Forging a new path: 3 ways to rewire your brain when creating change
Why is change so hard? Especially when you truly desire it? Because you need to rewire your brain, which is a lot like trying to grow grass on packed down dirt.
Let me explain.
Imagine taking a short-cut across a lawn: the first time there’s no clear path, you’re making it up as you go along; the second time the blades of grass are matted down so you can make out a path; the third time the way is clearer still. Before long the path is clearly visible and you don’t even need to think about which way to go anymore; maybe it has even become such a well-worn path that it seems permanent, with packed-down bare dirt.
This is a great analogy for stopping or creating habits because even though a foot path might seem permanent because has been traversed as long as you can remember, even a well-worn path can grow grass again, once the foot traffic is diverted elsewhere for long enough.
Rewiring your brain isn’t hard, it just takes persistence. If you take an alternative route long enough, the old path will eventually grow over (but you still may know it’s there for a long while).
This article will explore three ways you can deliberately start rewiring your brain so you can experience the tremendous freedom that is on the other side of a sugar (and carbohydrate) addiction.
Once you understand how sweet treats work in your biology and neurobiology, you can plan the hacks to get you through the initial stages of change. It’s the early part of change that feels like “work” because you’re actually creating new neural pathways or mental habits.
1. Rewiring the brain for pure pleasure
Change is hard. Especially when it involves removing ice cream and chocolate from your diet. Those treats light up our brains with dopamine, the pleasure neurotransmitter, so it is completely understandable that we would feel deprived when we remove them from our diets.
Even just thinking about taking out those treats can make us agitated in anticipation of feeling deprived.
But feeling deprived isn’t inevitable.
One of the greatest dependencies people have with sugar is from the dopamine hit; the sense of pleasure and reward we get from it. We tend to use treats as a way of rewarding ourselves for finishing work, “being good,” and giving ourselves a break.
This mechanism of rewarding ourselves is deeply ingrained in our neurobiology: we are built to move towards things that give us pleasure and away from those that give us pain.
The problem is that this system has been hacked by the sugar and processed food industries. By presenting us with readily available, hyper-sweet treats, our system of pleasure and reward has been effectively hijacked. We have come to rely on artificially induced pleasure, that is easily accessible. I say ‘artificially induced’ because the amount of concentrated sugar that is found in sweet treats from commercial chocolate to home-baked goods, is not found in nature. [Yes, there is honey, but it is rare and only available seasonally in most places.]
Interrupting the ingrained patterns of how we reward ourselves is part of what makes quitting sugar so challenging. It is a change on both a chemical level (dopamine) as well as a habitual one. In the Breaking Free from Sugar program, we use a strategy for each one.
To address the habit part, there are two approaches: create a diversion, and make substitutions.
To address the chemical dependency on quick hits of artificially-induced pleasure, we focus on bringing more pleasure into our lives. When we rely on those artificially-induced pleasure-hits from sugar and refined carbs, we weaken our ability to experience pleasure in so many other ways.
When you get some distance from the chemical dependency, you start to reawaken the pleasure meter in your brain.
You literally start rewiring it to be able to experience pleasure in so many other, simple ways. The simple act of taking a deep breath or having a sip of cool water can become rich somatic experiences that induce great amounts of pleasure. All we have to do is focus our attention on it, feel it, and consciously acknowledge that it feels good, and we are suddenly bringing more pleasure into our lives.
There is an additional challenge, however, of getting to the point where we can fully experience the simple pleasures, and that is that our brains are built with “negativity bias.” Negativity bias means that negative experiences stay with us longer than pleasurable ones. From an evolutionary biology perspective, that’s because it is more important for our survival to remember which path led to being attacked by a lion, rather than the one that led to a nice view. This phenomenon is sometimes summarized as: good experiences are like Teflon, and bad experiences are like Velcro.
In order to overcome this negativity bias, we need to take extra time to let the good times sink in, really feel-into them. We can expand the pleasure in our experiences by pausing, and taking extra deep breaths. When you delight in seeing a flower, for instance, take in a deep breath and slow down time. Love the smell of fresh cut grass — take a dep breath and revel in it. Sun on your skin? Take a moment to consciously drink it in.
