How do deceptive brain messages manifest and what do they cause you to do? To find out, let’s follow the case of Kara, a twenty-five-year-old woman who had been dieting, bingeing, and purging since her teens. If you met Kara today, you would have no idea she held such distorted views of her body as a teen. Confident and vibrant, she seems to have it all. She is successful in her career as an analyst and has a large network of friends. Yet for most of high school and college, she was overwhelmed by deceptive brain messages related to her appearance.
Kara describes the process of how deceptive brain messages impacted her in this way. First, a false, negative thought would strike, telling her she was “no good” and “unlovable” because she was not physically perfect. Although it was not true, Kara would take this missive at face value and accept it as reality. What happened next was excruciating, she says. “I would get an intensely uncomfortable sensation,” she remembers, “a feeling that I could not stand being in my own skin.” She felt “gross” and “disgusted” with herself, both emotionally and physically. The sensations were unbearable and all Kara wanted to do was get away from these feelings as fast as she could. Her distress would rise, reaching a crescendo that she could no longer tolerate. Although she would sometimes try to resist them, the uncomfortable sensations, including strong anxiety and self-loathing, were too strong.
Eventually, she would relent and engage in an unhealthy behavior (e.g., purging, bingeing, dieting excessively). Once she gave in, a sense of calm would wash over her and she would feel all right again. That momentary relief—and that’s all it ever was—was better than nothing. Or so she thought. What Kara learned with experience was that once she completed the behavior, the deceptive brain messages and uncomfortable sensations came back in full force. “No matter what I did, I always ended up right back where I started. Nothing ever worked,” she recalled recently. Her life was consumed by her deceptive brain messages and its mandates of how she should act. “I was wasting my life,” she laments. She lost important time that she could have spent with her family and friends, on her career, or on pursuing activities she truly enjoyed.
Kara felt horrible about engaging in these cycles to try to make the terrible feelings of inadequacy go away. Deep down, she wanted to figure out how to stop the behaviors and not buy into the deceptive brain messages, but she had no idea how to do it. She had tried almost every diet and had been to numerous therapists and nutritionists. Nothing helped. Even worse, Kara eventually realized that the problem was intensifying, not getting better: “The more I paid attention to food and to how I looked, the worse I felt about myself and the stronger those negative thoughts became.” What was happening to Kara when she was immersed in following her deceptive brain messages? She was stuck in an unrelenting pattern where destructive thoughts and impulses led to distress and unhealthy behaviors.
If we simplify the process of what transpired whenever Kara gave in to her deceptive brain messages, we see a cycle unfold in which the negative thoughts or urges were followed by intensely uncomfortable physical or emotional sensations that she desperately wanted to get away from. As a consequence, Kara would engage in some unhealthy or unhelpful behavior to relieve her distress. While they provided a momentary reprieve, these actions ultimately were detrimental to her because her body and brain learned to associate these behaviors with relief (despite the fact that they were causing her harm in the long term).
What Kara described is a universal phenomenon that applies to you and all of your deceptive brain messages, regardless of what initiates them. As shown in figure 1.1, the process begins when a deceptive brain message surfaces and causes you to experience some kind of distress or discomfort. You might experience a physical sensation, like your heart pounding, a pit in your stomach or overwhelming cravings, or an emotional state, such as fear, dread, anxiety, anger, or sadness. No matter what it is, your primary goal at this point is to get rid of that sensation as fast as you can, so you act in an automatic, habitual way.
As you’ve seen from Ed, Sarah, Abby, Steve, and Kara, the harmful strategies used to avoid and escape those uncomfortable sensations vary depending on the content of the deceptive brain messages and the patterns you have developed to attempt to deal with distress. The range of possible responses is endless and includes feeding an addiction, getting into an argument, avoiding a situation, shutting out the world, or endlessly checking something. In many cases, you are not even aware of what you are doing, but somewhere inside you, likely below the level of conscious awareness, you instinctively believe you have to complete the behavior to get rid of the intense and unpleasant feeling you’re experiencing.
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