The Power In Keeping Your Brain Happy
Let’s get real for a second. You might know me as a health coach. And I do have a Masters degree in holistic nutrition. But I’m just an everyday person. I’m a sugar addict. My favorite food group is bread. I love pizza. And the idea of lifting weights at the gym makes me feel completely blah. I’m prone to carry too much stress. And I can easily work too much and feel guilty taking time for myself. So is it my determination to withstand deprivation that allows me to live this healthy lifestyle? Abso-freakin-lutely not. Do I have super human willpower? Well, my mother said that I was stubborn even as a baby. But that’s not it. So you want to know what allowed me to become healthy? Lean in, because I’m going to tell you a very special secret. I transformed my life by first making just one simple mindset shift.
I Realized My Mind Responds to Change Like a 3-Year-Old
Your mind can be like a little kid that likes its routine and will throw a tantrum if you try to disturb it. It isn’t that the new is bad. It is just unfamiliar which equates to scary. And a natural reaction to fear is to run and hide. Or throw a tantrum until you get back to what’s comfortable
Take this example. Let’s say you’ve made a resolution to exercise more. So you start going to the gym regularly and you’re feeling really good. And you find that its getting easier and easier to get yourself to go.
But then you take a day off. Which is fine because everyone needs a day off from time to time. But then the same thing happens the next day. And the day after that. And all of a sudden getting yourself moving starts to not be so easy. So what the heck happened?
You felt good in your new habit. Your new habit fit in well with your lifestyle. But your brain connected with that 3 year part of you that craves familiarity. And so it convinced you to give up your new habit even though it was working well within your lifestyle! Because your brain craved comfort and wanted to go back to the familiar.
A Powerful Mindset Shift
So this brings me to the all important mindset shift. You must bring your new habits to your own place of comfort and normalcy. I know that can sound confusing. Because, by definition, any type of healthy change is living outside of your your personalized sense of comfort. However, you must introduce the new habit to your brain as a friend and you must do so by appeasing your brain’s need for comfort.
OK, I know what you’re thinking. Erica, this sounds all fine and dandy, but how the heck am I gonna pull that off?
Again, this goes back to the mindset shift. You must find healthier habits that appease your emotional needs. Let me give you an example using my own journey.
My Old Dieting Ways
I was famous for leaping into my diets. I would drop all my diet comforts to go full force with my new diet. And it would work because I was super determined. But a few weeks into this, I would grow tired and cranky. I felt emotionally deprived. And I would start to daydream about my favorite foods.
So I would cheat just a little bit. Just to feel more emotionally satisfied. But going back to my diet after a cheat would feel unbearable. My brain was so much more comforted with the cheat. And not rewarding myself in this same way started to make my brain very unhappy.
Now I know you’re thinking. Erica, you were on a diet. You just needed to suck it up if you wanted to be successful. But that is the exact mindset I had to change to be successful.
Appeasing the 3-Year-Old
I made an important mindset shift. I started to actively make healthy changes that appeased that 3 year old, comfort seeking part of my brain. I had to focus as much on keeping that part of my brain happy as I did on making change. Now here’s the difficult part. How did I do that?
How I made my dieting brain happy
Take this example. I would often snack at night in front of the TV. That activity was my reward, signaling my brain that the work of the day was over and it was my time to relax. So keeping the habit in place was the best bet to appease my brain while making healthy changes. This was my personal needed mindset shift needed to effectively create new habits.
So I had to brainstorm how to do this while still being healthy. First I made a list of healthier foods I enjoy. Go back to what I said at the beginning. I’m truly a sugar addict and I find sugar extremely emotionally satisfying. So I went out and got a huge container of frozen blackberries and raspberries (my absolute favorite.) And I also got a bunch of dates covered in shredded coconut which tasted to me like candy.
But I didn’t stop there. I had been on a low-fat diet for years. So I started researching about healthy fats and how they can actually help your diet and heal your body.. And I started to fill my cabinets with nuts, avocado and coconut which tasted so good because I’d deprived myself of them for years. I personally really enjoyed these foods which means eating them sent pleasure signals to my brain.
And here I was eating healthier, giving myself the ability to snack with foods I enjoy. And I was doing it in a way that was kinder to my brain’s needs for comfort. Now this wasn’t the only change I made to appease my brain in eating healthier. This is just one example. Most people have multiple habits they need to re-create to keep their brain happy while eating healthier.
