It’s a Brain Game

It’s 3 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon. You’ve been crazy busy at work, and a few of your office mates are heading to the cafeteria for a snack. You argue with yourself, but decide you can make time for a snack, especially for one of those amazing frosted brownies. You reason, “That will give me the energy I need to finish the work day! Yes, just what the doctor ordered.” Besides, the take-out sandwich that you had for lunch was not very satisfying.

An hour later, you feel completely wiped out and have a mild headache. You decide to grab a cup of coffee, but still worry it’s going to be a long ride home, and you still have a ton of things to get done this evening. While driving home, you wonder if your food choices are impacting your energy, focus, and productivity. You turn up the volume of your music to quiet those thoughts.

The stress of managing a career, a home, and a family can zap your energy, and leave you feeling a bit guilty, wondering when you will find time to take care of your health. But, why does health take a back seat?

We all know there is a thinking part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex. Let’s call it TEX for short. People reference it when discussing the less than stellar decision-making abilities of those under the age of 25. TEX just isn’t fully developed until then.

The part of the brain that engages in arguments and decisions, dictates the fight or flight response, seeks pleasure, and encourages impulsive behaviors is the limbic system. And within this system lies the amygdala, which is responsible for feelings of fear, anxiety, paranoia, and aggression, as well as social skills and emotional intelligence. Let’s refer to this collective as MY.

TEX and MY are connected in ways that scientists are beginning to define. It may be the reason that people derive pleasure from solving problems.

This neuro-science lesson lays the groundwork for understanding how to change an unwanted behavior. When we awaken after a good night’s sleep, TEX takes charge of decisions like eating a healthy breakfast, completing a difficult task that seemed insurmountable the night before, or choosing to get an early morning run.

MY tends to say things to you like “Your hair looks awful, you’ll never make it to work on time, and that project you did last minute at work could cost you your job”, supporting a more negative mindset. It doesn’t take much for MY to exhaust TEX, thereby weakening will-power.

TEX is bigger and more powerful, and can control MY at any time. But, TEX is not necessary for survival, so gives in easily to stress, illness, or injury, as well as negative emotions such as anger. MY’s voice can be louder and more demanding, further draining TEX’s control over rational decision-making.

Just think about decisions you have made in the morning vs. a decision you made at 3pm, when stressed and tired. Afternoon and evening are perfect times for MY to remind you how much you love and need something that you know is not in your best interest. MY is winning at a time of day when TEX is tapped out.

Perhaps you have repeated the brownie behavior a few times in the past, and have a good memory of it and the social connection it provided. MY reminds you the brownie experience is pleasurable, will make you feel better, and you deserve it. You have now created a reward system around your habit.

This explains a lot about why dieting or quitting a bad habit is difficult. Recall, if you can, the number of times you argued with yourself today, but ultimately gave in to your impulsive side later in the day (hit the easy button). Exhausted TEX simply does not want to compete.

What is the answer? The trick is to “exercise” TEX just like a muscle, so it gets gets stronger. We build its strength every time we can resist an urge, practice mindfulness, or get restorative sleep. The more deliberate steps we take to start eating the right foods in the right balance will build up our mental resistance as well. Choose foods with a low glycemic index (a orange vs. a candy bar), and learn/practice mental exercises to recharge TEX.

You can change or alter a habit any way you want by having a different conversation with yourself. Listen to TEX and MI go at it for a bit, and start to let TEX win a few arguments. From there, it just gets easier, and you are on your way to developing a healthy habit just by listening to yourself. Give it a try!

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