The Getting of Impulse Control
I want what I want, when I want it and I want it NOW!
Sound familiar? We may not give voice to this statement, but our inner 2 year old tyrant of a child demands it when we find ourselves suddenly craving and compulsively consuming large portions of food with no restraint.
This is not a happy place to be in and we know it. Yet despite our grandest intentions, we keep ending up here – angry, conflicted and exhausted. How does this happen?
When those mammoth urges to binge strike, we have a choice about how we deal with them. We can either feed the urges - by giving in and devouring whatever it is we are being driven to, only to drown in guilt and remorse later - or we can fight the urges by trying to resist while we white-knuckle it with willpower. And ‘fight’ is the operative word here because in trying to resist the outside temptation, we become fully engaged in the panic-fuelled storm raging inside.
The stress from the fight sucks the life out of us while also revving up the intensity of our cravings, which makes it that much harder to try to resist. Which is why so often, we fail and end up giving in anyway. In all our efforts to fight those cravings, we chew through vast reservoirs of emotional energy, that could have been put to more meaningful and productive use – if only we had some of that elusive impulse control.
When we habitually lose control and overeat, our identity and sense of self becomes fused with the shame-spiralling words that are peppered throughout our internal vocabulary, words like: failure, hopeless and useless.
“There is perhaps no psychological skill more fundamental than resisting impulse. It is the root of all emotional self-control, since all emotions by their very nature, lead to one or another impulse to act. The root meaning of the word ‘emotion’ remember, is ‘to move’.
Daniel Goleman, author of “Emotional Intelligence”
As Paul Ekman, emotions expert, puts it, “the capacity to squelch an impulse, one of the key goals of psychotherapy is to increase the gap between impulse and action. It’s in that gap that our Free Won’t keeps us out of trouble.
As our brain circuitry matures, specifically our dorsal front-median cortex, our internal ‘no’ becomes the basis for our free will, or more accurately, our ‘free won’t’.”
Food is a highly effective mood regulator - specifically, refined carbohydrates, affectionately known as Carbs. When we over-indulge in bread, pasta, chips, chocolate, ice cream, biscuits, desserts, etc, a profound change occurs as food, mood and brain chemistry are all interrelated.
Instinctively we know this, which is why no one binges on salad. Have you ever noticed how wiped out you feel after downing huge quantities of carbs? This phenomenon is known as the Carb Coma. It feels like a hangover, only its origin is from food, not alcohol. Substantial chemical changes have been at work to put us in this state.
The science behind our erratic eating habits provides much understanding:
“Ingesting refined carbs leads to the production of an amino acid called Tryptophan. Tryptophan boosts the brain with a chemical neurotransmitter called Serotonin. Serotonin is the calming chemical in the brain. Our serotonin level plays a major role in appetite suppression, stress, anxiety and depression.
Among the various types of endorphins, one in particular stands out. Dynorphin is an especially powerful appetite stimulant. Stress triggers dynorphin release. In other words, stress releases a chemical that makes you feel hungry or empty. When you eat in response to this chemically caused hunger, the act of chewing is thought to release another chemical, Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that increases comfort level.
Stress releases dynorphin, dynorphin causes hunger, chewing releases dopamine, and dopamine comforts. Thus, stress is comforted by eating. Mild to moderate stress increases eating and severe stress usually decreases eating. Such stress, however, taxes the body, so that the decreased appetite of severe stress is followed with a rebound appetite when the stress slackens, and this intense craving for food can cause indiscriminate food choices.”
“Anatomy of a Food Addiction” by Anne Katherine.
When we are caught up in this cycle, we are being driven by our Diet Mentality, which operates from a place of deprivation and scarcity. There is a saying for those of us who binge eat and that is that we are “calorie loaded but nutrient deprived”. This is one way we leave ourselves wide open and vulnerable to being out of control with food, when our most basic nutritional needs are not being met and we still haven’t developed any skills in emotional regulation.
The fact that most emotional eaters were trained to expect less and indeed accept less than we needed in life feeds our fears no end that we can’t or shouldn’t have it – whatever ‘it’ happens to be at the time.
When we are being a victim to our fears, our breath is shallow and in our chests and all we can do is react, we’re on auto pilot. There is no conscious choice in what we do, we are living on the edge of a volatile place, never knowing when the urge to binge will strike next.
Just before we lost control and overate, whether we are aware of it or not, we experience a range of thoughts, feelings and moods which become a trigger for the loss of control which led to the binge.
Our automatic reaction is to try to “fix” the feelings and make them go away. We honestly believe we can’t tolerate them and in our overwhelmed state, we try in vain to get rid them.
