Weightloss & Our Brain

Perhaps for the first time in your life, you put yourself first – and this can feel psychologically alien and even uncomfortable.

But why? Are we not told in planes to put the oxygen mask on ourselves first so we can help others? Why do we have such difficulties with looking after ourselves first?

The answer is – this is how the neural pathways in your brain have hardwired in your first 25 years of life based on the experiences in your life and the messages you received from your family, relatives, peers, support networks and environment.

I will be talking about this in another article because today I want to focus on what is happening in our brains on our weight loss journey.

In very simplistic terms, we have two parts to our brains. The first part is the neocortex, which is located behind the forehead and receives and stores information for decision making and remembering. In the back of our head lives the limbic system, which controls all the automatic systems of the body and our emotions and sensations. Most importantly, the limbic system controls the survival responses, i.e., “fight or flight.” When you feel threatened, these protective responses tell you either to defend yourself or to run away. The limbic system doesn’t have a memory like the neocortex. It doesn’t know the difference between yesterday and 30 years ago, which explains why some of our childhood traumas still trigger us so powerfully today. It is the limbic system that is most affected by our beliefs, behaviours and addictions. The limbic system can be negatively programmed through traumatic experiences and 

messages from our environment.  Some of these messages are about eating behaviour, self-competence, self-esteem and self-concept (how I feel about myself).

Limbic Lag
Even though you have discovered false beliefs and now know a new truth, there is a time lag between what your limbic system believes and what your neocortex has learned. This is called limbic lag, a process that can be anywhere from a couple of weeks, months or even years, but it will get shorter as you continue to challenge the false beliefs. You may have fears that you may fail, and even panic attacks over not coping at certain times, but once you go through them without doing the old behaviour which is usually comfort eating, binge eating and losing control over your food consumption, your limbic system will say, “Oh, we went through that and actually survived.” 

The next time you experience the fear it will be less, and you will be able to make a good choice rather than overreacting with a “fight or flight” response. Old automatic habits aren’t changed quickly or easily and are stronger when we are tired. Many recovering addicts and trauma survivors have programmed the survival part of their brains with thousands and thousands of instances of avoiding unwanted thoughts or emotions choosing not to “fight” with their issues, but to take “flight” into their addiction. Over time, this “flight” pattern becomes an automatic reaction. With a new identity based on new beliefs, they can change that flight pattern or reprogram their limbic system. 

Change happens one decision at a time. No matter what your emotions tell you would feel good to do (drugs, alcohol, sex, food), listen to what your mind knows, and do what is best or right. If you continue to apply this key thought, you will begin to break the “flight” pattern, and decrease the time of the limbic lag process, build new (healthier) neural pathways in your brain and with this – create the new you. 

I wish you well on your creative journey of change and self-discovery.

By Christiana Little, WLSA Psychologist