Wednesday, June 9, 2010

What the Rat Taught Me

Lately, I've been feeling anxious and depressed during the day for no discernible reason. Nothing has really changed, except my weight, and presumably that is all for the good. I go about my business during the day, and just feel empty, anxious, and at loose ends.

Initially, I attributed these feelings to hormonal fluctuations. I'm aware that weight loss often brings changes in such things, but I don't think that is what the problem has been. It could simply be a tendency to feel sad or depressed coming through, but I don't necessarily embrace that explanation either. I think it's something deeper and harder to put my finger on.

I thought about how I used to spend my days before I changed my eating habits. During the day, I would punctuate my day by eating food for pleasure, or simply because I was vaguely hungry and didn't want to endure more intense hunger. A lot of people attribute this type of eating to "boredom". Frankly, I think that is an oversimplification of what is going on.

In my post on insisting on complexity when considering weight problems, I talked about the rat I trained in a Skinner box. In a nutshell, I trained a rat to press a lever to receive a food pellet, but the rat coincidentally turned around before successfully connecting pushing of the lever and receiving the reward. Because of this, the rat always turned around in a circle before pressing the bar even though that action had no meaning (this is superstitious behavior).

I noted in the post on complexity that it would have been very difficult to break the rat of its superstitious behavior and that in the process of doing so, the rat would have felt stressed and anxious. In fact, I would have had to physically restrain the rat to stop it because it had paired the circling and the lever so completely. If I had held the rat in place, it would have struggled greatly and tried to perform its superstitious action prior to pressing the bar.

Humans and animals have many things about the way they learn in common. Humans, like animals, grow accustomed to certain patterns of behavior and feel anxious when they cannot follow the same habits. People like novelty, but only in small doses. Very few people get up every morning and do something different every day. We derive comfort from the sameness of our lives up to the point where we are bored and then we seek some novelty, but return to our routine soon thereafter.

In terms of changing your diet, the routine for many people who have habitually over-eaten is to eat whenever they want and whatever they want. I'm not saying they stuff themselves like pigs all of the time, but I know that I had a glass of milk if I wanted one before. If I wanted a banana, I ate one. Throughout the day, punctuating your time with food adds up calories. When you're on a diet, you lose the capacity to freely consume food, healthy or otherwise. The diet represents a serious disruption in routine as well as a loss of total freedom to act on your impulses. Both of these losses cause stress.

My feeling now is that I have anxiety because I no longer spend my time carrying out the same routine in regards to food. When I first changed my eating patterns, I wanted to eat because I was famished and the reduction in calories was a shock to my body. After I adjusted to that aspect (after a considerable amount of time), I didn't want to eat because I was bored. I wanted to eat because I was stressed due to the disruption in lifestyle patterns. Just like it would be stressful for the rat to stop circling pointlessly before pressing the bar, it's stressful for me to not do what I used to do to see me successfully through each day. Any change, even a positive one which includes discarding destructive habits can cause anxiety.

Now, I don't even have the impulse to eat, but I still have an acute sense that something is wrong. There is something missing in my day and I feel anxiety because of that. I'm in a state which is equivalent to my holding the rat and not allowing it to circle around and forcing it to just face the bar without turning around. I know that I don't need to "circle around" (eat), but I still feel stress at not being able to do so.

Many people who binge think they do it out of boredom, but I believe that it is more than that. I think that the reason we want to give in to urges created by the stress that results from behavior pattern changes. Though we want the food and the enjoyment of it, it is also the fact that there is an intense feeling of satisfaction and relief at merely acting on our desire to eat. If you eat without pleasure, but still want to eat nonetheless, you are likely acting on the need to relieve anxiety from your change in lifestyle. If you binge and feel a profound sense of relief from the act, you are almost certainly also acting out of the resulting stress. This is particularly so if you eat a lot and not out of hunger or obsess over having a certain meal in a certain quantity regardless of your actual hunger.

Imagine how my struggling rat would feel if I held it in place and refused to let it circle before pressing the bar for some time and I suddenly let it go and allowed it to turn around and just press the bar as it wanted to do. The stress would end. The anxiety would pass, and it would do what it had been straining to do. When people who have successfully dieted suddenly binge, they are "letting go" and relieving the anxiety they feel from the multitude of disruptions to routine and eating patterns. The relief you feel when you give in is palpable, but then is followed by remorse and regret. Part of the reason that we believe that we act mainly out of boredom is that we so frequently ate before for pleasure.

