Posts Tagged ‘bad habits’

What is conditioning, and how does it affect our lives?

It has been far, far too long since I’ve written a post on the likes of Ron Weasley.  Where is the fire and brimstone?  Where are the charging hordes?  Where are the Kirbys, the Spocks, and the Sonic and Tales?  We all need a little bit of Patton in our lives, and I’ve been remiss in going astray.  So I want to talk first about a very important psychological phenomenon, and second about it’s implications for contemporary lives.


Everyone and their grandma has heard of Ivan Pavlov.  But he was such an important man, and his ideas so profoundly impacted psychology, that he merits a recap.

Ivan Pavlov was a Russian scientist in the late 1800s.  He was a medical researcher, and he made important strides both in organ physiology and in the functioning of the nervous system.  He was particularly interested in the idea of “reflexes,” which is what brought him to his most famous works.

Pavlov was investigating the salivary response to foods when he happened upon a phenomenon now known as classical conditioning. What he found was that dogs salivated not just at the sight of food, but also at the occurrence of “food is coming” signals.  First, the dogs responded only to the food itself.  Then, after having food delivered with the sound of a bell for a certain period of time, the dogs began salivating at the sound of the bell.  Even without food present, the dogs salivated.  They had been conditioned to salivate, and no amount of mental “no no no” would stop the saliva from coming.

What does this mean for human beings?

This means that we can condition responses to just about anything.  Repeat a certain event with a stimuli for a certain amount of time– say, dinner (the event) at six o’clock (the stimuli) or food (again, the event) when I see a Starbucks (again, the stimuli)– we come to expect these things.   Naps in the afternoon, workouts in the morning, the same drinks every time we hang out with the same friends…

Moreover, it is not just a psychological expectation, but a physiological expectation.  I had a professor in college prove this to us.   For two months he would ring a bell then submerge his arm under hot water.  His arm would turn red.   At the end of two months, he rang the bell, without submerging his arm, and his blood vessels opened up, and his arm turned red.  Make no mistakes about it.  Classical conditioning is a very, very real thing.

We also have things called “habits” which are very similar to conditioned responses, only less specific and less strong.   Both are inherent parts of our every day lives.  Both are powerful, and both are hard things to break.

A lot of what we do in life is ruled by habit.  Habit makes things easier.  I always sit in the same seat in class, I eat a lot of the same foods, and I often eat at the same times.  Cool.  These are all helpful things.  But I also have some nasty habits.  I eat every time I come home.  Sometimes this act is so ingrained and subconscious that I have consumed an entire chicken leg before I even know I have food in my mouth.  Yikes.   Some other bad habits I have had in my life are eating while I talk to my mom, walking down the “bad” aisles of grocery stores, and pulling over every time I see a sweet potato cart.  These were subconscious, powerful, and–don’t forget–physiological compulsions.  They ruled my behavior.


It’s not all BAD NEWS BEARS for team humanity, however.  And why not?

Because as easily as we are conditioned to bad habits, we are broken of them. Without the hot water my professor’s arm still turned red, but each day afterwards, when the stimuli of the bell was rung, but the result of the hot water was absent, his arm got a little bit less red.  Within two weeks it didn’t happen at all, and he felt no difference.   He was, by then, conditioned to the new order of things, which was: ring bell, have nothing happen.  Cool!   We can be programmed to respond, but we can also be re-programmed, or de-programmed, to have different responses.

So if I forcibly stop myself from walking to the refrigerator the next time I go home, I will be de-facto starting the de-conditioning process.  Each time I do that it takes me further down that road.  This process is difficult as hell, especially at first, but each time gets easier and easier.  I can build up momentum in this way.  The more and more time we spend actively denying a bad habit, the easier and easier it becomes to let go.

How does this relate to Mr. Weasley?

Well.   It’s about being the hero of your own life. It’s about recognizing your bad habits, and about owning up to them, and facing them dead on.  It’s about being honest with yourself, and determined, and about taking action.  In a lot of ways, it boils down to bravery.  Here, we have the science to back us up.  We know what the road is going to be like.  We know it’s tough, but we also know that it gets easier over time.  We know that we have conditioned ourselves to act a certain way, but we also know that we can de-condition that behavior.   The first time you get yourself past the McDonald’s without pulling over, it’s an enormous struggle, but it’s also a momentous victory.  Huzzah!  And the second time, it’s still a struggle, but it’s yet another victory.  Bad habits suck.  Let’s be real.  But letting them rule your life and perpetuate disordered eating is even more horrific.  Be a Ron Weasley.  Be an Odysseus.  Be Mufasa.  Whatever.  Whoever.  Use every tool you have at your disposal to improve your life, then commit, and do it, god damnit.

