

Step 4 - Revalue: Now you are going to work at aligning yourself more with your deeper core values. You already understand that eating too much unhealthy food only makes you feel much worse and is only a very quick fix to make you feel better for a short time. But now, acknowledge this truth to yourself in an even more honest way. Overeating unhealthy food in response to stress only contributes to your weight problems, makes you feel worse about yourself in numerous other ways and leads to many other health and personal problems. The real truth is it's not what you want from life. It's not how you want to live your life. You want to live from your greater self free from the compulsion of overeating.

By taking time again to revalue this habit, you see it's not worth the value you have put on it. And by not giving in to the old eating behavior you are "letting weeds grow on an old worn path" so to speak, or you are allowing the old circuitry in the brain to die off. The book, You Are Not Your Brain also gives you additional helpful tips on how not to give in to this strongly engrained habit, since this is such a difficult step. We know only too well how difficult it can be when we are seemingly 'driven' to eat when we are stressed. By establishing a new behavior you are making a "brand new path on your trail, "or developing new circuitry (willpower) in your brain that can help you accomplish your goals! As time goes on as your new brain circuitry is developing this urge to eat will eventually fade.

You Are Not Your Brain

The book You are Not Your Brain explains very simply in layman's terms how and why the brain works and how the brain actually makes you feel totally overwhelmed by overactive brain circuits (bad habits, anxiety, stressful thought patterns etc.). All this of course undermines willpower. The key to changing all this and developing the willpower you need to make life changes that you truly want in your life is of course to change the brain circuitry!

Note, I am not getting any special benefits from suggesting this book, it's just one more great new tool that can help overcome stress eating. Sandra Pawula also has a slightly longer and more in-depth summary of You Are not Your Brain if you need still more in depth explanation:

Dr. Schwartz and psychiatrist Rebecca Gladding have proven the effectiveness of this specific 4th Step program through actual scientific protocols at UCLA with patients with Obsessive- Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Brain scans demonstrated actual positive changes in the brain waves of people who had used the 4 steps over a 10-12 week period. These brain changes were equivalent to the changes that take place in people who take medications to treat OCD.

All that being said these concepts learned in this 4th Step Process can really be helpful in changing almost any bad habit, including the development of acquiring that illusive willpower strength! There's still some work to do but we know you are up to that challenge. We know you can succeed and we are here to support you in your journey of change.

"Bad habits are like chains that are too light to feel until they are too heavy to carry." ~Warren Buffet

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