Last year it was estimated that over 62% of British adults are either overweight or obese. There is no doubt that weight is a major contributor to various physical and psychological conditions, & the government has launched a public health drive to tackle the issue. So why do we, as a nation, find it so difficult to maintain a healthy weight?
It’s just a case of eat less/exercise more, right? Well, that sounds easy!
Yes, on paper, maybe it does. But let me introduce you to your inner saboteur. That little voice that tells you “we’ll start the diet on Monday”/“just one more chocolate”/”I know you only wanted to buy one packet of biscuits but they’re on 3 for 2”/“(insert your own inner nag here)”.
This is your primitive brain at work. It’s played a pretty vital role in our survival as a species, and also at keeping you alive until today, so it’s not all bad. But it’s not quite designed for life in the modern world…
Thousands of years ago, when food was scarce & our ancestors had to hunt & gather, if they were faced with some of the snacks that are readily available to us now, they would have gone into full-blown “buffet” mode. Their inner voice would say “eat as much of that as you can RIGHT NOW, because who knows when our next meal will be, and what we might need our energy for in the meantime”.
This part of our brain is still very much active today, a fact that certain food companies take full advantage of when designing their products. We know they offer no nutritional value & we should avoid them if we want to stay healthy, yet we are drawn to them because the high sugar & carb content appeals to that inner caveman who gets an easy dopamine hit from the instant energy rush they give us (dopamine is a chemical in our brains linked to our inner reward system). This part of our brain is all about survival; it doesn’t necessarily make the best decisions for our future health & it wasn’t designed with 24-hour supermarkets and takeaways in mind.
When we are stressed, we activate this primitive, fight or flight part of our brain (interestingly, the chemical stress response in our body is the same whether we come face to face with a lion on the savannah or we’re late for an important meeting; only the extent will vary). And the brain can’t tell the difference between imagination and reality, so even just remembering a past event or imagining a future one that may never even happen will still trigger the same chemical response within us. This is why you might shed a tear at a love song on the radio, or feel your heart racing when you watch a horror film. You are experiencing a physical reaction to an imagined behaviour or emotion.
If what we are facing is genuinely a threat to our lives, then we can appreciate that our brains have done a great job in keeping us alive – providing us with adrenaline and preparing us to either stay & fight, or run to safety. It is designed to be used in short bursts, as and when necessary, however too many of us live in this primitive brain much too often in our busy, modern lives (it’s kind of ironic to think that in 2020 we are using our caveman brain just as much, but maybe not as efficiently, as we would have been way back then).
When our amygdala (the fight or flight area of the brain which responds to perceived stress), is switched on, our cognitive ability is impaired – this means we make less rational decisions, including those around food. When we experience prolonged stress, our primitive brain encourages us to preserve energy. And it will always go down the path of least resistance, so the easy option in modern society is to go for those sugary or carb-loaded treats, because it remembers that a) they tasted sooo good last time, and b) they give us energy (never mind that it is short-lived compared to healthier slow-release energy food options – the primitive brain wants as much energy as possible, NOW – it thinks “we might not even make it to tomorrow, so let’s load up in case we need that energy to survive whatever this potential threat is”). And c) this type of food is so easy to access! No hunting gear required.
I’ve spoken with many people who have gained weight during lockdown. This has been an unprecedented, uncertain time for all of us, and the primitive brain for many will have been on overdrive for the past few months. Covid-19 & lockdown has created an ongoing “challenge stress” – we can’t see it or do anything to attack it right now, but we know it’s a potential threat to our survival, so the primitive brain wants to stock up on energy, just in case. And we know just how it likes us to do that!
As well as motivating us to gorge on unhealthy foods, when we feel stressed, the body is more likely to retain fat as an energy reserve. So it becomes physically harder to shift those extra pounds, even if you are actively trying hard to exercise more & eat less. And depending on your chosen weight loss method, if you restrict food too much, the primitive mind may believe there is a famine. It will desperately cling onto any fat reserves for as long as possible. And when food is nearby, that internal voice will be on loudspeaker: “DON’T YOU KNOW THERE’S A FAMINE, WHY ARE YOU JUST STANDING THERE, EAT AS MUCH AS YOU CAN. DO IT NOW!!!!” Before you know it, you’re looking into an empty share bag of Maltesers, feeling guilty that you’ve “failed”. This adds to your stress, pushing you further into your primitive brain and towards the comfort food. And the diet is over before it’s even begun.
Mix a dose of stress with learnt unhelpful eating habits such as comfort eating, eating as a reward, being told you must finish all your dinner to have dessert rather than listening to your body tell you when it’s full, and poor sleep, (lack of sleep has negative effects on our hunger & satiety hormones) and it’s no wonder so many people struggle with their weight.
The first thing I do with a client coming to me for weight management is to address any stress that might exist in their life. Often, we don’t even realise how much stress we are holding until we reflect on it. We’ve just become used to living in that state, and everyone around us is stressed, so It’s just normal, isn’t it?
It’s definitely common – too common in my opinion – but that doesn’t mean you can’t change it. And hypnotherapy can help.
Once we have reduced stress (or at least dealt with your peception of it if it’s something you cannot control directly), you start to move out of your primitive brain & use other areas instead; areas which are involved in rational thinking (what I call the “intellectual brain”). You can make better decisions, you are able to plan more for the future & inhibit food intake, so that it’s consumed as fuel rather than for comfort & pleasure in excess. Weight loss becomes less of a focal point, and more a by-product of living a more content lifestyle, where you are much more in control of your feelings & behaviours.
By understanding the inner workings of the brain – why we have this one voice that knows what we should be doing, battling against the caveman in us who just wants us to stock up on food at every opportunity – it becomes easier to see how change is possible. Combining this knowledge with psychotherapy techniques and relaxing hypnosis in our sessions, you can turn down the dimmer on your primitive brain, take back intellectual control & finally make those lifelong changes you’ve been dreaming of.
If you’d like to discuss making positive changes to your life, please feel free to contact me. I’d love to hear from you and help you on your journey to where you want to be.
One thought on “Why modern life stresses may be the reason you struggle with your weight, and how hypnotherapy can help”
Loved your article on weight gain. What a great read. It’s certainly helped me to be more aware of my ‘primitive brain’. Maybe in a future article you could shed some light on sugar addiction.