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Changing your biology (through psychology)

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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.

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Written by yesithinktoomuch

October 2, 2010 at 6:21 am