Yes, I think too much

Changing your biology (through psychology)

with 4 comments

As someone who has pushed herself to change in a lot of ways psychologically, particularly in regards to food, but also in terms of my personality and temper, I strongly believe that psychology and behavior can reshape biology. It takes time, but I think the bodies various systems and cells adapt to changes through time. Changes that are initially difficult become close to effortless as you push your body to endure them longer. The extent to which you suffer as a result of such changes is determined by how radical they are as the leap between who you were biologically at the start and who you will be is a much larger one.

The idea that biology follows psychology and behavior is certainly not unknown. We know that people who meditate can lower their resting heart rate and improve their blood pressure. We also know that exercise improves the function of many bodily systems for the better. However, we can see and realize how behavior, particularly in regards to what we ingest, can alter biology quite profoundly when we consider drug use and abuse.

One of the reasons that many heroin or opiate users find it difficult to stop is that as they ingest or inject chemicals into their bodies to release endorphin-like responses their brain reduces the production of those chemicals in response. In essence, the more you give the body something, the more it adjusts by giving you less of whatever it stimulates. When you stop giving it what it has grown accustomed to, it takes awhile to adjust your biochemistry to compensate, and you suffer during the adjustment period.

Recently, I read a study which indicates that a similar effect may occur with people who habitually overeat. That is, the very act of overeating may cause your brain to react less pleasurably to food, so you need to eat more and more to achieve the same levels of pleasure from food. In turn, this will cause you to want to eat even more. In essence, abusing food, like abusing drugs, will lead to the desire for more and more.

This study was one that rang true to me because I have discovered that mindful eating, that is eating slowly, paying attention to the texture, smell, and taste of every bite, has changed my need for more food. Coupled with portion control, I have found that I no longer desire large quantities of any food in order to feel satisfied. This change took about 8 or so months to reach a state of relative completion in which I did not desire more than a small quantity of pleasurable foods to be satisfied, but it is quite real. It isn’t a psychological trick. It is a biological reality.

This study is compelling in what it indicates, not only in terms of overeating, but in all aspects of our lives. One possible indication is that we need to place a high value on novelty in order to extract the most pleasure from experiences. Another is that what feels like immutable nature can be retrained with effort. If you are a person who is easily upset, it could be that practicing psychological techniques each time you are upset to shorten the duration and diminish the intensity of your negative emotional response will eventually change your reaction. Conversely, being angry, aggressive, or combative on a regular basis may actually find you needing to be so more and more so in order to release the chemicals that are released when such behaviors are engaged in. In particular, adrenaline is released when angry. Frequent anger may tamp down adrenaline response (which brings about a sense of power and strength) and one may want to be more aggressive and hostile more often to get that same feeling on a regular basis.

The implications of this study, as well as what we know about the effect of various other behaviors on our neurochemistry, are encouraging. We can be better, healthier and less conflicted people, but we have to push long enough and steadily enough for our bodies to make the adjustments. If we make those changes consistently over a long enough period of time, eventually, it will get easier, not only psychologically, but biologically.


Written by yesithinktoomuch

October 2, 2010 at 6:21 am

4 Responses

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  1. Yes, our bodies are amazing, and sometimes we lose trust in them–as a result of trauma, for example. My husband recently lost functioning of two major muscle groups after suffering blunt force trauma to sensory and motor neurons. A neuron bundle was at first presumed to be damaged from tissue swelling. Much later, after conduction testing, the nerve bundle was determined to have been crushed during the accident. For two months the doctors kept telling my husband that his inability to move his muscles was simply a result of pain response. My husband intuitively knew they were wrong, but their continued certainty (arrogance) really tested my spouse’s trust in his body and in his own perceptions about his body. I watched him becoming more uncertain about his recovery, and he began to adopt an attitude that was approaching hopelessness/helplessness in regards to the healing of his muscles, which he relies on to earn a living. He became weaker and weaker in spite of physical therapy.

