This Powerful Part of Your Brain Helps You Stick to Healthy Habits. Four Ways to Keep It in Shape.
The power had shifted. I knew it. We’d been on six dates and were definitely at the “are you in or are you out” point. I’d gone and caught feelz and he’d backed off. The tone of our texts had changed. What had once been emoticon-punctuated questions were now short, abbreviated answers. Friggin’ consultant language. Why do they have to abbreviate everything?
Frustrated, I opened Tinder and began swiping. Swipe, swipe, match, swipe, match, match, match. The instant gratification provided a momentary escape from my rejection. The irony is that I know better. I’m a mental health therapist who preaches constantly about “refraining, sitting with uncomfortable feelings and practicing self-compassion.” I teach this mindfulness strategy to clients, helping them overcome destructive behaviors or unhelpful behaviors. Sometimes, I can practice what I preach. Right now was definitely not one of those times.
Rationally, I knew numbing my feelings of rejection with Tinder wasn't actually serving anyone involved – not me, not the poor dudes I match with, not any future partner. I knew the real answer is to notice the difficult feelings, be gentle with myself and find a more productive coping mechanism, like calling a girlfriend or writing about my feelings. I knew I need to “feel to heal.” But let’s face it, when overwhelmed with emotion, it’s really effing challenging to be “rational.”
For me, it's not just defensive Tindering that falls under the category of seeking instant vs. deferred gratification. I know I feel so much better when I meditate, but you'll rarely find me doing it outside of yoga class. I know I should probably be saving the bills in my wallet for transit, laundry - really anything other than coffees and kombuchas - but somehow I always spend them on, yes, coffee and kombuchas. And so on.
What gives? We're evolved enough to travel to space, yet we still spend beyond our means, cheat on our partners, inhale Krispy Kremes, and say yes to tequila shots.
The limbic system.
What comes to mind when you hear the word "impulsive?" Your wildcard friend who's been arrested twice? The guy you were happily dating back in '08 who called you from Mykonos and said he'd decided to quit his job, catch a last-minute flight and he wasn’t coming back? Your 16-year-old self who ended up in the hospital after drinking too much Captain Morgan's (true story) or who got that tribal armband tattoo?
Well, one thing your wildcard friend, the guy you lost to Greece and that 16-year-old self had in common was that they were all acting on the desires of their limbic system - specifically the amygdala and the hypothalamus. These structures send signals to tell us when we're hungry, horny, angry, cold, in danger, lonely - essentially experiencing any urges or emotions whatsoever. When these urges and emotions are so powerful that they become uncomfortable, we try to satisfy them immediately.
To make things even more challenging, many of the behaviors that we consider destructive - gambling, sex, bingeing - cause surges of two feel-good chemicals - serotonin and dopamine - in our brain. And this creates a positive reinforcement loop; something that might have been helpful when we were cave people striving to stay alive and procreate, but it is not so helpful when we're trying to, say, live productively or date online.
The prefrontal cortex.
Yet there's a reason humanity has prefrontal cortex (PFC). This part of our brain controls judgment, decision-making, planning, concentration, mitigating aggression and memory. It's responsible for determining future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal and predicting outcomes based what's socially acceptable. The PFC isn't fully developed until age 25 (which may explain why your college self streaked through the cafeteria), and is suppressed by alcohol (which also may explain why your college self streaked through the cafeteria).
The limbic system and the PFC work together to ultimately determine your behavior. Your limbic system might say, "I'm hungry. I want a Five Guys burger," or "I'm stressed. I want vodka," yet your PFC might recognize that neither of those might be smart choices. It might suggest you opt for Sweetgreen or yoga or just notice the discomfort instead. Your PFC is like your super straight-edged friend who keeps you honest. Sometimes it's less fun in the moment, but you always thank it later.
Listening to the PFC instead.
The good news is you can get better at delaying gratification. The bad news is you have to put in some work, which - perhaps ironically - isn't all that instantly gratifying. Here are four tips for growing your PFC and ultimately keeping your cool with your boss, saying "no" to that $400 gadget and actually feeling and healing from the pain of rejection rather than jumping back on an app for a momentary reminder of your desirability.
Mindfulness is essentially nonjudgmental and accepting awareness of our experience in the current moment. It's awareness of our thoughts, feelings, surroundings and physical sensations without interpreting or attaching. What mindfulness ultimately does is create a space between experiencing and reacting. For example, we might feel angry with our partner, but with mindfulness we can choose not to yell at them. We might have a thought that we're a failure, but with mindfulness we're able to notice it's a passing feeling and not attach to it. Mindfulness literally grows the PFC and helps us gain insight into our behavior. And, as we gain that insight, we can better predict situations where we might be tempted by our limbic system and can strategize ways to listen to our PFC instead. What are some easy ways to incorporate mindfulness practices into a daily routine? Do yoga, try a formal sitting meditations, or simply focus on your breath or listen to an audio meditation.
When we beat ourselves up in response to, say, eating five donuts, we feel shame. Shame is a very difficult emotion to sit with, so we tend avoid it. We distract ourselves from our thoughts (often with more donuts), and we don't give ourselves a chance to learn from the experience. However, when we practice self-compassion (responding to ourselves in a firm yet loving way), we can review where we let our limbic system get the best of us, and take away new strategies for next time. For example, we might conclude that we ought to stay out of the donut room when we're feeling tired or stressed or famished (or that if we do go, we should bring just one donut back to our desk). We might give ourselves a list of must-haves before shopping so we don't make impulse buys, and we might take a deep breath and call a friend rather than giving our partner a piece of our mind.
Remember the rationale.
Once we learn to recognize our urges in advance, we open up the possibility of prevention. For example, visualize what would it be like to get that high credit bill next month, wake up with a debilitating hangover or have to deal with the aftermath of sending that angry text? Guilt, shame, anxiety, regret, nausea - is it worth it? Now, visualize how it will feel to pay off your credit bill, to wake up refreshed and to have refrained from sending a destructive text. Really try to feel in your body that sense of satisfaction, accomplishment, pride and calm. This is the PFC in action!
Succumbing to instant gratification is pretty universal, and most people have something they'd like to work on. Ask a trusted friend or your partner to hold you accountable, and offer to do the same in return (in their area of struggle). Take turns checking in so it's at top of mind. Or, if you'd prefer to keep your journey more private, connect with a therapist. Making behavioral change is one of the most common reasons people hire us!
I doubt that was the last time I’ll numb my feelings of rejection with Tinder, but I'm certain my limbic system has far less influence over my decisions today than it has in the past. So pay attention to your urges for instant gratification and listen to your PFC - and say goodbye to self-sabotage (some of the time, anyway…we’re all human).
Megan Bruneau, M.A. RCC is a psychotherapist, wellness expert, blogger, and lover of sport and satire. After a destructive relationship with perfectionism and disordered eating caused her umpteenth overexercise-induced injury, she (reluctantly) found yoga — and discovered self-compassion. Megan soon realized why Buddhism has sustained for thousands of years, and she now brings the philosophy into the counseling room to help her clients change their relationship to their struggles and to themselves. Since creating One Shrink's Perspective in 2012, her work has been featured on The Huffington Post, MindBodyGreen, Thrillist, Entrepreneur Magazine, Gaiam TV/My Yoga Online, Elephant Journal, FORBES, GoZen!, and Whole Health Magazine, among others.