You can discover how to reprogram your mind to eat less and enjoy food more by becoming aware of the power that pain and pleasure (or neuro-associations) exert over every decision and action that you take. This is a vital piece of the weight loss puzzle which I hope helps you to understand why you have struggled to lose weight and keep it off in the past. In a later chapter I will show you exactly how to eat to feel satiated without having to over indulge, which will make this process even easier!
Karina Melvin, MSc, MA is a Psychologist, with an MSc in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy from the UCD School of Medicine, an MA in Addiction Studies and ten years of formal training within the field of mental health. She runs a private practice, Sandymount Psychotherapy, and loves to work with adults and children experiencing a wide range of issues, but specialises in helping people who experience body image and food related disorders.
Editor: Arman Ahmed
We may not be aware of it, but the unconscious part of our mind is the driving force behind our thoughts and behaviours. For example, perhaps you have been wanting to lose weight for a long time, but have kept putting it off, or have said “I’ll start next week”. You know you want to get healthier, yet you keep procrastinating. This is because unconsciously you associate more pain to taking action than you do to putting it off.
I bet though that you managed to slim down for your wedding day or some significant occasion, this is because you linked more pain to not looking fantastic on your special day than you did to dieting. So in this instance you simply changed what you linked pain to. Not taking action and fitting into your chosen outfit became much more painful than sticking to that strict weight loss regime.
When we reach a level of pain that we’re not willing to settle for, something shifts inside us.
The big problem is that most of us decide what we associate pain or pleasure to is in the short term, instead of the long term. That’s why it is so much easier to give in to the pleasure of enjoying that second helping of dessert because you will experience pleasure now. While the pleasure that will come from not over-indulging, a beautiful body, is something too abstract in that moment and so the mind will push towards the immediate pleasure. We need to learn to break through the wall of short term pain in order to gain long term pleasure. This is an extremely crucial point. Once we understand how the mind works we can develop tools and skills that will help us.
It’s important here to understand that it is not actual pain that drives us, but the idea that something will lead to pain. Likewise, it’s not actual pleasure that drives us but the belief that something will lead to pleasure. This is a very important distinction. We are not driven by reality but by our imaginary perceptions of reality. If you’re failing to take action, then you can be assured that there is one reason: you’ve learned to associate more pain to taking action than not taking action.
So there is only one way to make a change: Change what you link pain and pleasure to. Otherwise you can make a short term change but its not going to last and you know this. You’ve been on a diet before and you pushed yourself and disciplined yourself, but as long as you linked pain to eating the foods that supported you in your weight loss goal, it was doomed to fail because we are conditioned to seek out the idea of pleasure.
To change what you associate unconsciously, will power is simply not enough. The good news is we do have some capacity to consciously condition our mind to link pain and pleasure to that which will serve us. This is a big aspect of changing your relationship to food – by changing what you link pain and pleasure to you can change your behaviour.
Let’s take the idea of positive, pleasurable and negative, painful associations a step further. I am sure that you generally tend to finish a portion of something. A chocolate bar, a packet of crisps or whatever is on your plate. Not very long ago food shortages were common so we are conditioned to link pleasure to eating what is in front of us. If I asked you to not finish a portion you would therefore unconsciously, and possibly consciously too, feel that you were denying yourself.
Your brain continually processes what your senses are perceiving and it forms an intricate network of unconscious linkages between ideas, images, sounds and feelings and your memory of what leads to pain and what leads to pleasure. Any time you experience a significant amount of pain either emotionally or physically, your brain immediately searches for a cause. Once your brain discovers the cause, it links up that association in your nervous system so that in the future you wont have to experience the pain again. It becomes a warning signal that you’re able to search for whenever you enter a situation like that. It also guides you in knowing what to do in order to get back into pleasurable states again and doing so more quickly than if you didn’t have the system. This is our survival instinct at work.
It’s time to recondition your mind and your emotions to link pain to overeating and link pleasure to the idea of eating lighter foods and smaller amounts.
Associating pleasure with eating in moderation and recognising when your stomach feels satiated is an essential component to losing weight. You can condition yourself to feel pleasure at not finishing something by conditioning your mind, linking pleasure to pushing the plate away while there is still food on it. Or only eating half of the sandwich, or leaving half of the soup. I know this may sound wasteful but you can always feed it to you pets, save it for tomorrows lunch, or freeze it for another time.
Action: Change what you link pain and pleasure to.
How do you link pleasure to the action of eating less?
Step 1: Every time you eat something, an apple, a chocolate bar, a croissant, a serving of pasta, your breakfast, lunch and dinner, separate out half of the food so that you can see exactly how much a half portion is.
Step 2: Once you have finished your designated amount, push the food away and immediately create a mental state of joyous feelings by consciously acknowledging the positive action you are taking towards your goal.
Step 3: Think about that image of yourself at you ideal size and consciously make the connection between not finishing everything on your plate and achieving your goal.
Step 4: Play a song you love or choose a mantra that motivates you each time you have finished exactly half of what your eating. Associate the good feelings of the song or mantra with the action of leaving the food behind.
It is important that you work yourself into a positive, excited state and feel those positive wonderful feelings of pleasure at this achievement and the anticipation of really attaining your goal
Step 5: Repeat this process over and over, every single time you eat something until you find that you do it automatically.
You will find that you’ll eventually begin to push away your plate with the food still on it without actually noticing! Can you imagine what a freeing experience this will be? To be liberated when it comes to eating whatever you like, but knowing and understanding that you will eat just the right amount for you. In this way you are consciously reinforcing the idea that less is more and you are conditioning your mind to enjoy moderation.
- Do not finish that portion and link pleasure to leaving some behind.
- Do this every time you eat and while it will be challenging at first, you will find that over the space of a couple of weeks it becomes automatic. It is such a liberating experience.
- When it comes to food, instead of feeling like your denying yourself something, feel a sense of empowerment and pleasure at taking action, eating what you want, but eating in moderation.