How to make hard but healthy choices

Aug 22, 2014

You may know that you should eat lots of vegetables and exercise more to stay healthy, but although you know these things, you may not choose to do them. This week on Take Care, Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen speak with sociologist and author B.J. Gallagher about why we don't always act in our own self-interest, and how we can change that pattern.

Lorraine Rapp: How does a negative self-image and poor self-esteem actually stop us from doing the things we know are good for us?

B.J. Gallagher: It’s more than one thing.  So much of this goes back to our childhood, particularly our self-esteem.  We’re all programmed with these messages from our well-meaning parents, and they often leave scars.  [When] you grow up with a legacy of negative messages, it’s really hard to feel good about yourself if all the messages you’ve been getting are critical.

Linda Lowen: How does something that is good for you diverge from something that makes you happy?

B.J. Gallagher: The need for self-soothing.  Self-soothing is one of the first tasks of childhood when we’re infants.  Because life is stressful, we have to learn some mechanism or several mechanisms for self-soothing.  You’ll see children suck their thumbs, hold on to a blanket, hold on to their ear, and little children develop these mechanisms for self-soothing.  As they get older, one of the additional mechanisms they add is eating something, particularly eating something sweet.  As adults, we grow up [and] we’ve developed these self-soothing mechanisms that very often involve putting something in our mouths and hence we have an obesity epidemic.  There [are] many reasons for it, but the need for self-soothing and the need for stress relief, gratification, some sort of reward for a job well done, but most of all escape from the pain of day to day life drives us to fast food, to ice cream, to candy, to sugar, to alcohol, to all sorts of things that aren’t good for us.  We so desperately need some relief now that we choose [them] now rather than what’s good for us in the long run.

Lorraine Rapp: What does it take to turn things around and help us change our habits and do the right thing?

B.J. Gallagher: Here’s the really good news: we are retrainable.  Scientists have discovered something called neural plasticity, which means that your brain is malleable, it can be changed.  Even if you’re 30 or 40 or 50 or 80 years old, you can reprogram your mind. The first step is understanding how your mind works.  Begin by just watching.  Watching your thoughts, watching your behaviors, seeing where you are and how you do the things you do particularly when you’re trying to deal with day to day stress.  Then learn how your mind works and try to reprogram it.  You can do it with affirmations, gratitude lists, self-talk, support groups—there are lots of wonderful ways (all of which are free) that you can reprogram your mind and retrain your mind so that you start thinking about those things differently and you make different choices.

More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show Sunday at 6:30p.m. Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.