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I'm at the Canadian Obesity Network Summit, in beautiful Vancouver, BC. The sun is shining, the mountains are quietly watching, and the cheeky blue heron in the harbour is eating her breakfast. I'm thinking about money.
I've been learning intensely interesting things about obesity, and about the complex nature of our (humans') relationship with food. There's a lot of blame that lands on heavy people for their weight, as if there is something obvious that they could be doing about it and that they're just not doing it, or not doing it right. People love this vantage point - just stop eating so much, or this kind of behaviour, and you'll be fine - because it puts all of the work on the heavy person, and leaves industry, society, and biology totally alone, whistling and avoiding eye-contact in the corner.
This is what's both obvious and fascinating: our drive for food is not in our control. The obvious part is that we get hungry and need to eat things. The fascinating part is that the most ancient part of our brains - the limbic and mesolimbic regions - are maniacally bent upon getting us food, and not healthy, low-fat food, but fatty, salty, sugary food.
One comment from a speaker that really stuck out for me yesterday was that to this area of our brains, which responds by releasing dopamine and endorphins and making us feel super good (our biochemical rewards), sugar is as powerful and pleasing as cocaine.
In my own case, I would amend this: Sugar is as powerful and pleasing to my brain as cocaine, and designer shoes.
You see, a lot of what we've been hearing about so far is the addictive nature of foods, based on the ancient evolutionary drives of our brians (even fruit flies have mesolimbic regions). As someone who is super fortunate to have both a healthy relationship with food (thanks Mum and Dad) and also no physical, hormonal, or thyroid problems (thanks body) I don't have to worry too much about my learned behaviours surrounding food. I will probably for the rest of my life be an "afternooner" - a person who is most likely to get my extra calories in a day between 3:30 and 4:30 (thanks after-school chips and Much Music), but that's OK.
However, that doesn't mean that I have nothing to learn about my behaviour patterns. We could apply this reward principle to pretty much anything we do compulsively or semi-compulsively. Could be smoking, could be drinking, could be eating candy... or it could be buying things.
What made me really think about this is the Cycle of Disconnection. Here's how it works:
1. I am the problem. Begin here, by thinking that you are doing the wrong things, and hate yourself right now.
2. Do something self-harming (however defined). This reduces stress and promotes calm emotions - could be gambling, gaming, eating disorders, drinking, etc.
3. Feel better - you're doing the thing that makes you feel OK.
4. Feel worse - you're doing the thing that makes you feel OK and it makes you feel like a shitty person that you feel OK doing that.
5. Feel depressed, lack of control, loss of motivation.
6. Start at #1 again. I am the problem.
Here's how the Cycle of Disconnection applies to me and my spending habits:
1. I am the problem. Enter Counter-Dialogue: "Get a handle on your finances like a fucking adult, already. They're not really that out of control, just stop putting things on your visa."
2. OK, I've stopped putting things on my visa. It's all paid off.
3. I feel really good. Enter Permission Thoughts: "You know... my visa is clear, so though I don't have the money in my bank account right now, I am getting paid next Friday so I can afford this and will just pay it off next week right away." Repeat this step three or four times.
4. I feel like shit. I'm stressed out because I loaded my card, somehow without even knowing I was doing it, and now I'm going to be squeezed on that incoming paycheque and have to spend the next two weeks totally broke.
5. Feel depressed, lack of self-control, loss of motivation to pay off my (unrelated) line of credit, and insurmountable (in this moment) school debts.
6. Start at #1 again. I am the problem.
Except for replacing 'self-harm' in #2 with 'pay off your credit card', this is totally accurate and describes at every point my EXACT thought process. It's amazing to have it so clearly laid out for me. When one presenter described permission thoughts, I saw my own mind clearly in that moment, and was glad to see it.
The Cycle of Disconnection doesn't only describe addictive behaviours; it certainly shows us our patterns. This cycle would work as well for someone who was chronically late for work, and for someone who was cutting, with the modification of #2.
I have no idea if this information will be valuable to me in changing the way I cycle through this sequence, but at the very least I know what I'm up against. This cycle isn't fully in control of the conscious mind. The original drives at #3, before the permission thoughts come in, start with external cues as a low-level want. The want can be up-graded or down-graded by other cues, or by our consciousness. An example of this given by a speaker was of a smoker on a 12 hour flight: ask them 5 hours in if they're craving a cigarette, and they'll likely say no. The reason is that the subconscious wanting of a cigarette can only make it to the wall of consciousness, where the brain's reasoning centre (frontal lobe) says, "oh well... on a plane," and the wanting sinks again. The impossibility of fulfilling the want actually makes it go away, rather than making it worse.
So does that mean that I have to cut up my credit card? I don't know, I really like collecting air miles....