Once you fill your life with many sources of daily pleasure, you won’t feel so deprived when you take out the artificial, chemically-induced pleasure of chocolate out. There is oh-so much pleasure to be had all around you; it’s free and doesn’t cause disease ;).
2. Rewiring the brain for emotional healing
Because of the numbing effects of sugar — caused by a combination of dopamine kicking-in and the rise in blood sugar and then the rush of insulin and rise in cortisol — we can turn to sugar and fast/simple carbohydrates as a way to distract us from emotions and stress.
A lot of us became stress eaters (and drinkers) during the lockdown of the pandemic — certainly a stressful time. Our stress resiliency was certainly tested!
In order to avoid falling into the habit of stress eating, we need to learn how to experience and process our emotions rather than avoid them. This is nothing short of retraining our brains to experience our feelings rather than avoiding them.
Joan Rosenberg’s book 90 Seconds to a Life You Love: How to Master Your Difficult Feelings to Cultivate Lasting Confidence, Resilience, and Authenticity, she describes how rushes of uncomfortable emotions only last about 90 seconds in the body, so if we can feel-through them rather than avoid them, we will learn about ourselves and grow resilient.
Instead of turning to sugar, carbs or alcohol when you’re feeling stressed, try to stay present with your emotions, try to remain curious. Ask yourself questions to learn what they have to share, such as:
- I’m feeling my heart start to beat faster, how does that feel in the chest, in the stomach, in other parts of the body?
- What color is it?
- What is it trying to tell me?
Be open to flashes of insight that will help you heal and inform your next steps, which might include just sitting quietly and feeling.
Remember, feelings aren’t good or bad in and of themselves; they all deepen our human experience.
3. Rewiring the brain for healthy habits, and free rewards!
The third way we rewire our brains when we quit sugar is by creating new, healthier habits (and stopping old, unhealthy ones).
We form habits because the thinking brain uses up a LOT of energy, and so it likes to conserve energy by automating routine activities into habits. It really doesn’t care if it’s a good habit or bad habit, the brain just likes a habit. Autopilot takes less energy.
This is partly why the brain resists change: because it takes more energy to do something new/different that it does to do the thing that one has done before.
Remember the analogy of making a path in the grass? If you’ve been walking on a path for a very long time, the groove or path in your brain is pretty well-worn. When you start walking on a different path, it will take a little while for the compacted dirt to loosen-up and eventually allow grass to grow once again. That is only possible when we consistently take other routes.
Seeding over a well-worn path takes patience and persistence.
The creation of new, healthy habits (or pathways) is aided by frequent rewards — to get that hit of dopamine. You may recall from the above explanation of our pleasure center that dopamine is a powerful motivator. When you’re wanting to create new habits, that process can be helped along tremendously by rewarding small steps along the way, and not just the major accomplishment or end goal.
This would be akin to rewarding yourself each time you took a different route, rather than just waiting to reward yourself at the end, when the grass grows back.
Giving yourself some well-earned recognition — or getting some support from a buddy — is nurturing the new path from the inside out. Some ideas for rewards include:
o Give yourself a high-five for just getting outside for 5 minutes (not just for running 3 miles);
o Give yourself an Oh-Yeah! for planning your meals and snacks;
o Give yourself a healthy treat (like a bath or a foot rub or time for reading) for accomplishing a task you’ve been procrastinating;
o Buy a special type of flavored tea to have as a treat
These ways of rewiring your brain are just three strategies in The 5 Pathways of Sugar Dependency(TM), the model I created to help people understand how insidious sugar and processed carbohydrates are in creating symptoms of addiction in the body. Master rewiring your brain in these three ways and you’ll find quitting sugar oh-so much easier.
To learn more about The 5 Pathways of Sugar Dependency(TM) and get on the wait list for the next program, visit BreakingFreefromSugar.com
Dr. Andrea Grayson is a public health communications consultant, part-time faculty member in the Masters of Public Health Program at the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont, and creator of Breaking Free from Sugar, a 5 week program to transform your health.