One of the most interesting things I’ve learned to unlearn during this journey to becoming a healthier person is the use of food as a reward. I didn’t realize how often I was making deals with myself. ‘Oh, I can eat this poutine, I’ll just go for a run in the morning….One more donut isn’t a big deal, I’ll walk it off later.’ That walk, that run, that punishment….rarely happened. Something always came up, or I would find a reason to distract myself from doing the physical activity I had promised myself in exchange for a bad behavior.
Coach John said something to me in January of this year that resonated. “Dayna, you’re not a dog. You don’t need to be rewarded for good behavior with food.” And it’s true. I don’t. I absolutely want treats and goodies, but I know I don’t need them. That being said, I don’t bargain with myself anymore. I will eat some poutine if I want to. I’ll have a donut. But now I know I’ll end up with what I call a food hangover. I know my body isn’t being fed what it needs, so it will perform differently that day.
Turns out the bargaining is actually something hardwired into all of us. It’s called an extinction burst. An extinction burst is a plea that comes from the recesses of your psyche as soon as a conditioned response is no longer yielding results. Think Pavlov’s Dog. Or think of a kid who throws a tantrum in the middle of a store when he really, really wants that toy – if you reward him with that toy, bets are he throws a tantrum next time you’re in the store. As adults, it’s no different. We do this to ourselves, too.
If you decide to quit smoking – maybe you’re on day 6 and you get a whiff of that familiar smell – you will find yourself making a deal….’One puff. I’ll have one puff just to stop the craving. Okay, I’ll finish this cigarette and then I will throw the pack away, and I will start at day one again tomorrow.’ When tomorrow arrives, that extinction burst comes back with a vengeance, and you might find yourself at the store buying a new pack of smokes.
When you’re trying to break a bad habit that was formed through conditioning, you have to be prepared for that secret weapon your brain wants to unleash on you. That extinction burst. A great way to work on combating the power of your psyche is to exercise it – set a goal. When you reach it, reward yourself with something meaningful. If you change your diet – let’s say your goal is to stick to meal prep for two weeks – maybe you celebrate achieving that goal by taking yourself out to a movie. That’s up to you to decide. You have the great opportunity to anticipate the extinction burst, to feel it, and to just let it go. You don’t have to get caught up in it – you just have to be aware.
If you’re interested in learning a bit more about these behaviours, and about extinction bursts in particular, I encourage you to check out the ‘You Are Not So Smart’ podcast – episode 031 (http://youarenotsosmart.com/podcast/).