Are You On Autopilot?

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Do you ever notice yourself mindlessly wandering the kitchen looking for food when you're not even hungry or elbow deep in a bag of potato chips before even realizing how you got there?

Instinctively eating whatever is front of us or craving our old faithful comfort foods often becomes such a deeply ingrained habit that it can literally happen on autopilot.

We usually don't even realize that our eating habits are our own individual ways of coping with stress, anxiety or feelings of lacking something.

The more you use food to deal with everything, the more your brain recognizes it as a shortcut to dealing with everything and actually programs it into its circuitry as a survival mechanism.

Your brain doesn't solve new problems all the time. It solves problems once, then commits the solutions to memory where they become habits. These habits put you on autopilot so you continually carry out the behavior your brain decides is the appropriate solution for every circumstance.

If you're struggling with over-eating or even just eating on autopilot without considering your choices, you already know that this can have negative consequences.

About Those Habits

Every habit starts with a three part, psychological pattern called a "habit loop".

  • First, there's a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold. It may simply be being around someone who is negative or makes you feel badly.

  • Then there's the routine, which is the behavior itself. In a microsecond your brain recognizes the person and the feelings they stir up, searches it's database for how it solved that problem in the past and has you buried face first in a pint of ice cream.

  • The third step is the reward: something that your brain likes that helps it remember the "habit loop" in the future. It enjoys the response it gets from eating ice cream, is rewarded and moves on to the next problem. If you're facing multiple triggers a day, it's easy to see how this can spiral out of control.

The habit loop is actually wiring your brain to fail.

So what can do you about it?

Get in the habit (see what I did there ;) ) of being mindful about your choices before during and after you make them so you can begin to identify your habit triggers.

  1. What time of day are you most typically eating on autopilot?

  2. What's going on around you in the moments or hours before you do? What are you feeling?

  3. Do you have self control? Can you have a measured portion & work it into your day or do you end up planted firmly in "screw it, I'll start again tomorrow" mode?

  4. Who are you with?

  5. What are your thoughts telling you?

Take a few seconds to answer these questions, and repeat this exercise often -- but no criticizing or berating yourself over your choices or your answers. That defeats the purpose.

Notice and feel whatever feelings come.

Mindfulness is the key to identifying your triggers and identifying your triggers helps you feel more in control, prevent a binge or overeating episode, forgive yourself because you are human and learn why your triggers set you off.

Let's look at different ways it can play out:

BEFORE: "Ugh, today was so shitty. I didn't even get my workout in. I always do this. I'm such a lazy failure. Screw it, I'm finishing this gallon of ice cream and will just start over tomorrow."

It may not even seem like auto pilot when we're consciously making the decision to throw in the towel on a whole day because we feel bad but it IS because it's such a deeply ingrained habit or coping mechanism. Those thoughts are actually part of the habit loop that's causing you to fail.

Instead, if we stop long enough to consider our choices and challenge what's comfortable and easy for our brain it can turn out like this...

AFTER: "Today sucked. I feel insecure, way too tired to do a workout and just don't want think about that stuff right now. All I want to do is relax on the couch with some chips, a glass of wine and zone out. But is that what will actually make my body and my spirit feel better right now? Will it make me feel better about myself? What if I force myself to just do a little stretching and have a hot bath instead? How would I feel after I did that instead? Do I want to do something positive for my body, my goals and to feel better? Or do I want to make myself feel worse by staying stuck in old habits that have created a body I don't feel good in?"

Often, the destructive choices start happening long before the food is in front of you so if you start changing the autopilot of old habits, work on being mindful of your choices and how they make you feel, you can begin to sneak into those seconds between trigger and behavior to change them.

And don't forget to be gentle and forgiving with yourself.

It takes time for habits to form, the good ones and the bad ones.

Also, note that some days you may surprise yourself with your answers to the questions above. You may realize that you're actively trying to make yourself feel worse because you're so low you don't even feel like you deserve to feel good.

Those days will happen if you're someone who struggles with weight, self worth and food issues. It's important to notice them and use them as a learning experience.

Ask yourself why you don't believe you deserve to feel good and challenge the answers.

They will get fewer and farther between the more you practice these new skills.

Start thinking about your food choices under the lens of the above questions and then turn them around by coming up with some solutions you can start putting into place to help avoid your typical outcome and that keeps moving you towards your goals.

Need more help from me? Email me, that's what I'm here for.

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About The Author

Roni Davis
Cognitive Eating Founder

Writer, Producer, Host - It's All In Your Head Podcast

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Roni Davis spent over two decades struggling with weight, food (mindless, emotional and binge eating), an eating disorder, depression, panic attacks, and an anxiety disorder. She's also been a nationally qualified champion figure athlete, written for bodybuilding websites, was featured in a national fitness magazine, by and spent almost a decade helping people transform their bodies as an award-winning personal trainer and nutrition and wellness coach.


After over two decades of her own personal weight & food struggles and almost a decade in the weight loss/fitness industry, Roni left the fitness industry and bundled everything she learned from her own recovery, from her time as a trainer & nutrition & wellness coach with everything she learned in her mindfulness-based cognitive behavior coach training, to create Cognitive Eating.  This allows her to guide and support people to live healthier lives through behavior and habit modification at the brain level, where it counts and will actually stick.

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NOTE: While counselors or therapists often use CBT to deal with mental illness or a patient’s mental/emotional conditions and/or processing trauma, MBCT & cognitive eating does not. My roll as a coach, in its most simple form, is to encourage, coach and/or act as a facilitator of a client’s self-reflection, decision making, planning for the future, and creating life changes. As an MBCT & cognitive eating coach, I am obligated to refer clients in need of mental or physical health therapy to an appropriate licensed professional.  

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