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How can we NOT overdrink or overeat during the holidays?

How to win the war between what we want to do and what we want to have done.

We often struggle with what we want to do versus what we want to have done. Recently, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, the Director of the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Lab at Northeastern University, wrote an article in The New York Times entitled, “Your Brain Is Not for Thinking.” Instead, our brain is very good at keeping us alive and well. All the time, it is monitoring how things are going in our stomach, liver, lungs, heart, skins, etc. If anything is amiss, it urges us to fix the problem, often, right away. So if I feel hungry, I may get up and go get something to eat. During the pandemic, working at home in a room right off the kitchen, that is a problem!

Unfortunately, the brain is not as good at keeping our long-term objectives in mind.

Dorothy Parker, a wonderful 20th century writer and wit, reportedly said, “I hate writing, but I love having written.”

In contrast, many people love to eat and drink but hate having done so after the fact. This has been a particularly difficult problem during the pandemic, and it is not about to get easier during the holidays.

No doubt, there is a struggle between what our brain wants us to do and what we want to have done. If there is a battle, we need good strategies and techniques to win.

The problem has three parts:

1. Keeping our goals and values in mind…what we would like to have done.

2. Not growing an urge.

3. Using a combination of strategies to help ourselves along the way.

Here are 16 strategies that can help:

1. Override your brain. Dr. Laurie Santos, who teaches Yale University’s most popular undergraduate course, probably agrees with Dr. Barrett’s assessment, but she takes it a bit further: the brain lies! It gets things wrong. Fortunately, we are not our brain. We can observe – as the mindfulness folks tell us – and not act on every idea pushed forward by our brain.

2. God needed a mnemonic device. Maybe that would help us, too. Even if you are not at all religious, a story nn the Old Testament, may have something to tell us. After having flooded and destroyed everything, God promises Noah and his son not to do it again. To remember to keep his promise, He puts a rainbow in the sky. If the all-knowing and all-powerful one needs a mnemonic device to remember adhere to a long-run goal, maybe one would help us, too. At holiday meal, would wearing a large ring or an unusual shirt help? Every time we look at it, we can remember what we want to have done.

3. Play the video forward. Slow down and take a moment to visualize what you want to have done. You want to be able to look at yourself the next day and say, “I did not let my brain run the show. I knew my brain was just trying to take care of me. And that is good. But I – more than just my brain – knew what I wanted to have done ,and I employed some successful strategies. And they worked.

4. And if they didn’t work, for the next time – because there will always be a next time -- blame the strategies not yourself. I like to ski. When I fall, I try to figure out why that happened. I may be irritated because I did something stupid, but I don’t blame myself. I try to figure out what I did wrong.

5. Watch out for irrational beliefs (“brain lies”): I can get away with it. It won’t matter. I’ll just have/eat one….

6. Olympic ice skaters practice their routines in their heads. Basketball players practice making foul shots by imaging doing so. As a result, they do better. If you are really serious about doing better the next time you sit down to a holiday meal, imagine what you will say to others and what you will say to yourself. Practice that in bed the night before at the level of imagery. Then it may come to you like a post-hypnotic suggestion at the right moment.

7. Don’t grow an urge. Again, even if you are not at all religious, the Old Testament has 10 rules. According to that ancient way of thinking, if you follow those rules, you will have a better life. The 10thcommandment says to not covet your neighbor’s cows, land and wife – all, unfortunately, at that time, property. It does not say don’t steal. It says don’t covet. Don’t sit there and think about it and grow an urge. You don’t have to be religious to realize that whether g-d or humans wrote that rule, he/she/it/they may have been on to something. Doing so, changes your brain. And with that brain you may do something which later you may not be happy to have done.

8. So change your brain with care. Neuroscience helps us now understand what the ancients didn’t. If you sit there and “covet” – maybe in this case look at the bottle of wine or the delicious main dish --you will get a little dopamine spritz. That spritz will change your neurochemistry ever so slightly. With more dopamine, the likelihood increases that you will ask for more. (Note: genetically modified mice whose brains do not “spritz” dopamine die of starvation. They do not get up and eat.)

9. Delay. Wait 15 minutes or 30 minutes before you ask.

10. Leave the scene. You cannot win in that environment. Too much is stacked against you.

11. Control your lungs and help your brain. Your lungs are the only organism that you can directly, intentionally control. How we breathe affects our brain, our heart and probably everything else in our body. That is one reason meditators focus so much attention on breathing. Practicing some brief breathing or mindfulness will help you stay on track.

12. Get better at “affect labeling.” Dr. Mathew Lieberman, the Director of UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, has found that taking time to label emotions helps people manage their emotions more effectively.

13. Medications can help. Overeating and overdrinking are two of the five major risky health behaviors. If they have the resources, many, many humans around the globe are struggling to learn to not eat and drink so much. Think about it. If three to five billion people are fighting the same battle, clearly the problem is not you.

14. Use “implementation intentions.” Having an intention in mind – a plan -- increases the odds that you will do what you hope tomorrow you have done. A lot of research shows that the awkwardly named strategy -- “implementation intentions” -- can help us stay on track. Make a clear plan for what you are going to do when something happens that may derail you: IF I am asked if I want another drink, I will say, ‘No, not now. Thanks.’

IF I start to think about having seconds, I will shift my attention to the conversation or to something else.

Once our intentions are clear – when we have articulated and perhaps even written them down – we are more likely to implement our intentions when the moment comes.

15. Watch out for the Limit Violation Effect. Sometimes I refer to it as the Häagen-Dazs effect. Once we’ve eaten half the pint, we may say to ourselves: Well, I’ve eaten half of it. I might as well finish the whole thing. Dr. Lorraine Collins, Director of the Innovation Lab at SUNY Buffalo, studied what she named the Limit Violation Effect. In her research into overdrinking, she found that once people go over – violate – the amount they intended to drink, instead of pulling back, they throw in the towel. Breaking a limit that you had in mind doesn’t mean that you can’t regain your footing and get back on your desired long-run path.

16. The “munchies” exist! Alcohol may not give you the real “munchies,” but it disinhibits us. (By the way, the chemical that gives you the real munchies has been identified.). When you drink, you add calories, and you almost always eat more.

During the holidays, we will be tempted and will feel an urge to indulge. Holidays are times to have fun and let lose. That really means, just let our brain take over. But our brain may not be good at remembering what we want to have done the next day. We need to use a combination of strategies to win the battle.


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