“Listen, brain, you will not control my sleep (or eating or relationships or . . . )!”

No human brain? No problem.

No human brain? It has its benefits!

I just emerged from a recent bout of insomnia, and WOW, that was certainly eye-opening!  As much time as I spend explaining to others why it is so important not to allow the brain to be left unsupervised when making food choices, I have a confession to make:  I let mine run wild as I tried to “fix” my sleeping.  Interestingly, I do not normally have chronic “unsupervised brain syndrome (my term)” when it comes to eating or other areas of my life.  The experience did remind me of how easily it can happen – with the best of intentions! – when trying to solve a perceived problem that seems very, very important (desperate even?), like insomnia or feeling desperately uncomfortable in one’s body because of a real or perceived weight problem.

Like a naughty child, an unsupervised brain can really get into mischief!  In my case, my diligent efforts to learn as much as I could and set up the perfect situation for a good night of sleep turned into an anxiety fest of thoughts that became somewhat of a short-term habit.  I set the bar high – no technology after dinner (TV was OK as long as it wasn’t too exciting or upsetting), no coffee after 7am, teeny tiny glass of wine with dinner (in a shot glass, no kidding), a regimented bedtime routine at a specific time, and on and on.  For the record, all of the things I did were based on solid recommendations based on research and I still practice much of it, but my approach is very different now.  I see what I should have known earlier:  Just as rigid, anxiety-driven plans to lose weight usually lead to a brain gone wild, a rigid, inflexible plan to sleep well sets the rogue brain loose as well.

When life goes a little differently, as when I really needed to check an e-mail after dinner, all I could think was, “OMG, the blue light will keep me awake.  I have really blown it now.  I’ll be exhausted tomorrow.  What will I do?!”  I could already feel the stress hormones I was told would be out of whack tomorrow if I didn’t sleep well, not to mention the blood sugar effects, and everyone knows that stress affects heart health, right?  Can you see how this might cause me to create what I feared?  And to make matters worse and more chronic, thoughts like this can become a habit, causing insomnia (or overeating) to become habitual when the brain is functioning on autopilot.  (Note:  If habitual thinking is supportive of health and happiness, there is no problem!  The trouble starts when habitual thinking is negative and unsupportive.  In the case of out-of-control eating, negative self talk is the work of the unsupervised brain, and it is at the root of most overeating.)

So, how do we supervise the brain to allow for more supportive thinking during these times?  Recent experience with my sleep reinforces what I know works for better eating:  Flexibility is essential.  Unsupportive thoughts must be observed and not judged; they will be exposed for the brain creation that they are – not reality.  Will I have trouble sleeping because I checked an e-mail after dinner?  Only if I believe that it is impossible to sleep having checked it.  A better response to keep a wild brain in check:  “That is a ridiculous thought.  Nothing can absolutely keep me from sleeping all the time.”  This has been a huge part of the solution to my temporary insomnia.  Setting expectations realistically has also helped, as it will for eating too – guaranteed!  Learning that waking up a couple of times in the night is NORMAL, as is an occasional sleepless night, has changed my outlook.  I no longer judge a night of sleep as much as I did before.

For those who struggle with overeating, it is similarly good to know that normal includes being flexible with a plan.  NORMAL – what a beautiful word.  Hearing it is usually followed by a big sigh of relief.  In the case of eating, an occasional overindulgence is less likely to become a habit if the brain is addressed directly:  “You are not the boss of me.  I do not have to continue overindulging for the rest of this month just because I wasn’t “perfect” today.  PERFECTION:  In this case, that is not such a beautiful word.

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