This excellent article from Mindful talks about the neuroscience of “bad habits.” This is worth reading to understand exactly what is going on in your brain with compulsive overeating (or any compulsion or addiction).
Basically, it is all about dopamine—the neurotransmitter responsible for motivation and the rush of pleasure. Here’s how it goes, according to Dr. Elisha Goldstein, author of Mindful:
“So if we pass a McDonald’s and see the arches, our brain associates that with a tasty hamburger (for some) and shoots up dopamine. That good feeling will unconsciously drive the motivation to go in and get a Big Mac. It’s a conditioned response.”
A conditioned response, straight outta Skinner.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, creates a pause between the stimulus and the response. I know for myself, I bristle at the prospect of being a conditioned lab rat, so I welcome the mindful pause. In that pause, I can decide what it is that I want to do, rather than acting out a conditioned response.
In last week’s group, we spoke about what to do when faced with a situation where you are about to overeat. One strategy was to take 10 breaths, paying close attention to the breath going in and out of your nostrils. This mindful pause activates a different part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, and calms down the amygdala. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for choices and decision-making. The amygdala is responsible for processing fear, anger, and pleasure. In this pause, choice is possible.
With choices, new habits can be formed.