A Personality Stamped Diet Plan
But here’s the tricky part. What worked for me won’t necessarily work for you. My brain finds certain things comforting that might not be at all comforting to you and vice versa. This is why there also needs to be a mindset shift that eating healthy doesn’t translate to the same diet for everyone.
You need to take time exploring your own needs. What healthy habits can you create that will appease both your body and your brain? And don’t give up if you don’t immediately have an answer. If this were easy, you would have been doing this years ago. Think of your brain as a crying screaming baby. Do you just give up if the baby doesn’t stop crying with the first thing you try? Or do you instead try something else? Really explore what your brain needs to be happy in a healthy lifestyle.
This is why I always say diet isn’t one size fits all. Because a healthy lifestyle makes you feel good, both body and soul. But you need to understand your unique needs before making any healthy change. So if you do only one thing for your health this year, explore this simple mindset shift. Because the end result might be that living healthy has never felt so easy.
Sabrina Quairoli says
This is a great example of loving yourself and getting healthy at the same time. Thank you for sharing your experience. I agree we are all different but you showed us that we can do it. Thank you.
One’s mindshift shift really is unique to that individual. I think more and more people are realizing that. If we work with our cravings, etc. and consciously make healthier food choices without denying ourselves all at once, such an approach really does go a long way. This just might be my favorite post you’ve written yet since I can relate to it on many levels.
Thank you so much, Jeri! It is so nice to hear the positive feedback and I’m glad that it is helpful.
Peresonally have to avoid almost all delicious food because of a bit of a thyroid problem. Sugar, including fruit and berries, is for instance a no no. So I have learnt to bake healthy biscuits with corn flour and seeds that are delicious and eat them instead of cakes. Hummus also works for me and so do nuts.
It is such a difficult transition when you have to change your diet as much as you did. But I’m glad that you found healthier foods (for your specific needs) that you enjoy. There is a light at the end of the tunnel when you have to drastically change your diet. But it takes some experimenting and time to figure out how to get there.
Marquita Herald says
A similar concept worked for me but it’s called portion control. I dieted and deprived myself for years and it was only when I gave up dieting all together and learned to enjoy my favorite foods along with the stuff that’s good for me – only in proper proportions – that I lost that weight for good and began feeling really healthy.
Yes, I’m a big believer in everything in moderation as a long-term diet plan. Glad that worked for you.
What an insightful post.
Living healthily means sacrifice and changing your eating and exercise pattern. Personally if I over indulge, it makes no difference to my weight. It is what you do the majority of the time that counts – providing you bounce back to your regime.
Yes! I over-indulge at times too. It is inhuman to think that will never happen. It is what you do the majority of the time that counts.
RoseMary Griffith says
This blog made me laugh out loud–your honesty is a hoot!
I could live on bread, cheese, vanilla ice cream, and well, scotch. Needless to say I work to limit all those items! Can’t imagine if I indulged.
I hadn’t thought of retraining my brain, but like Marquita I do the portion control thing. That has helped for a long time. I’ll spend this week looking at it a little differently.
Glad I made you laugh! And it really is about figuring out what will work for you.
Ken Dowell says
This is somewhat reminiscent of my experience in quitting smoking. I probably quit 30 times but it didn’t work until I absolutely never cheated even a little.
I’m so glad you quit smoking, Ken. And I agree that will something as addictive as cigarettes, not indulging at all is probably the way to go for most people.
Doreen Pendgracs says
Great post, Erica. It really does call for a personalized approach to finding the right tactics in weight management. Dieting is impossible for me because of my current living arrangements. So … I try the portion control thing, and I try to have healthy snacks like carrots, almonds, smoothies to curb my appetite. And of course … the occasional piece of pure dark chocolate. 🙂
Doreen, the more healthy foods you can add to your diet, the better. It definitely isn’t all or nothing.
William Rusho says
As you stated, this is habit and a mindset. Its not that we don’t want to do these things (diet and exercise), its that life gets in the way, you forget about going to the gym, and then its too late in the day.
I have notes and posters, which basically say “Why are you doing this?” it is a reminder of why I go to the gym, or eat the right foods.
Thanks for sharing.
I like your note idea, William. Reminders for yourself like that are so powerful.
Kristina Rylova says
Erica, thanks for such a nice, insightful post!
Change of mind and introducing new habits is the best way to achieve success
Keep up the good work!
Glad you liked this Kristina. And as you mention, learning to change habits is important for all types of success in life.