When I was little, I thought my father had the most beautiful blue eyes in the world! I used to blame him for not passing them on to me along with his blondish hair. Instead, I ended up with “boring brown eyes and hair” that I did not choose. How unfair!
As I grew up, I realized that I hardly had any choice in a lot more things than just my eyes. I did not choose my name, the skin color and shape of my body, my complex brain, nor the family and culture I was born and brought up in.
When I started practicing mindfulness, self-compassion, and mindful eating, I progressively came to understand that attempting to change any of those things was hopeless. Moreover, understanding how the human brain functions helped me stop fighting against “me and my complex brain” and instead learn ways to work with it. Moving away from self-blame and criticism freed up space to help myself in a more compassionate way.
So let’s take a deeper look at our tricky brains, where human emotions are generated and understand the processes behind our relationship with eating from a mindfulness perspective.
And I will do this by leaning on Dr. Paul Gilbert’s evolution theory (Gilbert, 2014).
Research indicates that the evolution of the human brain happened in three different stages:
- The most primitive part of our brain is the reptilian part. It is the oldest part of our brain and controls vital functions like heart rate, breathing, and balance. Its primary function is to keep us alive and preserve our species. It is very old, around 550 million years. This “survival” brain is the birthplace of basic emotions like fear, anxiety, anger, and also of aggression, dominance, territoriality, and rituals.
- The next part of our brain that developed was the limbic system or the mammalian brain. This was right around the time that cavemen started living in tribes and communities. Therefore this part of the brain is responsible for emotional expression, including feeling and expressing love and caring. The reptilian and limbic parts of the brain are called the “primitive brain” and are, evolutionarily, the oldest parts of the brain.
- As evolution continued, a newer part of the brain developed on top of those two, which is approximately 2 or 3 million years old. This newest part of the brain, the neocortex, is responsible for our higher functions, such as language, abstraction, memory, learning, problem-solving, rumination, and mindfulness. It is the part of the brain that gives us a sense of self. It also helps us multitask, which, in some cases, can land us in trouble.
“Our brain is Teflon for happy memories and velcro for difficult ones.” Rick Hanson.
Understanding our emotionsThanks to our complex brain, we have developed at least three types of emotional systems (Goss, 2011). Each of these systems has specific functions:
1. The “Threat” system or the red systemThis is in charge of detecting and responding to threats. It is set up to work on the “better safe than sorry” principle, leading us to attach meaning to events rapidly, and act quickly. It is designed to over-rule positive emotions. It involves emotions like anger, anxiety, and disgust.
This system is associated with defense mechanisms such as the “fight or flight response,” freeze, avoidance, and submissiveness.
Although it can give us a hard time, it is essential to keep in mind that it was designed as a protection system. Understanding this can help us respond to it in ways that serve us, But sadly, many of us may have learned early in life to be afraid of our threat system and the emotions emerging from it.
2. The “Drive” system or the blue system.This detects and responds to pleasurable things, such as food, friendship, and sexual opportunities. It is linked to our drive to achieve feelings of pleasure and excitement. It has evolved to motivate us to actively engage in the world and to seek rewards.
But when these positive feelings are interrupted, taken away, or when we experience setbacks, it can activate the threat system, which might make us try even harder to seek rewards.
For some of us, when we were children and did not have the tools to deal with the discomfort of our threat system, we may have learned to activate the drive system with coping mechanisms, including restricting or comforting with food, and may have created unconscious habits around these coping mechanisms.
3. The affiliative “Soothing” system or the green system.This is associated with calm, contentment, safety, peace, compassion and connection with others (affiliation).
We can regulate our threat system and the feelings of distress and anxiety it generates by using our soothing system. The positive emotions of peace and contentment generated by the soothing system are very different from the positive emotions of excitement generated by the drive system. The soothing system can help calm the threat system, and manage the unpleasant feelings we experience when the excitement associated with achievement through the drive system is interrupted.
This system develops in childhood in response to being emotionally and physically cared for, particularly when we are upset. However, if we were not taught to develop it by nurturing caregivers, it can be difficult to develop later on in life.