It isn't boredom, but rather not knowing what to do now that your life's habits are a blank slate. That emptiness causes stress, not boredom. That stress is relieved by embracing old habits. It takes a very long time to adopt new and effectively comforting habits, and it also takes an awareness that you aren't just bored and turning to food.

After years of eating throughout the day when I felt like it, it became a compulsion. I needed to eat because I always ate, and not doing so causes stress. This aspect of changing the way you live is obfuscated by the absolute multitude of other issues (hunger, boredom, using food as pain, fatigue or stress reliever, sugar and carb addictions, etc.) at play when you go on a diet. People think they want to eat for many reasons, but the stress of abandoning years of a lifestyle pattern is rarely one of them. We think we're too rational for that. We convince ourselves that we're capable of doing what is best because it is best and we get a reward (weight loss) for it.

I realize that though I have successfully divested myself of many of my destructive food-based behaviors and conditioned myself to endure hunger much more effectively, I have not escaped the stress and anxiety of the loss of my old lifestyle patterns. I don't think about food as much. I don't eat as much or as often. When I'm bored, I don't turn to food. When I'm sad, I don't turn to food or even think about it as an answer. However, I am the rat held in place and feeling stress. My whole life has changed and I feel anxious about it. I have to replace old patterns with new ones, but the new ones aren't going to necessarily remove the stress I feel at the loss of old and comforting routines.

I am gratified that the pattern has been so relatively effectively broken at this stage. I don't want to eat for the sake of eating, but I think that I have to remain aware and vigilant that any stress, sadness, or free-floating anxiety that I feel could compel me to eat if I don't keep in mind that it is the emptiness and loss of habits that compel me. I have to push very hard to fill that emptiness with something else, and be very patient about waiting for those new habits to become as comforting as the old ones.


Lyn said...

This was an excellent read for me. Thank you so much for writing it. I never really thought about boredom vs. stress this way, but you are right! I absolutely can identify that stress of not having my 'superstitious behaviors' anymore. That is pretty much what is going on with me. I am so glad you helped turn on another light bulb for me :)

screaming fatgirl said...

Hi, Lyn, and thanks for your comment. I really appreciate it and I am gratified that you find it helpful for you as well.

I must say that it was an immense relief for me when I reached this conclusion because of this free-floating anxiety and stress I've been feeling. And you were responsible for this realization because my thoughts were spurred by your blog post! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

This helps explain why my husband has had more anxiety in the evenings now that I no longer eat snacks with him. After decades of eating popcorn and low-fat ice cream together while we relaxed in the hours before bed, he now feels a sense of loss, or the sense that something bad may happen. My eating with him was his superstitious source of comfort, in a way. I'm sure I'm not explaining this with the correct psychology terminology (not my field). His snacking alone (without my company) doesn't bring him the same pleasure as before, and it has tapered off. Even when he does eat his bowl of ice cream, it's as if he is just going through the motions and it only makes him feel worse.


KyokoCake said...

I hope that you are able to find something to fill the void soon. I absolutely love reading your longer posts especially - I think you're really insightful and I see a lot of myself in the things you talk about!

screaming fatgirl said...

Hi, Rebecca and Kyokocake, and thanks to both of you for taking the time to comment. I really appreciate it!

Rebecca: I think that's a very interesting observation about your husband, and I'm sure it is true. It also made me consider the fact that a lot of women feel their husbands or significant others try to "sabotage" them by buying food they used to enjoy. It may not be sabotage so much as the discomfort at the change in habits. They may buy calorie-laden heavy foods because they used to buy them for their mates and it made them happy. Now, they don't know what makes them happy or what role they place in making their mate happy. In the absence of knowing what to do and with the anxiety of the changed habits, they do what they always did (which relieves their sense of stress at the new behavior patterns). It likely isn't sabotage at all.

Kyococake: Thanks for your compliments on my longer posts. Sometimes I think they're too involved and boring so what you said made me feel better!