I Am a Behaviorist
At the core of my being, I am a behaviorist. This means that I tend to see the world through the lens of behaviors and the factors that reinforce them (rewards) or reduce the likelihood that they occur (punishments).
These factors can be inside us (dopamine release in the brain) or can be on the outside (that medal they give you at the end of the race).
When I am working with clients, I like to break down problem behaviors into as small and discreet steps as possible, so that we can discern which punishments and rewards may be playing a role in their struggles.
For example, if we soothe a tough day by drinking a bottle of wine, we have actually increased our likelihood of perceiving that upcoming days are tough. Our brain can alter our perspective of experiences to skew in the direction of desired rewards.
If you know what is driving and reinforcing behaviors, you have a lot more power over the choices you make.
For the next several weeks, I am going to share some of my favorite behavioral experiments and ways to make them effective for behavior change.
The Neurobiology of Appetite and Eating Is Complex
A few years ago, I was engaging with some significant lifestyle changes for myself.
I have always been someone who exercised and paid attention to what I ate, but also have been someone who struggles to try to fall within healthy parameters for weight. Despite my intentions to eat well and exercise enough, my body’s own intentions of accumulating fat cells tended to win out.
“It was hard, but resisting sweets got way easier within a few weeks.”
The neurobiology of appetite and eating is really complex, and eating behavior is one of our most complex behavioral systems. We tend to think of eating in really simplistic ways, “I am avoiding carbs/fat/gluten/grains/animal products, etc.”
However, we make an estimated 200-400 food decisions every single day, starting from when we eat, to what we eat, to the size of the plate (if we are using one), size of the bite, how many chews, pauses to drink, intake pace, how we allow for hunger to build between meals, and even how we determine whether or not our appetite has been satiated (if we are even aware of hunger cues).
Our Brain Is Rewarded for Body Size
Our tendency to underestimate the complexity of this particular aspect to our day creates a condition in which dietary interventions fall really flat. We might follow a dietary intervention for several days to several weeks, but biology and complexity tend to win out.
Our brain is rewarded for body size because it keeps us far from starvation, and our fat system tends to fight size reduction in very tricky ways- the smaller our fat cells shrink, the less sensitive we are to leptin, the chemical that signals appetite satiety in the brain. Basically, the more weight we lose, the more our brain and body fights to gain it back.
Luckily, this will start to level out over time, but it often takes 1-2 years of maintaining a certain weight before this “set-point” resets. Depressing, right?
Focus Changing Smaller Components of Eating
Rather than solve all of the eating challenges in one day (or session), I find it can be better to hone in on smaller components to this very complex system.
One of my favorite personal experiments was transitioning my love for chocolate into a firmer lover of exercise. I had already been exercising for a very long time, but I didn’t often feel thrilled about it. I have several friends who seem to base a lot of their identity and satisfaction from their workouts, and this was never me.
Many years ago, I was training for a marathon and a friend asked me how training was going. My response was, “I think I like it, except for the running part.”
She laughed and asked what else there was to training for a marathon other than running, and my response was that I like the idea of working toward things and achieving. I decided that it was likely not a realistic goal to keep training for something I didn’t really enjoy.
Fast forward many years and I found myself working at Southeast Psych where we have the most incredible candy jar you have ever seen.
I would stop through our break room and indulge in a piece of candy or three at a lot of my breaks between clients. I had never been around that much candy, and my waistline was quickly reflecting my little encounters.
I decided that my visits to the candy jar needed to end, and it would be good to hone in on my relationship with exercise as a replacement behavior. Here is a fun article from Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience that essentially explains why I needed to break my reliance on sweets for dopamine.
No Sweets for 90 Days
The experiment went with the following goals: no sweets for a period of 90 days, and lots of exercise about which I would be excited.
I actually avoided all sweet taste for the 90 days, because I know that my brain is not differentiating completely between watermelon and watermelon jolly ranchers, even if the dopamine system is happier with the latter.
As far as the exercise went, exercise intensity is tied to the intensity of our dopamine response, so I focused on workouts that would get my heart rate soaring and followed them with lots of appraisal about how great they made me feel.
“I tend to see the world through the lens of behaviors and the factors that reinforce them (rewards) or reduce the likelihood that they occur (punishments).”
I became one of those people who bragged about workouts on social media, and I forcibly changed my emotional relationship with an intense workout- I would leave the workout psyching myself up for how awesome it was to work so hard. I even reflected on the workouts later in the day, sharing the latest accomplishments with colleagues.
The 90 days was not arbitrary- a researcher stated that we needed a year of abstinence from sweets to reverse the brain’s selectivity for sweet as a dopamine source, but a year felt like a very long time. A month would be too short to sustain such a complex switch, which is why I landed at 90 days.
I also planned the period to fall between my birthday and a slew of family birthdays, so temptation would be slightly limited.
Change Takes Time
It was hard, but resisting sweets got way easier within a few weeks. My workouts were hard, too, but I got fitter and more excited by the workouts as time went on.
It has been over 2 years since I last had a piece of candy from our candy jar- I never went back. It almost seems laughable to me now to think about how tempting it once was. No, I haven’t yet achieved the “perfect” body mass, but neuroplasticity has supported the fact that exercise now really is a preferred substance.