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If you’re addicted to any unhealthy habit in your life — whether it’s eating junk food, drinking alcohol or watching too much TV — you might be tempted to take the willpower approach to overcoming your addictive behaviors.
You’ll grit your teeth, furrow your brow and do your best to power through those unhealthy cravings. After weeks, months or years of sheer determination, you may even succeed. But the whole time you’ll be wondering if there’s an easier way…
And there absolutely is. There’s an approach that requires little to no willpower. And it gets to the root of your problem in a way willpower never could…
This approach attacks unhealthy behaviors at their source — stress.
Stress and the primitive brain
Whether you can’t say no to sweets or spend every evening binge-watching your favorite TV show, chances are, you’re doing these things for the same reason… to relieve stress.
You see, you may live in the twenty-first century, but your brain’s still stuck in its primitive past…
Your brain evolved to protect itself from stress. When you’re stressed, your body releases stress hormones that damage the brain by reducing the number of synapses. Synapses are the communication pathways in your brain that allow your brain cells to communicate with one another, so losing a few is kind of a big deal.
In order to counteract this stress-related damage, your brain seeks out pleasure. That’s because pleasure causes your body to release hormones like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins, which can reduce the damage caused by stress hormones. So when you devour a bag of potato chips after a stressful day at work, your brain is actually trying to do you a favor…
Unfortunately, that favor doesn’t work out so well for your health. But the good news is, now that you know what’s behind your bad habits, you can stop dieting… and start destressing instead.
Professor Selena Bartlett from Queensland University of Technology’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, an expert on stress and addictive behaviors, says it is possible to override your brain’s primitive response to stress.
You can start by reducing stressors in your life: Learn not to overcommit yourself, express your feelings, spend time with feel-good people and set aside time for relaxation. Of course, it’s impossible to banish stress completely, so learning to change your brain’s default stress response is important. To do that, Bartlett recommends you:
- Pay attention to how your brain responds to stress. If you feel stressed and then you notice yourself overeating, drinking half a bottle of wine or laying on the couch all evening, you’ll know why you’re doing it. Awareness is the first step to stopping.
- When you catch yourself resorting to an addictive, unhealthy behavior in times of stress, choose a healthy, stress-relieving behavior instead. You can try deep breathing, stretching, walking, running or any other healthy behavior that makes you feel good.