January is the time of year when we often set resolutions. For the most part, these are promises and hopes made to ourselves that we will change specific behaviours. We try to establish new boundaries or limits on eating, drinking, fitness, spending or other activities.
When we overeat or eat when we are full or not hungry, we are surpassing our bodies’ signals and satiety limit. Impulse spending, living beyond our means, and careless or no budgeting at all indicate the inability to set and keep monetary limits.
Why is it so hard to keep these limits with ourselves?
The impulsive and often uncontrollable nature to continually break our promises indicates the underlying power that drives such actions; and, MRI scans show exactly what brain activity is involved.
Executive control, which involves choosing an action to meet an internal goal, is managed by the brain’s prefrontal cortex which regulates decision-making based on the memory of feelings. When we recall a pleasant feeling associated with an activity (e.g., going for a walk, seeing a positive bank balance, etc.) we are more likely to repeat that activity. Positive feelings associated with recent success help motivate us for future long-term successes.
However, parts of the midbrain also have a large role in decision-making. This region makes its decisions based upon dopamine (the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter) levels. Eating sweet foods, drinking alcohol, taking drugs, gambling, and risky behaviour all trigger the release of dopamine. A part of us gets a short-term reward (e.g., eating cake) while another part of us would rather have opted for the long-term outcome (e.g., better nutrition, weight loss).
We need to be aware of underlying thoughts and feelings leading up to making decisions. When we are thinking about an unnecessary shopping trip or piece of pie, identify what is causing the craving for a pleasure-seeking quick-fix in the first place. We are most likely wanting to rid ourselves of an uncomfortable feeling such as anxiety, depression, anger, loneliness, boredom, stress or sadness.
Go further with the feeling. Why are we depressed, sad, etc.? Now that we’ve stated what is bothering us, we can take measures to address the situation in healthier ways. We can lie down and cry, have a bath, call a friend, watch a favourite movie, etc. In most cases, merely naming (and accepting) the feeling is enough to ground us and divert the mid-brain from a quick-fix decision.
The part of us that chooses the quick-fix is often our wounded child, still coping with distressing situations using old, habitual and unhealthy ways. The undeveloped, scared and hurt part of us prefers the easier short-term option; if only because that is all it knows.
It takes sixty-six days to create a new habit. With this in mind, we need to compassionately and patiently teach the undeveloped part of us healthier, new ways in which to deal with uncomfortable feelings or situations.