It is all about the frontal cortex versus the limbic system--the front part of the brain in a constant struggle with the back part of the brain--whether being able to wait or demanding instant gratification. There are these two little selves in our brains, one saying, "I want that chocolate cake now! I know it's empty calories, and I don't care," and that other self who says, "Hold on, wait a minute, remember the growing numbers on the scale, the elevated cholesterol level, the overly tight-fitting dress; remember all this and don't eat it." More often than not, the instant-gratification wins out.
We all know eat less, eat right, move more. Most of us understand about good nutrition and the need to exercise; the problem is that knowledge is not a sufficient motivator. I should get on that treadmill, but I have a million excuses to do something else: the report that needs to be finished (it can wait), the book I want to read (it can wait), the TV program I want to watch (it too can wait), the friend I need to visit, the button that needs to be sewn--whatever, anything but the treadmill.
So what is going on? Is it being weak minded, a total failure at using good judgment about one's health? I am an intelligent woman and a believer in doing the right thing to keep my body in shape. So why don't I? What is happening? Is it the fault of my brain's wiring? The culprit is "desire," our desire to grasp whatever next opportunity for pleasure presents itself. Brain scans show that the prospect of immediate gratification triggers activity in the emotional part of the brain,whereas choosing a longer-term benefit triggers more activity in the reasoning part of the brain.
Since ample motivation is hard to find and intelligence doesn't help, what does? An outside monitor! This is how AA and Weight Watchers help--the need to be held accountable and possibly feeling shame or guilt for not adhering to expectations. Compulsive gamblers have requested casinos place their names on a blacklist so they won't be allowed in.
Another way to deal with it is to create obstacles that stop you from acting impulsively before you have time to engage your higher brain, e.g., taping shut a refrigerator, placing the candy dish out of reach, or not allowing yourself to do a pleasurable activity until you have finished the one you have been avoiding. Compulsive shoppers need to sit down for a few minutes with their purchases and think about what they really need and what is missing in their lives that the shopping replaces, before going to the cash register.
The possibility of lung cancer is too far in the future to stop the yearning for a cigarette, but a higher tax on tobacco products as well as the ban on smoking in public places has helped as has foster families not being eligible to get a child if they smoke. So if deterrents work, which ones can we formulate for ourselves to stop the unwanted behaviors?
There are many strategies proposed by nutrition experts--use smaller plates, the food will appear larger; use tall, thin glasses instead of short, fat ones, you will drink less; put your fork down between bites and chew slowly (I have never been able to do that one); eat soups before meals, it will fill you up quicker; the list goes on. These various deterrents are imposed by our rational selves.
The issue is not only the immediate desire for something, it is the way we feel about this desire. We may be perfectly happy to indulge in an illegitimate desire, or we may also feel terrible about it and desire to stop desiring.
Sometimes the desire stems from physical addiction like the need for a cigarette, sometimes it is an emotional trigger like the need for another drink to make one feel less anxious, or for any compulsive behavior that calms us in the moment, but is dangerous in the long run. These behaviors may require professional help.
For the simple urges that plague us daily, sit down with your reasoning brain and have a conversation about what deterrents you might use to help you deal with your unreasonable brain that alas keeps pulling at you and wins out much too often.
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