Here’s an example of how the three emotional systems might influence our relationship with food: For someone who experienced weight-based bullying and stigma in their childhood, this may have activated their threat system. This may have led to attempts to restrict their food intake in order to control their body, which may have led to compliments from friends and family, activating their drive system. This may have led to years of chasing weight and size goals, even after experiencing the negative side-effects of intentional weight loss, such as weight regain, loss of control with food, and preoccupation with food and weight. When this individual starts learning about mindful eating, accepting their body, letting go of food restriction and body-obsession, it may start activating their soothing system. Experiencing peace with food may not feel as exciting or rewarding as getting societal approval for pursuing the thin ideal. So it might take a while before they are able to discern the difference between the deeper joy of feeling peaceful with food, and the transient excitement of weight loss. But with time and practice, their soothing system might succeed in healing the suffering caused by the reward-seeking tendency of their drive system.
Developing a compassionate mind:
Dr. Gilbert says that we did not choose to have the brain we were born with, but we can learn how to work with it by cultivating compassion.
The definition of compassion is An openness to the suffering of ourselves and others, linked to a commitment and motivation to try to reduce and alleviate that suffering.
Developing a compassionate mind can help us strengthen our soothing system, in order to help us regulate our threat and drive systems when they get out of control. Compassion can help us recognize our self-criticism and disengage from it. It can help us break the cycle of judgment and self-criticism for our actions that may have caused us suffering. It helps us move towards forgiving ourselves and others who may have intentionally or unintentionally inflicted the trauma that caused us to activate our threat and drive systems.
When we do this, it helps us nurture both our physical and mental health in authentic ways, rather than getting influenced by societal definitions of “wellness,” such as controlling our bodies through unsustainably restrictive ways of eating and punishing ways of moving.For more information on cultivating self-compassion, check out these resources from The Center For Mindful Eating:
- Developing a Compassionate Mind Exploring Mindful Eating Webinar
- Developing a Compassionate Mind- Spanish Version- Registration Open, September 2021
- Somatic Self-Compassion- Foundations Series Webinar
- Community Mindfulness Practice- Free to the public
Members may access these titles, and more, in the Members' Library.
About the Author
Cuca Azinovic is a certified Mindful Eating teacher and Certified Co-Active Coach (CPCC) specialized in Mindful Eating (ME-CL) and Self-Compassion (MSC), based in Madrid, Spain.
She has a Masters degree in Mindfulness in Health Contexts (UCM) and has also completed professional training in Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness (MB-EAT) and in Compassion-Centered Therapy (CFT-E) for eating disorders, developed by Dr. Ken Goss & Paul Gilbert. She is currently studying psychology and Buddhist Philosophy.
Cuca has focused her work on the cultivation of mindful eating and self-compassion, developing her activity in the individual and group setting with the aim of accompanying people in the development of personal well-being and self-care, independent of the size of their body.
Alma matter of BienestarConsciente.es, a space for the development of mindfulness, compassion, corporal conscience and nutrition of the individual offering individual, group therapies, workshops, training, and retreats.
She loves her family (including her two puppies), her garden, her contact with nature, and especially the sea, where she hopes to be able to live soon.
You can connect with Cuca online at http://bienestarconsciente.es/
Gilbert, P. (2009). The Compassionate Mind. London: Constable and Robinson Ltd.
Kots, R. (2016). CFT made simple. California: New Harbinger.
Steindl et al., (2017). Compassion focused therapy for eating disorders: A qualitative review and recommendations for further applications
Gale, C., Gilbert, P., Read, N. and Goss, K. (2014). An evaluation of the impact of introducing compassion focused therapy to a standard treatment programme for people with eating disorders. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 21(1), 1-12. doi: 10.1002/cpp.1806
Gilbert, P. (2002). Body shame: a biopsychosocial conceptualization and overview with treatment implications. In P. Gilbert and J. Miles (Eds.), Body Conceptualization, Research and Treatment (pp.3-54). Hove, UK: Brunner-Routledge.
Goss, K. (2011). The Compassionate Mind Approach to Beating Overeating. Using Compassionate Focused Therapy. Devon: Constable and Robinson Ltd.