Extinction Bursts and Not Getting Derailed

One of my favorite blogs is called You Are Not So Smart. They write about human nature, psychology, and in particular the ways we tend to sabotage ourselves. As I’ve begun this whole fitness thing, there have been a coupe posts that have really helped me get a clear picture of what motivates my behavior.

They’re running a contest for way to illustrate the concepts they discuss, in celebration of a book deal. The very first entry they posted shows a fan who lost 30 lbs in 3-4ish months, and was submitted to illustrate “Extinction Bursts“. And much like that fan, reading their post about the phenomenon helped something click in my head, and makes it a lot more likely I won’t go through this again.

What’s an extinction burst? It’s a Class A Freak Out that your brain pulls when you go cold turkey on any behavior that it enjoys (warning – here be oversimplifications. For a much better breakdown on how this works, see the post). Over time, we become conditioned to rewarding ourselves through high fat, high sugar, high calorie foods. And those foods are good. They taste good, and after eating them we feel satisfied and content. It becomes our routine, and our brain gets used to all that wonderful pleasure.

Until we change it up, and eat healthier, exercise, and stop partaking in all of those behaviors that served our ancestors so well but only make us fatter and less healthy. And like any parent of a toddler knows, when you deny a reward that we have become accustomed to having, a tantrum is imminent:

Just before you give up on a long-practiced routine, you freak out. It’s a final desperate attempt by the oldest parts of your brain to keep getting rewarded.

And despite knowing all of this, I’ve fallen for my brain’s deception countless times. Hook, line, and sinker.

My backsliding last week was an example. First I had just one coke, but one became two, and then two a day, and by the end of the week I was scarfing rosemary garlic fries and beer (at The Brewer’s Art) and telling myself that I’d make it up later.

This week I’ve been a lot more successful. I’ve found that being aware of what’s going on goes a long way toward ensuring I don’t fall victim – much like the contest entrant above. Yesterday morning I had the most intense craving for orange juice I think I’ve ever had, and there’s definitely some generalized carb craving going on. But I recognize all of it for what it is, and remind myself: on Cheat Day, you can have all that and more!

[“Woot!” says carb-craving me.]

Another good way to deal is with a strategy I was reminded of by a recent post from Get Fit Slowly. I look at every opportunity to deviate from my diet as a single choice. At that specific moment, what’s more important: the fleeting pleasure of whatever it is I could be eating (and the potential for a further slide if I’m not careful), or sticking to my committment and meeting my goals?

And sometimes? I go with Door Number 1, which is the other part of it: one lapse doesn’t kill a diet (or a dieter for that matter). I can have a drink (which I have had this week), I can limit it to just the one drink, and the next day I’m right back to the same meals I’ve been eating all week.

I honestly can’t wait (weight, ha!) for Monday. I’m excited. I want to see the results. If they’re good, I’ll be ecstatic! And if they’re not so good, then I’ll have a starting point to make some changes. Either way I’m moving forward, and that’s an awesome feeling.

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