When Self-Control Leaves the Room

By Dr Jelena Nesic Goranovic

                                        


It’s likely that all of us remember occasions when we have mindlessly reached out for the fridge or the cookie jar at the times of stress. But, although we may have subsequently tried to justify this to ourselves by giving it a harmless enough label ‘comfort eating’, there is nothing comforting about consuming lots of unhealthy food – in fact, more often than not, we ended up feeling worse off as a result: bloated and unhappy.

So, why do we engage in this and other unhealthy or addictive behaviours when we’re feeling stressed, tired or tense? It has been known for a long time that stress plays an important role in the initiation and maintenance of a variety of ‘reward-seeking’ or addictive behaviours. Seems obvious from experience, but it’s only over the last few decades that researchers have begun to explore and understand the neurocognitive mechanisms behind these responses.

Giving in to cravings

It has been suggested that stress makes ‘rewards’, such as tasty snacks, more appealing and increases people's desire for the pleasurable sensations they get from consuming them. This effect of stress is manifested not only by the increased desire to enjoy the taste of snack foods, but also by an increase in attentional bias for the sight or smell of food. According to this theory, if we walk through the snack isle at the supermarket when we’re stressed, we are much more likely to be drawn to a packet of our favourite crisps (or, in my case, the cheesy puffs!) than at the times when we’re not feeling so stressed.

But seeing or wanting a particular food is not the same as actually stuffing our face with it. Surely we have control over whether we act on our impulses or not? Unfortunately, as most of us who have occasionally succumbed to the urge to eat at the times of stress know, we actually have very little control over it.

Working memory and self-regulation

It has long been known that our ability to successfully perform tasks, make decisions and regulate our own behaviour relies on the cognitive system called the ‘working memory’. Working memory is best thought of as the brain system for temporarily storing and processing information. Unfortunately for us, the capacity of this system is limited as well as very unstable - a sudden distraction and the information held within it is lost! In order to keep focused on our goals and successfully control our impulses, we need to use a part of our cognitive resources to actively prevent such distraction from occurring. It is therefore not surprising that physical states, such as acute or chronic stress and tiredness, which have been shown to reduce the working memory capacity, also significantly reduce our ability to regulate our behaviour.  

Based on the research into the role of working memory in self-regulation, an increasingly popular theory about the link between stress and food consumption has emerged. Professor Roy Baumeister and his colleagues from Florida State University proposed that coping with emotional distress takes up these limited cognitive resources necessary for effective self-regulation, making us less able to monitor and control the ‘deviant’ behaviours, such as eating even though we are not experiencing true hunger.

How does this help us?

This research may be interesting, but is it of any practical use to us? Well… recognising the processes that underlie our behaviour is the first step towards being able to prevent this so-called ‘comfort eating’ from occurring.  

So, the next time a chocolate bar seems to be calling out to you from the supermarket shelf, stop and evaluate the situation:

Why do you crave for it so much?

Is it the look of it or the thought of the taste that you find appealing?

Does it seem more attractive because you are stressed?

Will eating it really help make you feel better?

Could you perhaps buy it another time, not now? …

By engaging in this thought process, you will essentially take up some of your working memory resources which, until that point, were entirely occupied by other thoughts, and re-allocate them towards controlling the impulse to give in to your craving. You may need a bit of practice or you may be successful the very first time you try to do it, but just be persistent - you will be surprised by your newly found ability to remain in control of your own actions.

 

Published by De-Stress Your Life: The Official Site of the De-Stress Diet
May 2012

                                                              

Stress-Busting Techniques for Weight Management:

Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) Hypnotherapy
Integral Eye Movement Therapy (IEMT) Mindfulness
NeuroLinguistic Programming (NLP) Nutritional Therapy
Sedona Method Thought Field Therapy (TFT)®
wingwave Coaching®  

 

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