Easy Peasy.  Pavlov says so, and he was the man.


06 2011

Reader Insight

With the permission of a reader of mine who has become a dear friend, I am posting part of one of her emails to me.  I find it to be very stirring and very true, and I think that the words of someone wrestling with food so intelligently and bravely right now might be a good perspective to add to mine on this blog.  She discusses what makes her binge, and why, and it’s enormously touching.  Moreover, we could all really learn from her radical and brilliant self-honesty.


I thought about WHY did I want to eat. Was it because I was hungry? Was it because I had just “allowed” myself  that day and wanted to make the most of it as a treat? Or was it because I wanted to be distracted from a thought about myself or a void inside?

Usually when I binge, Stef, I think its the last two questions.  I’m getting better at learning how to handle the second to last one- the go crazy because I already screwed it up mentality- that’s all about willpower, and realizing that the real treat and the real spoiling of myself comes from getting to that goal weight that would make me so happy. It’s the last question I think is the hardest- the types of thoughts I’m trying to escape from are ones where I am disappointed in myself, or ones where I feel lonely (like I’ll never find someone to spend the rest of my life and will live alone forever), or thoughts about how I could be better at everything, or thoughts about how little progress I’ve made- I don’t need to describe more because we both know what those self-castigating thoughts (thriggers [purposeful misspelling lol] lets call them) are and how they get us going on a binge.  And we talked about it before and I knew that, but what I think I realized this week, is when you are in that moment, when you are reaching to eat something, and IN THAT MOMENT when you realize that you are doing it because you don’t want to think whatever you are thinking, or you want to run away from that loneliness inside- it is so hard to put it down. Not because you dont realize its not going to make you better- I’ve made that realization already- i know that it’s not going to make me feel better, and i know that probably in an hour and the next day its going to make me even feel worse but IN THAT MOMENT, it’s something to do, something to distract myself with, something to fill myself with. Something to keep me from being alone with my thoughts of self loathing and loneliness. And when you do decide to put it down, and when you do decide to not eat, you are alone with those thoughts. And that’s when it becomes something you actually know- that is when you actually realize that you were eating to not be alone with those thoughts, because being alone with those thoughts suck. At least it was something to do (like people turn to alcohol or drugs, the analogies weve made before to addictive substances).  It’s not until you actually let yourself be alone with those thoughts do you really understand that you were running away from being alone with them. And I know why- because it sucks to be alone with them. But I know thats the only way to heal.  Its the harder route, but in the long run makes me happier, and in the long war against self loathing, its beginning a small battle with those thoughts- giving yourself the opportunity to sift through them, to face them, instead of eating away from them.

Did any of that make sense? I hope it did. I was trying to convey something I think that’s been very powerful for me.  Realizing that 1) not only will eating not make it go away or make it better and will actually make it worse and make me hate myself more and that 2) being alone with these thoughts is what I was running away from, is what binging was doing for me.  The thoughts of feeling like I obsess too much on whats on the outside and that my inside is not good enough, or that I will be alone forever. Or that I feel like a failure in everything. Not always, many of the times I binged because I felt I needed to make the most of this “break” — which I think is more about dealing with willpower and arming myself with the knowledge that Im not depriving myself but actually doing better.

As you can see, I’m sifting through the WHYS of my binging so I can move forward with better armor and preparation as you suggested is best.  I’m reading this book called “the act of racing in the rain”- it’s absolutely amazing. I want to copy in a paragraph for you, but it will take too long. Basically the point of the paragraph is:  “that which you manifest is before you”– I’m explaining it horribly, but the idea is that you create your own destiny by the decisions you make and the way you react to things that are outside your control- by realizing the response to these actions are in your control.  I woke up this morning (the hardest part for me is the day after a bad day , I just want to make that bad day bad too and the cycle goes on) saying “that which you manifest is before you- it is in my hands to get to my goals or not, I can decide whether I’m going to make this day something that I want rather than something that is self sabotage”- and I am pushing and pushing every time a thought of laziness, post fruit from yesterday hunger pang comes, to remember my goal to get to Sunday with my break only lasting one day. And I WILL do it Stef, I’ll be dammed, but God willing, I will get there. Because I can decided whether I will or not, and I decide to do what I know I want for myself.


She’s brilliant, isn’t she?  And strong and courageous, and making so much progress, and really doing well.  And getting through med school at the same time.  In any case, the greatest lesson I think we can learn from her is that running is not the answer.  Food as a distraction is not the answer.  Is it momentarily numbing?  Absolutely.  But it is a band-aid, and a bit of a scary one, at that.  One of those that pulls all of your tiny hairs out when you take it off.  Don’t let food be a band-aid.  If you need one, look elsewhere.  If you don’t need one, face your demons head on, and think about how to best deal with them, and approach the problem with as much patience, love, and positivity as you can muster.  And I promise, I promise: no matter the depth of your pain or your self-illusion, recognizing food as a distraction will help you walk away from it more easily.  Hell no, it won’t be easy.  But it will be easier, and you will be able to more clear-headedly think about your problems and how to fix their place in your life.