Huge volumes of research have proven that suppressing a thought, feeling or sensation ultimately increases it.
The intensity of fear we have around particularly distressing feelings is so great, it’s as if we believe we will explode in an act of spontaneous combustion - or something equally dramatic - if we don’t get that instant gratification right here, right now.
When experts toss around terms like “urge surfing” as the answer to getting some of that impulse control, and we’re on the other end of a tsunami-like binge, it can feel as if our traumatic eating experience has been trivialised and downgraded into the latest trend in psycho-babble, with such a grandiose, yet ultimately unattainable goal for us poor unfortunate fools who can’t seem to control our eating.
Before we even think about picking up a surfboard, it’s essential to understand the analogy that our emotions – and feelings- are like waves:
Emotions, like waves, rise and fall. They come and go, they build up in intensity until they reach a crescendo. Then they break, subside and gently roll away.
It is possible to learn to ride out those urges and cravings, even if they feel crazy and out of control. Our urges don’t have to be acted on. We can choose to act with response-ability here. We can step aside and watch the water. When we let the urge be without feeding it or fighting it, it will reach a peak, subside and pass.
To allow ourselves to experience a craving fully, (without acting on it) is to take away the power it has over us.
Remember, anyone who has ever practised delaying gratification had to have a courageous first-time experience and despite the massive waves of turmoil going on inside, it’s possible for us too. And if we can do it one time, then we can do it one more time, and so the journey continues.
Even within a full-scale binge, we will have micro moments of awareness. Pay attention to these moments. The more we notice these micro moments as they happen, the bigger our gaps become. The gaps are where all the power lies and this is what we will use for leverage to give our free won’t muscle a workout.
Learning to delay gratification requires us to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable” when it comes to allowing ourselves to experience the very feelings we think we can’t tolerate. Our addictive personalities mean we usually choose whatever is comfortable and easy for us in the moment, above all, we want to feel safe.
An apt quote to keep in mind here is “how we do anything is how we do everything” so if we can practise exposure therapy in tolerating those difficult feelings in times of low stress, when we’re in a neutral mood or good mood, then in times of major stress (really bad mood!), we will be that much better equipped to deal with those feelings and flex our free won’t muscle.
Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice will give us the confidence to maintain our initially shaky sense of discipline and commitment to this endeavour.
If we want real freedom from bingeing, the rules need to bend and stretch as we work on cultivating a true friendship with The Beast (the urge to binge). We’re going to tentatively put the welcome mat out and wait in anticipation, as if we’re waiting for an old, invited friend to come over for a beautiful meal we have prepared in their honour. This expectation can alter our internal climate to one more conducive to openness and acceptance, with much less resistance.
If we don’t use the tremendous surge of energy that comes with the urge to binge, it will use us, that’s how it works. We have invested so much fearful energy in the past in trying to prevent The Beast from entering, can you imagine your life without this fruitless pursuit? How much more energy would you have to devote to other things that actually feed you?
So, grab your surfboard and let’s begin what I consider to be a very pleasant introduction into exposure therapy. You’ll need a cup of tea to do it. I suggest a cup of tea firstly, because it is food and secondly, because it’s a non-threatening, non-triggering food item for most people.
We’re going to sit and sip and breathe and be for the length of time it takes to drink your tea, and see if you can make it last for at least two minutes, it doesn’t get any more complicated than that.
An extra nice touch is to have a lit candle positioned directly in front of you. Watching the flickering flame of the candle with soft focus eyes will naturally help us to still our minds and pause thought.
Sit down with your cup of tea, holding your cup with two hands. Put both feet on the ground and push your heels into the ground. Allow everything to slow down, and notice an unwinding and an unfolding of energy.
Now focus on your breath – breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Feel your breath travel all the way down into the bottom of your belly, feel your belly expand, now gently let it out.
As you sit and sip and breathe and be, simply notice any thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations that arise, watching them come and go, just like the waves analogy.
Notice any urges to get up and start doing something, then notice yourself remaining seated and sitting and sipping and breathing and being, continuing to hold your cup with two hands.
Remind yourself as soon as this mindful tea drinking ceremony is over, you can return to the chaotic world of thought and the absence of conscious breathing once again, if you want to.
Or the next time you notice you feel frantic, you can remind yourself that you can return here, to this calm space where you are free to make your own choices.
Anytime in the future that you have urges to binge, instead of telling yourself that you can’t have something, try substituting the word wait and see what happens.
© Copyright Karla Cameron 2017