Turn Off Your Stress Switch Before You Eat
Post written by Mike Bundrant.
People overeat for various reasons, but none are more pernicious than stress eating. The problem for average dieters is that overeating turns out to be a very effective means of managing stress (the only side effect is a big belly). If you are a chronic overeater and suddenly take away all that excess sugar and fat, your body suddenly lacks a way to calm down.
Researcher Norman Pecoraro, PhD, of UC San Francisco describes how the stress hormone cortisol drives you toward fatty, sugar-laden food and then deposits those excess calories in the abdomen as belly fat. Once this is done, a message is sent to the brain to squelch the stress response, as the stress-induced demand for extra energy has been satisfied. Whew, you are now calmer. And fatter.
This is a problem.
The healthy approach to stress management involves reducing stress before your brain responds to it (according to its more primitive programming) with an urgent call for more physical energy supplies (food). This may sound difficult to do, but learning about your brainâ€™s stress switch will make it much easier to manage. It all begins with a little known brain network called the default mode network.
The Default Mode Network: Your brainâ€™s stress switch
Medical research on the source of chronic stress points to the brain’s default mode network (DMN). The DMN, active when your brain is not cognitively engaged (or mindful), is responsible for the stream of self-referential thoughts that is commonly called “autopilot thinking.”
When the DMN is hyperactive, it becomes a source of chronic tension. Most people today can identify with a mind that won’t “turn off.” Continual mental activity inhibits relaxation, connection to the environment, peaceful sleep and keeps you in a state of chronic distraction and even self-consciousness. Scientific research has linked hyperactivity in the DMN to depression, ADHD, insomnia, PTSD and other health conditions.
What can be done about it? It turns out that you can deactivate this noisy brain network whenever it acts up. If you’re skeptical of this claim, so were researchers. Marcus Raichle, MD, the original DMN researcher, explained in the March 2010 edition of Scientific American:
In 1998 we even had a paper on such findings rejected because one referee suggested that the reported decrease in [DMN] activity was an error in our data. The circuits, the reviewer asserted, were actually being switched on at rest and switched off during the [cognitive] task. Other researchers, however, reproduced our results for both the medial parietal cortex — and the medial prefrontal cortex (involved with imagining what other people are thinking as well as aspects of our emotional state). Both areas are now considered major hubs of the DMN.
It boils down to this: You can “turn off” the part of the brain that causes endless stress! Engaging in specific kinds of cognitive tasks, also known as awareness practices, has been scientifically proven to alter brain circuitry (not brain chemistry, but actual circuitry) without the use of drugs.
The following awareness practices have proven very effective at turning off the stress switch, or DMN, and accessing the present.
- Listening to mundane sounds, such as the hum of your computer, the refrigerator motor, a fan, etcâ€¦ Listen for 30 seconds to a minute, tuning into the sound, simply.
- Feeling textures and temperatures such as the texture of fabric, the temperature of water on your skin, the texture and temperature of leather, etcâ€¦Simply feel these on your skin or rub your fingers across them. Itâ€™s that simple.
- Sensing gravity. Feel the force of gravity gently pushing you toward the earth, holding you to your seat, pushing down on your extended arm, etcâ€¦just notice.
As you engage in any of above awareness practices, do not try to relax or do anything at all other than listen or feel. After a few moments, you will notice yourself â€œsettleâ€ a bit. This is it. Your stress switch is turned off â€“ the DMN is deactivated.
Eating with your stress switch turned off might change your eating habits dramatically.
To apply this to eating, do the following simple steps:
- Ground yourself in the present before you eat by taking just a minute or two with one of the above awareness practices.
- Stay grounded while you eat. Notice the mundane sounds around you. Feel the weight of the utensils and food in your hand. Feel the texture of the food as you chew. Immerse yourself in the colors of the food on your plate and the taste as well.
- If you get distracted by stray thoughts, just return your awareness to the sounds, and feelings in your immediate environment. If you need to, repeat one of the awareness practices above for a minute before continuing your meal.
Here are some thoughts on how to apply these awareness practices throughout the day:
- Whenever you are aware of stress or bodily tension, take a minute for your favorite awareness practice and notice yourself calm down.
- When you are hungry, do an awareness practice and discover whether or not you are still hungry. This will help you begin to distinguish real hunger from stress or bodily tension.
- In the middle of disagreements with others, practice! As you listen to the other, feel gravity and the textures around you. Hear any mundane, background sounds. Remain thus engaged and your mind will be able to absorb the otherâ€™s message without getting offended. You will then soften as you respond. Itâ€™s amazing!
- When you go to bed, these awareness practices will invite sleep faster than you will be able to remember.
- When you wake up in the morning, listen for sounds, feel the weight of your body on the bed and the texture of the sheets. Youâ€™ll welcome the day like never before.
- As you shower, listen to the sound of the water running down the drain. Feel the pressure and temperature of the water on your skin. Feel your fingers on your scalp while you shampoo. It changes the entire shower experience.
- When you are driving, feel the texture of the steering wheel in your hands. Hear the sound of the motor and tires on the pavement. Feel your feet on the pedals and the vibration of the car. This has method helped many through the stress of rush hour traffic.
Implement these practices once or twice a day and discover what it is like living with your stress switch in the OFF position more of the time. Most of all, learn how this healthy stress management technique changes your craving for food.