Kicking habits and hijacking the brain
How often do we find our minds wandering, day dreaming when we are meant to be writing our presentation or eating 4 chocolate chip cookies when we set out only to eat one or smoking when we know we shouldn’t be? This is thanks to one of the oldest learning processes known to man, it is prehistoric and all about the relay system of positive and negative reinforcement, which is essentially the most basic of systems that make us, do what we do.
The best example is with food; we see food/calories, recognize them as essential for our survival, send this signal to our brain, eat and then we notice that we feel good. This can basically be summed up as; trigger, behavior, reward. When we were out in the wild fighting for survival this loop was great and essential, however, now it has slightly backfired. The circuit has been hijacked by emotions; we see food, and we know that eating that food makes us feel good as well as being key for survival. So the trigger has changed from survival to emotional dependence; we feel bad, stressed, sad, uncomfortable, irritated, we eat food high in sugar and fat and salt and we feel good again. Repeat. Each time we do this pathways are set down in our brain and we develop habits.
How do we break free of this cycle, which is seemingly all consuming and impossible to break? How many times have you tried so hard to avoid the ‘bad’ food only to give in in a moment of weakness, which was usually preceded by stress or tiredness? This is primarily thanks to the frontal part of our brain, called the Prefrontal Cortex and is the youngest part of our brains in terms of evolution. This is the part of the brain that ‘understands’ that we shouldn’t do these self-defeating behaviours such as overeating and smoking, however, it is also the first part of the brain to switch off in moments of high stress! Meaning we have none of that cognitive control we have in hindsight after we have polished off the packet of biscuits in a moment of severe stress or in those calm moments we are outlining our new good intentions.
How do we override this? Simple. We get curious. This seemingly simple action is absolutely key in breaking habits and it is also a central part of mindfulness meditation. When we meditate we are taught to simply become aware of our breath and when our attention wanders bring it back to our breath. There are also exercises taught in the 8 week mindfulness meditation course that teach us to become curious about our bodies – checking in to our bodies to see how they are feeling, not in order to analyze these feelings but simply to observe them and get curious about them.
It is in exactly this same way we can hijack the brain when faced with a craving; we get curious. Ask yourself, how do I feel right now physically; maybe tight in the chest, constrained in the stomach, tight in the shoulders pounding in the head, tight in the jaw… What ever you feel go deeper, become more curious ask yourself where else you are feeling something similar, ask yourself if it goes when you feel it. Just watch and feel with intrigue.
When you have done this you will be stunned that the craving, now, instead of this overwhelming feeling that has to be banished, has been paired down into a series of physical sensations. Your curiosity has just managed to disenchant you to the previous craving, and once this has happened you can joyfully let go of the craving and get on with being amazing!
While this might sound too simply and not very ‘scientific’ it is in fact completely the opposite. At the back of the brain we have something called the Posterior Cingulate Cortex which itself is not activated by cravings however, when we get caught up in the craving and the drama and shame of the craving it lights up and takes us for a ride creating more and more craving and more drama. In contrast when we become curious and look at the craving and mindfully feel its physical presence in our bodies and then let it go this area of the brain is switched off therefore eliminating the craving’s development.
Meditation is such a key in our overall health and thankfully science, with the help of MRI scans and other investigatory procedures, is proving that is really does help heal our mind which in turn has a direct cumulative effect on our overall happiness and ability to be non attached.
For more information and an introduction to meditation check out these apps and websites:
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