05 2011

Break your bad thinking habits

A lot of this blog focuses on cultivating good habits and getting rid of the nasty ones.  We do this mostly by analyzing our behavior, by thinking up new strategies, and by moving forward with constant awareness.   Constant analysis and reevaluation is important.  I stand by that.

Sort of.

Because constant analysis also means that we spend a lot of time thinking.  About food. Why did I binge?  How can I recover?  Why do I feel bad about myself?  How do I turn that around?  We use our brains a lot – which I will never say is a bad thing — but in search of psychological freedom, we eventually have to learn how to plain old let go.

Sometimes, what we need is to use our brains less.

I’ve often entertained the idea that the healthiest relationship with food is defined by not thinking about food.  I find this to be more and more true over time.  I’ve talked with a lot of you who feel similarly.  If I’m not thinking about food, I’m not obsessing over it.  I’m being natural.  I’m being instinctive.  I’m being spontaneous.  And I’m being… well, free.   Most of us envy this state.  We see it as a distant goal. And, honestly, for as long as I’ve been wrestling with food and with these health/body image/diet issues, it’s continued to be a distant goal for me.

My point being: I have broken bad habits with the power of thought.  However, a lot of the mental anguish is still hanging around.  I feel deprived, I ache for foods, I hate my body for not being able to metabolize sweet potatoes without making me balloon… Moreover, I plan every day super carefully, strategizing the best way to maximize my enjoyment of food while still clinging on to self-esteem, worrying about being too hungry or not hungry enough… generally I feel fine, and I act fine, but on occasion… I want all of the thoughts… about food, about my body and about my worth to just fucking go away.

So, what now?

Just do it.

Stop your negative or obsessive thoughts.  Just– stop. Never let your brain go to a negative place.  When you feel it coming, derail it.  Distract it.  I find that a lot of the success I experience these days comes from my ability to shut off thoughts before they really get going.  Shut it off and walk away.  Don’t let yourself think about your last binge or your thighs or tomorrow’s food at all.  Promise yourself you can dwell on it later if you want, but for right now, you are in this very present moment, and you are being good and psychologically, and everything be damned if you’re going to let thoughts that are nothing but bad habits keep messing up your life.

Because they are habits.  We have conditioned ourselves to think certain ways about ourselves and the world just by a matter of practice.  You can try and think your way past your negative thoughts all you want, but when it comes down to it, you’re still obsessing over them.  Positivity is enormously important.  But it’s not the only way to play the game.   This is just like the “throw a towel over the mirror” strategy.  Don’t look.  Don’t think.  Distract yourself.  Say “no” fiercely and deny your brain the ease of old thought patterns.

Shutting down certain thought patterns helps me feel better, and it also helps me point blank stop eating and stop having cravings.  Is something coming on?  Am I about to get really bored and start grazing?   Have I just subconsciously walked into the kitchen?  Immediately I recognize the urge coming.  Nope!  Gone.  It’s like… here’s a good example. I used to think about dying when I went to sleep at night, and it gave me panic attacks.  Panic attacks are really unpleasant, so it became supremely important that I learn how to turn off that thought process. Now, when I see the thought of death coming– sort of by predicting the path of my future thoughts– I just force my brain to go in another direction.   So.  It’s hard.  It’s definitely hard.  But practice turning it off.   Say no and turn it around and think about something else you like.  Like sex!  Or men!  Or the novel you’re currently reading!  Anything.  I promise, I promise, I promise: take charge of your brain.  Deny it wallowing.  Exercise your will in this way. Decrease the amount of negative feelings you have, Liberate your brain for better thoughts, and recondition yourself to obsess less.

Sometimes I think keeping a leash on our brain is all that we really need to get through this.  The name of the game here is psychological freedom, so what we need is to be in control, and to only permit ourselves to think things we enjoy thinking.   This isn’t always the wisest strategy, since we do need to think through problems, but once resolved, we’ve just got to let them go.  A large percentage of my readership is composed of perfectionists.  Perfectionists tend to seek out weak spots and dwell on them, push themselves inordinately hard, and punish themselves unduly.   This is not the way to happiness. Instead, just be good to yourself and stop nitpicking and breathe.  “Wake up, regain your humor,” says the Way of the Peaceful Warrior.  “Do not worry, you are already free!”





04 2011