Thursday, June 30, 2011

Cues and Pathways

Every day, we are "cued" by our thoughts or our environment to eat, or to do other things leading to eating. This is what some of us call "habit" and others call "being out of control." It all starts with a cue, a thought, an action, and then we are on the old pathway with a whole slew of actions that are a response to the cue.

Examples of cues and pathways:

See an ad for pizza > remember how yummy pizza is > want pizza > buy pizza > eat pizza
Smell cinnamon rolls baking > want cinnamon rolls > waver about diet > go buy a cinnamon roll > eat it
See a dish of chocolates on the counter > want chocolates > argue with self not to have one > give in and have some
Drive down the street past Dairy Queen > remember binges in their parking lot > want fried foods > drive around the block arguing with self > pull in to drive thru > order fried food > binge in parking lot
See ex > feel stressed > want comfort > remember cake in fridge > get out cake > eat a lot of cake
Get in an argument with a family member > be upset > want to forget about it > want ice cream > binge on ice cream to forget

All of these are examples of ways we get cued to eat when we didn't intend to. We are Pavlov's dogs. We hear the bell, we salivate. We are 3-year-olds in the park. We hear the ice cream truck music, we start jumping up and down for an ice cream bar. We have those pathways in our brains that have been trained to respond a certain way.

But those pathways can be changed.

Ring the bell and do not feed the dog. Pet him instead. After awhile, he stops salivating when you ring it. He has learned that bell does not always equal food. He has unlearned that bell equals food.

Stop taking the kid to the ice cream truck when you hear the music. After awhile, they stop begging for it. I know this one firsthand, because I inadvertently trained my daughter to be cued by the ice cream truck music when she was 3, by taking her over to it for ice cream a few times. I thought it was cute how excited she got. But when the truck kept coming around day after day, it got old. It wasn't cute, it was unhealthy, and expensive. So we built a new neuron pathway:

Ice cream truck music > sit down and read a story together

How about that? She doesn't even ask for ice cream anymore. The music is no longer a cue to eat ice cream.

But you can bet if I took her for ice cream the next time we heard that music, the old pathway would be reactivated. She would ask and beg and jump up and down for ice cream every time she heard the music again, because it is SO EASY to go right back down that old pathway. It is always there, under the new pathway.

Break the automatic way you respond to cues. You can build new pathways. Here are mine:

Drive past McDonalds > remember fly in my ice cream cone > feel revolted > can't get away fast enough
Smell pizza > inhale and smell it more > enjoy the smell and how it is free of negative consequences > move on
Get stressed out > want comfort > hug my daughter > pet my puppy > feel more relaxed
Feel upset about a situation > go in my room and cry > work it out in my head > do something about the problem > feel better
See candy bars at the checkout > remember how sore my joints feel when I eat sugar > vividly imagine the pain > walk away from candy

You can do this. You are smarter than a dog. You are more in control of yourself than a 3-year-old. You can CHOOSE how you respond to your cues. Build new pathways. It makes life so much easier.


Anonymous said...

As usual great post Lyn..Thank you

optifastblogger said...

I love your post! It's like you've lived inside my head and know my thoughts! ;-) I've had those patterns/progressions for sure, and you are so right about the need to reprogram and create new patterns and reactive behaviors. Thanks for the voice of experience and your insights.

American Muslima Writer said...

My God! I'm so glad I read your posts today!

Last night was at the Gas Station Convienience Store trying to search for "healthy" snack to take with me and kids to the park....
OH THE AGONY of resisting Jelly Beans, Chocolate, and even "trail mix" (loaded carbs). We settled for some crackers. The kids loved them and they lasted three times longer than other snacks. Not saying they are healthy either but BETTER.
I was happy to be able to be strong enough to resist.
SO reading about your pathways I can clearly see WHY it's so HARD to resist!!!!!
Another good example (and I loved yours about your daughter and the ice creak truck) is getting kids into a new bedtiome routine, you have to break all the old triggers and get them on a new path. NOT EASY..TAKES TIME!
You always inspire me and keep me filled with hope.
Thanks for continuing your blog.

Undercover Dieting said...

I totally love your attitude, it IS possible to change! Yes, it does require some work, but it's not hopeless. Great message! :)

Anonymous said...

I've been eating mostly grain and sugar-free which are as addicting as opium) for about 2 years now. I don't think about any of my old foods anymore. I drive past the places I used to frequent and never consider stopping. Instead, I feel sorry for the people inside who are poisoning their bodies. This former addict is clean, now. It can be done. What has helped me is that I feel so much better physically now that I don't want to go back to feeling sick all the time. I didn't know how bad I actually felt until I gave up those foods. I thought, "Wow, this is what I've been missing?" So feeling good feels much better than eating junk. That keeps me from returning to my old habits.

timothy said...

you're so good at the cerebral explanations sweetie. as always fabulous!

Anonymous said...

Lyn -
thank you , Thank you, thank you!
I am that Pavlov dog -but I'm trying to get off the chain. Your post makes so much sense to the new me.

Anne H said...

Sometimes I wonder if we are all smarter than dogs. At least dogs eventually learn the association. I keep going - and somehow expect a different outcome!

Well, thank goodness for change!

Sheri said...

Absolutely agree Lynn! Now the object for me is to identify the cues or even the autopilot type behaviors so they can be banished from my existence all together. What have people done to identify those automated behaviors that are indirectly sabotaging efforts?

Niecy said...

Thank you - so excellent.

I am on vacation right now and doing well, but there are many cues before me. You know, a vacation often gives permission to go crazy. Luckily, I am staying with my sister-in-law and brother and they are very healthy eaters. My brother also got me a pass for the gym while I'm here and I just got home from a workout.

This vacation is more about seeing family and friends than it is about going crazy.

There was a time when it didn't matter. I ate whatever I wanted and a vacation meant no diets!

Vee and the Kid said...

Very interesting. Will have to give some thought to what my cues and pavlov's bells are.

Thanks for another great post.

Vee at (I need recipes for a fundraiser cookbook, please, to get my son a seizure dog!)

Yvette said...

What an awesome post, I mean it really does come down to that doesn't it. Instantaneous urge to do whatever we are conditioned to do, destructive or not.

The brain is a fascinating thing. Our minds are so powerful! We can change anything we want to with the right tools.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing, you break it down so simply yet it is so flippin' hard to live through sometimes. You are an inspiration!