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The Path To The Holy Grail-Reprogramming The Reward Center.

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Monday, June 04, 2012

The human heart needs sense of purpose and accomplishment. The energizing why behind the what. Obesity is a destroyer of lives, not only physically, but emotionally as well. When I was 385 pounds, my entire existence was defined by what I can't do. From clothes that I can't fit into to stairs I can't climb, my world revolved around can't. The bigger I got, the smaller my reward system became until few things were left to stimulate or satisfy....except food. It was always there.  I was slowly robbed of my life as the weight crept on. With each pound I put on, my mind adjusted to the new normal until I saw the world through rose colored glasses. Everything was normal so long as no one took my picture.  Stupid cameras, they never catch my good side.

Things are different now.  I operate off of a totally different system. What I unwittingly did was start the process of reprogramming my brains reward center.  The human brain is the most complex computer system known and mankind has yet to tap even a small percentage of its capability.  With my disordered eating, there have been associations and behavioral patterns deeply ingrained into my system so that when certain stimuli are present, I would almost automatically "execute" the script.. See food-eat it.

Like any other addict, I had to replace one addiction with its rewards with another set of rewards. You cannot just take away a treasured reward system and replace it with nothing. For the exchange to take place and addictions to be surrendered voluntarily, the addiction has to be surrendered for something perceived to be of equal or greater value. This is why deprivation diets do not work. You are trying to exchange something of perceived value for something worse than nothing. Who in their right mind wants to exchange pleasure for lack and suffering? So long as there is nothing of greater value, addictions will always have power. In other words, when the addiction is the greatest source of comfort and validation, it will always rule until something that has greater regarded value takes its place.

This is one reason I have spent so much time hammering out the different avenues that my quest for emotional stability has taken me. It was the path to calm the storm within. To get me to realize that I too have worth and value. That I am worthy to be loved, respected, and that I am a worthwhile person. I don't need food to sedate me anymore. I am no longer a slave who needs the approval of others in order to feel validated.  I now stand on my own two feet.  Without this realization, it is impossible to let go of an addiction.

Running and endurance sports has been a game changer for me. While this is not a cure all for everyone, there is a point to be made here. The basic point is that I was able to derive a sense of accomplishment from challenging myself and training until I cross the finish line of successively more difficult events.  The "feel good" associations in my brain were being created, linking self worth, empowerment, and a sense of accomplishment to something other than food.  

Recreating new response pathways in the brain is key to overcoming old behavior patterns.  That is why emphasis is placed on creating a competing behavior. When you are feeling down, instead of eating this, make yourself do XXXX instead. Over time, new response pathways will begin to be created and will eventually take hold if they are nurtured.

My trainer understood this principle when she encouraged me to train for my first 5k. She knew that if I went after a seemingly out of reach goal and managed to do it, the sense of accomplishment would be a powerful motivator for me. She was right.  I dropped the 5k days before the event and signed up for the 10k instead because while training for the 5k, i had found that i got a real sense of accomplishment when i was able to go further and was doing about 5 miles once a week or so. I felt so empowered in running longer distances that i just kept coming back for more. While doing an extra 1.2 miles isn't a big deal, it was a leap into the unknown for me. I left the safety of the 5k, where I knew could do it, and moved to the 10k because I started to have this glimmer of a notion that I could do it and that people actually WONT laugh at they did all my life in gym class. Aaaaahhhh gym class, the scene of every negative reinforcement that associated physical exercise with public humiliation. Why did the chubby kid ( ) always get picked to be on the "skins" team? I was so relieved when they finally started using jerseys to mark the opposing team members opposed to taking off our shirts. Gym, the class paid for by public funds to ensure I would grow up HATING sports because it validated the notion that no one liked me because I was usually picked last and because every class always highlighted my obesity in some VERY public way. So much for my formative years.

That finishers ribbon became a treasured possession, equal in value to my first marathon medal. That floppy 10 cent ribbon became the first thing I ever earned in my life that embodied the courage that I have and now hold in my hand tangible proof that I can do it. That I am not a quitter. A new addiction was born.

Courage is courage no matter the distance.

That day I found that I not only had the courage to start but I had the will to finish.  That day, I earned my own self respect.  That day, I looked myself in the eye and saw a champion staring back in the mirror. That day, at 330 lbs, I became a runner and never looked back.

That day I exchanged one addiction for another. The feelings of accomplishing a goal or simply being true to my principles has grown into a driving force to the point that my desire to experience the thrill of crossing the finish line, going longer distances, of taking on greater challenges has become greater than the cheap thrill that food abuse delivers.  Overeating is seen as a threat to that reward much in the same way that you don't want to be the one standing between a junkie and his fix. I crave the reward to the point that nothing else will do. Food can't touch it any more unless I allow it too.

The point of a dedicated commitment to daily goals, even just 10 min a day, goes far beyond simply burning a few calories. This is reprogramming the habit and reward center of the brain. Don't just shrug off a short session simply because you don't have the time to create a significant calorie burn.  There is a sense of reward generated every time we honor a commitment. Over time, the desire for the positive reward will become stronger and more influential in the daily decisions. This desire is what is oft termed as motivation. Basically you are creating a new reward system that, over time, will be able to compete with the old one. The rewards of accomplishing your goals will never grow to a competitive strength unless it is fed daily.

It takes time to find what empowers you but it is worth the effort to find it. Finding it puts you one step closer to finding your Holy Grail.

Next In Series- Recovering From Food Addiction

Previous In The "Path To The Holy Grail" Series

Intoduction to the Holy Grail

Emotional balance part 1 - journey to the center of the problem

Emotional balance part 2 - Relationship with the scale

Emotional balance part 3 - Self talk

Emotional balance part 4 - Realistic weight loss goals

Emotional balance part 5 - Independence And Passion.

Reprogramming The Reward Center
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