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Fuel or Pleasure?

by | Jan 5, 2024 | Uncategorized

Written by Suzanne R. Trollan, M.A., LCMHC

When listening to clients tell their stories, I notice threads that weave through the tapestries of similar struggles. These threads can help me to develop a strategy for reframing unhelpful thoughts and habits into new, healthier practices. While working with clients who were seeking psychological clearance for bariatric surgery, I noticed that many reported that they couldn’t bring themselves to drink water unless it had some sort of flavoring added.  It seems that they had developed such a strong connection between eating or drinking and experiencing pleasure that it was impossible to see drinking water as hydration or eating vegetables as fueling their bodies.  Anything that was ingested must be an experience of pleasure.

All humans seek pleasurable experiences, a stimulation of pleasure centers in our brains.   Our habits can shape our experiences in such a way that we desensitize our brains to pleasure.  We develop a tolerance to pleasure from eating and drinking in a similar way that we might develop a tolerance to alcohol.  Our brains light up with pleasure when we consume carbohydrates and fats (think French fries or doughnuts-great combinations of carbohydrate and fat!) and it takes increasing amounts of them to get to a similar pleasure level.  Healthy people tend to use a variety of coping strategies to manage their brain chemistry, their time and their health. 

The idea that all of our senses are pathways into the pleasure centers of our brains is a key to developing variety in healthy coping strategies. What do we see, hear, smell and touch (as well as taste) that stimulates the pleasure centers in our brains? Mindfulness practices can help us to attend to the little choices that we make throughout the day.  We can savor these things in a similar way to the way that we savor food and drink; without the negative health consequences. 

Another factor that influences a tendency toward addiction is the belief that we must feel good all the time.  Addictive behaviors are associated with low frustration tolerance.  When we don’t feel the way we want to feel, the way we believe we ought to feel, we seek to change the way that we feel as quickly as possible.  This is where the habit of “stress eating” or “comfort eating” is derived.  Carbohydrates and fats light up the pleasure centers so quickly that they create a powerful craving for those who make the connection.

In cognitive therapy, we begin by considering the idea that feelings ebb and flow.  They are temporary.  Clients are encouraged to develop their own rating scale—either one to five or one to ten, based on their preference.  The lowest number will represent the worst feeling that they can remember actually having-identified, described and labeled.  The highest number will represent the best feeling they can remember actually having—identified, described and labeled.  We then consider the concept that it is reasonable to expect that we spend just as much time at each number on the scale.  It is unreasonable to expect that every day, or even most every day is above average.

After creating a scale to track feelings, we introduce the idea that our thoughts and behaviors have enormous impact our feelings. If we want to move to a better number on our scale, we are empowered to do so by the process of thinking and doing the things that help us to get there.

Suzanne R. Trollan, LCMHC

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