Earlier this summer I posted a video that described the concept of “experiential avoidance” within the broader field of evolutionary psychology.
I recently found a longer video from the same speaker, Dr. Steven Hayes. The interesting part starts around the 32 minute mark or so.
My take on his theory is essentially that:
- we evolved to pay very close attention to potential threats to our survival
- our brains do not do a good job of distinguishing between actual physical “threats” to our safety and our mind’s symbolic representation of them (e.g., memories or thoughts … what Hayes calls “echoes of our history”) and because of this, we can produce pain internally
- without sufficient awareness, we try to avoid or escape our painful thoughts in the same way we used to escape the tiger
- this avoidance can take the form of behaviors that are harmful in the longer term
I find this very, very compelling when you consider emotional eating, overeating and/or “cheating” on diets.
Cheating? Or cheating?
I am completely with Sara or Suzanne that eating non-paleo foods or otherwise going off-plan are absolutely part of life. IMO, the issue isn’t really going off-plan per se, it’s WHY you’re going off-plan.
I’ve mentioned before that I like this quote from a Reese Witherspoon chick flick applied to eating:
Never eat to feel better; only eat to feel even better.
Eating (or overeating) as a coping strategy? Not so good. Eating as a way to enjoy your life? A very different story. In Harris and Hayes’ The Happiness Trap, the authors make the same distinction:
For example, recall the last time you ate something rich and tasty to get rid of feelings of stress, boredom, or anxiety. Chances are, it wasn’t all that satisfying. However, did you ever eat that very same food, not to get rid of bad feelings, but purely and simply to enjoy it and appreciate its taste? I bet you found that much more fulfilling.
The human condition?
Another interesting take on this from an evolutionary perspective is Bruce Alexander’s view that addiction is really best viewed as a “dislocation” of our social nature (~5:00):
Human beings only become addicted when they cannot find anything better to live for and when they desperately need to fill the emptiness that threatens to destroy them.
It doesn’t seem a big stretch to connect this concept with Hayes and Harris’ … perhaps it’s not so much a need to “fill the emptiness” as it is a need to cope. And in fact, Alexander suggests it’s not just addicts he’s concerned with:
The need to fill an inner void is not limited to people who become drug addicted, but afflicts the vast majority of people of the late modern era to a greater or lesser degree.
Hayes and Harris might argue that the “inner void” happens because a preoccupation with internal painful thoughts prevents being actively involved in a meaningful life.
Being part of the tribe
I saw the following tweet on one of my feeds recently:
Interestingly, this may also be an evolutionary mismatch in our current environment. Historically, it seems to have been pretty essential to our survival to fit into our tribes or communities. So our brains may well be wired to be sensitive to how we fit into social groups that are important to us.
This was probably a good adaptation in smaller societies where differences were 1) smaller and 2) more related to well-established hierarchy. But now we see huge (often unexplainable) differences especially in popular media.
What happens when you’re constantly bombarded that you’re not as thin as this person, or as wealthy as this person, or you don’t drive the nicest car or have the nicest house?
Sounds silly perhaps, but is it possible that our brains may be causing us pain and suffering in part because we are just seeing the highlight reel, not the behind-the-scenes?
That said … would you want to trade places with Kim Kardashian if you could?
Are we all cheaters?
So maybe we’re all “cheaters” … it’s just that not all of us cheat with food. As RealFoody pointed out on a past post, people have different strategies for dealing with the struggles in their lives.
Are folks who don’t ever cheat on their paleo diets just perfect human beings? Or are they coping in other ways?
Evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban says that: (~12:40):
By not noticing our own inconsistencies we have the strategic advantage of passing below other people’s radars without giving up the game.
Your mileage may be different, but I find it curiously reassuring that, while we are each little snowflakes and no one has the same opportunities or challenges or sources of pain, ultimately our struggles may have a common evolutionary basis. And perhaps that indicates a way out.
If your response to stress is overeating, it’s not that you’re flawed and others aren’t, it just may be that the side effect of your coping mechanism is more visible.
We didn’t evolve for “peace of mind” or to “be happy” … we evolved to survive and reproduce. And for many of us, our thoughts create pain that we try to avoid through behaviors that appear to work in the short term, but have consequences over the longer term.
We cannot banish the thoughts, but we can learn to exist with them (aka “psychological flexibility“).