Change can be intense.
Successfully making a change involves:
1.) Motivation for Change
2.) Developing an action plan for change
3.) Making the change by following action plan
4.) Maintaining the change
The maintenance phase is often most difficult -
It involves a plan to avoid relapse.
Relapse is a return to our old habits, and the feelings that surround it can be intense if we interpret relapse a failure to change. However, we do not need to see change in terms of All or Nothing results. In fact, accepting and navigating beyond temporary relapses can actually strengthen our ability to maintain our new results.
But WHY does relapse happen?
Let’s use one of my clients, “Sally” as an example:
Sally used to “treat” herself once a week on Sunday nights as she mentally prepared for the many demands and responsibilities that would come with returning to her high profile job the following morning. Feeling anxious was particularly uncomfortable for her, so she would numb the feeling with an entire Costco-size bag of peanut M&M’s and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Americone Dream.
In one of the first few sessions, I encouraged Sally to sit with her emotions when she felt complled to splurge. As she sat and journaled her feelings, she came to the realization knew that Sunday nights brought her significant anxiety and she wanted to not feel anxious. In our next coaching session, I helped Sally to make the connection that her Sunday night ritual was not a treat, but rather an escape from uncomfortable feelings of anxiety.
Sally learned that she was using FOOD AS A BUFFER.
Why do we often reward ourselves with food?
Sugar is known to release DOPAMINE in your brain. When Sally wanted to feel good, she would eat sugar to get a dopamine hit. This becomes a strong reward pathway. The nucleus accumbens is flooded with dopamine. The hippocampus then creates memories of this major satisfaction, then the amygdala creates a conditioned response to a certain stimulus.
Sally would feel anxious on Sunday night, eat sugar, feel great immediately, and the reward center would be strengthened.
Through this experience, Sally started to associate Sundays with her day to eat a lot of sugar and feel good. This behavior is not uncommon. You often hear people say, “I do good all week long, and then I lose control on the weekend.” This has become a learned behavior.
She concluded that this learned behavior was actually making her feel worse over time, and was able to better catch her body’s urges to eat sugar and feel good on Sunday evenings. Ultimately, Sally decided to implement some big changes. We developed an action plan and she substituted healthier behaviors on Sunday nights when she started to feel anxious. She used her frontal lobe to remind herself to resist the urges of the midbrain, noting that the behavior was actually causing her to be overweight and adding additional unwanted feelings of regret to an already hectic Monday morning.
Sally has since decreased her body fat by 10% - and did this simply by eliminating her binge eating behavior.
Sally is now free from ever using food as a buffer again…right? Not even close. Sally is at high risk for engaging in binge eating despite being able to process her feelings. This is because triggers or learned associations between circumstances, thoughts, and feelings can trigger her action to binge.
Sally contacted me just the other day. She was very disappointed in herself - and this is the story she relayed:
"It was sunday night…I couldn’t name the feeling, but it came fast and felt strong. It was in the pit of my stomach. I thought on it and sat with it. I felt restless. I don't know why. I kept thinking about ice cream, but i wasn’t hungry. Then i thought about work. I realized that everything felt sooooooo FAST. But, I thought i knew what to do. All i had to do was slow it down. Ice cream cannot slow this down. Nothing can slow this feeling down but me. I stopped pushing the fast feeling away...i sat down. I just sat there for a while. Then I felt hungry.. The sensation of restless made me feel hungry.. I took some deep breaths and things seemed to slow down. I still couldn’t investigate what thoughts were making me feel so speedy. I slowly felt glimpses of calm....I like calm. I focused on the here and now....I did the grounding exercise and named out loud 5 things i could see, 4 things I could feel , 3 things I could hear, 2 things i could smell, one thing I could taste. …….I had grounded myself and I was was back in the moment.
….But suddenly I don’t know what happened. I just didn’t want to sit with the restless anymore.
And just like that… I ate the ice cream.
I felt comfortable. I felt satisfied.
…I ate all of it until I felt numb.”
Here is what I want you to know about relapse. Just because relapse happens, does not mean that you have failed.
Relapse can easily happen because of the established reward center and our established experience that we have learned.
By accepting that relapse has a good reason to happen, we can be prepared for it. We can first identify trigger that might cause us to relapse. For example, in the beginning Sally might find that Sunday alone may be a trigger. When we know the triggers, we can have an action plan to make the decision we want. We can learn to sit with the urge to eat sugar and learn to feel that feeling that is creating the urge.
Instead of seeing relapse as a failure, we can use it as just another learning experience. We can identify exactly why the behavior happened, and decide what we would like to do next time.
Maintenance can be achieved even with an occasional relapse. It is repeated relapses day after day that will reteach us our old bad habits and give us our old results. Preparing for relapses and improving ourselves each time they occur will be the secret to your success.
If relapse and maintenance is something that you struggle with. I can help you. Take advantage of a 15 minute strategy session.