Stopping Counter Regulatory Behavior- How to Avoid the "What the Hell Effect"

It's happened to everyone. You've been so "good" (ugh, we hate that term!).  You've been eating cleanly and sticking to your plan. Then it happens- you're out at a party or home after a long day at work and you have an unintentional or mindless moment.  You grab a cookie, or a handful of chips and shove them in your mouth without thinking. Poof- in a moment you feel as though you've gone from a success to a failure. The line has been crossed and there's no turning back now.  Now that the day is "ruined" you may as well go for broke and clear out that pantry.  You eat all the things and are left not just full of junk food, but full of regret.  The impact of the initial slip is left in the dust with a full-on binge. It makes no sense- when you get a flat you don't slash your other three tires-- You fix what's broken and keep going.  


This common behavior scientists have observed in dieters is called "counter regulatory behavior"-  more commonly referred to as the "what the hell effect". 


The biggest threat to your success is not that initial slip, it's how you handle your thoughts once you've crossed that imaginary line. It's the self talk and compassion you show yourself that can keep one small slip from turning into an all out shame spiral in the pantry. 


Here are Some Ways to Break the Cycle of Counter Regulatory Behavior-


1) Nix black and white or moral self talk about food- Don't ever describe a healthy day as "good", sugar as "bad" and don't ever say you "failed". This black and white talk about success leaves you stuck in a binge and repeat cycle.


2) Remember that you are in control.  We often tell ourselves that the food has power and we do not. Food is just food. It's inanimate and just sits there. It didn't leap into your mouth- and you have the power to act differently next time. You are the architect of your own body and life and you are in control.   Ask yourself- “Where do I have control, influence, or leverage in this situation?” "What can I do differently next time?"


3) Speak to yourself with compassion.  Instead of saying "wow, I blew it yet again!" or "ugh, I have no self control!" pause and speak to yourself like you would a friend. Come from a place of compassion. Say "I'm learning a new way to behave and that takes time. Many people struggle with this. That small slip doesn't define me, but how I learn from it does"


3) Remember this is just one step in a longer road.  Often times we beat ourselves up about a stumble, forgetting that it's just one moment in a much longer journey.  One thoughtless choice doesn't undo the hundreds of positive changes you've made. Picture yourself as your best, most healthiest self and know that one cookie or a few bites of pasta doesn't change the path you're on.


4) Change your daily goals from inhibitional to acquisitional.  Focusing on NOT doing something can trigger deprivation and urgency in your mind. Instead of focusing on what you can't do or have, focus on what you can do. Make goals like "I will have veggies cleaned and ready in the fridge every day to snack on" or "I will drink a full glass of water before every meal and snack".  Small goals provide momentum and turn into larger wins.


5) Pause and Reflect. Actions don't happen in a vacuum- they are preceded by a thought and a feeling. Try a mindful meditation to recenter yourself.  We love the free meditations by Tara Brach, but apps like Calm and Headspace are great, too. Set your intentions with some weight-loss affirmations.  Journal, using our Emotional Eating Workbook. Take some time to reflect, recenter and recommit.

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