    Well, I won’t go into the history of how he was able to turn this situation around, except to say that he found ways to keep gently increasing his trust in his body and his perceptions (psychological response)–which in turn has resulted in some wonderful physiological progress in his recovery.

    I see many parallels in the ways I lost trust in my own body’s ability to respond to stress. And I observe similarities in the ways I’m working to realign my psychological responses to improve the physiological adaptations that my body is going through, and vice-versa (if that makes sense!) It is all more complex than most research indicates (calories in vs. calories out).

    Another wonderful and thoughtful essay! Thank you.



    October 2, 2010 at 3:06 pm

  2. I had a similar experience years ago in regards to my back pain. I was warned of all sorts of dire things and told to just keep lying in bed. After about 2 1/2 months of lying around and not getting any better, I decided to ignore the doctor’s advice and just start walking everyday to work with the muscles in my back. Instead of ending up crippled (as I was told would happen), I got better and better and the excruciating pain which had side-lined me eventually faded to tolerable levels. The doctor was just flat-out wrong, as appeared to have been the case with your husband’s situation.

    I think now more than ever doctors like to tell us what is and isn’t possible, and they don’t want us to trust our bodies because that puts them in control (and they are so arrogant that they believe only they can fix us). Of course, too many people are far too happy to just believe what they want to believe about being powerless and helpless, because then they can “let themselves off the hook” for the things they blame themselves for. My feeling is we need to stop focusing on “blame” when it comes to health issues and only think about improvement.


    October 2, 2010 at 11:20 pm

  3. I am big believer in time. It cures all ills or whatever that saying is. You have to be using your time wisely however, or time passes and you are back at the beginning, or worse, further behind then from where you started. This conditioning only works if you keep at it for as long as it takes and most quit long before they get there. I think they stop paying attention.

    Do you know anything about Borderline personalities? (I’m going to assume yes.) I’m just learning, but have lived with one my whole life I have come to find out. What an interesting mix of Biology and Environment we are. I watch this person struggle with hitting the stop button. Akin to over eating I think, you get desensitized. When that much (bullshit in this case) becomes your reality there is a need for more and more. Control comes with practice and it’s easier just to yield than to even try sometimes. It’s amazing to me what can become “normal” to your body if you let it. Be it too much food or verbal abuse or what have you.

    Great post as always. This is a better forum for you imho. You are more than just weight loss (still love SFG) and I’m happy to read about the rest of it.


    October 4, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    • Hi, Sarah, and thanks for reading and commenting, particularly for saying this is a better forum for me (I like to think so, too).

      You are absolutely right that you have to keep at it, and the problem is that it is often very hard to do so. It’s my complete belief that people change because they are capable, and fail to do so because on some level they are not capable. This is why we can talk about people being “ready” to accomplish goals. It’s not that they don’t want to, but something isn’t right for them to apply enough effort to succeed.

      You assume correctly that I know a lot about Borderline Personality Disorder. In my past work experience, I had first-hand encounters with them. Most of them were ill enough to have entered the mental health system and to require therapy and medication though, and I think there is a continuum of severity. I have dealt with the ones who had the biggest problems. In particular, their demanding nature and manipulativeness was pretty oppressive to those who dealt with them.

      I think the BPD is a pretty catch-all description of many issues people have. There are many people who have aspects of it, but wouldn’t be clinically diagnosed as having it. It’s been my feeling as of late that it is over-diagnosed much like ADHD and Asperger’s. I think that medicine and psychiatry are quick to diagnose people who are not far enough along the continuum of these disorders to be actually ill,but are really people who are imbalanced in their outlook and have little control over their moods (conditions which American culture encourages more and more as time goes by).

      You are right that control comes with practice, and part of the problem is that people often feel they have no need to change their thinking or behavior because others should accommodate them rather than their learning to find some balance. Our culture has to compel us to find balance for us to feel the need to do it, and America is a country which often celebrates or luxuriates in extremes. This is not ragging on American culture, but reflecting on why people can be so bellicose and rigid, often to their own detriment.


      October 6, 2010 at 8:13 am

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