Optimism and self-confidence result from our body chemistry, not our mental attitude.
Sometimes we are ready to take on the world. Other times the bag lady sits at our feet clucking her disapproval of our lives.
Enduring and consistent confidence is a thousand times better than those few moments stolen on the back of a sugar high.
I have been fascinated with the beta-endorphin story for years. As you may recall from Potatoes Not Prozac, beta-endorphin is the brain chemical that enables us to tolerate pain. When I
first learned that sugar evokes beta-endorphin, it made perfect sense to me. Sugar as a pain-killer seemed to resonate with what my body already knew.
But I hadn't thought of sugar as an emotional pain-killer. Reading that first scientific article about sugar reducing isolation distress knocked my socks off. When baby mice were given sugar, they didn't cry as much when they were
taken away from their mothers. This wasn't about physical pain, this was a whole different story. I wanted to piece it together.
We know that children of alcoholics have naturally lower levels of beta-endorphin. What does this mean in real life? Beta-endorphin cuts pain. Therefore, lower levels of beta-endorphin mean we feel pain more deeply. We may be more distressed by going to the
dentist. We may hurt more if we get banged up in a backyard game of football. We may cry more at the movies.
Because we naturally have less of the brain chemical that protects us from pain, we are naturally more 'sensitive.' Because we are more sensitive, we feel more deeply. I suspect that lower levels of beta-endorphin make us more aware, more tuned in to the subtlety of what we
are experiencing, and perhaps more vulnerable emotionally.
Beta-endorphin also affects self-esteem. Confidence, optimism, a sense of connection, and a sense of elation all come with high levels of beta-endorphin. The euphoria of the 'runner's high' is very real. That sense of being on top of the world is a byproduct of the beta-endorphin flood.
By the same token, low beta-endorphin can have a profoundly negative effect on our feelings. Self-esteem eludes us even though it seems we should feel terrific, we don't. We are successful, we have enough money, we have love and support in our lives but inside we are convinced it all will soon disappear and we will end up as a bag lady.
We feel disconnected from those around us. Even though our mind tells us that we have a loving partner, an attentive husband, devoted children, caring parents, or loving friends, we still feel isolated and alone. Sometimes we shake our heads in disbelief. 'How can this be?' we ask. It makes no sense.
What is even stranger is that we don't feel this way all
of the time. Sometimes we are ready to take on the world. Other times the bag lady sits at our feet clucking her disapproval of our lives. Having our confidence and self-esteem be so elusive, so unpredictable can be crazy-making. It makes no sense until we begin to see our life through the filter of beta-endorphin.
When we have naturally low levels of beta-endorphin, our brains try to
compensate by increasing the number of beta-endorphin receptors in order to catch as much beta-endorphin as possible. If something (like drugs, alcohol, or a large helping of sugary food) causes a big hit of beta-endorphin (also called a spike), the extra receptor sites will grab it and cause us to have a 'WOW!' reaction, a 'rush.'
Let's focus on the sugar effect. We start out with low
beta-endorphin, we eat sugar, our beta-endorphin spikes, and we feel really good. We are confident, hopeful, and excited about our lives. We banish the bag lady with a flash of the hand and pronounce our enthusiasm for life and its demands. We feel great! For a little while.
But then, in the middle of a conversation, at a board meeting, or on a date, our sense of possibility slips
away. Doom descends and we are back to square one. The flood of beta-endorphin has receded and we are left with all those extra receptors sitting empty, forlorn and craving for more.
So how do we handle this situation? Can we raise our beta-endorphin levels by doing healthy things instead of using sugar and drugs? And what's wrong with that 'rush?' If our beta-endorphin is
low, don't we want to do things that get us more?
Here's the key: We don't want the rush because when it recedes, we end up feeling terrible. Instead we want a steady stream of beta-endorphin, which keeps us in a steady state of optimism, higher self-esteem, confidence, and connectedness. We want to enhance the natural production of beta-endorphin without the dramatic up and downs
that have been a big part of our lives.
In some ways, this may be hard to get used to. We may not want to give up the rush that sugar evokes. To use my own words from early recovery, life without the rush may seem 'boring.' It was almost as if I was willing to endure the pain of the down side in order to have the thrill of the up side. This, in a nutshell, is the seduction of
addiction. We forget the down side and only remember those few moments of glory. We will seek forever and endure anything to return to the state of WOW!
Trust me on this one, though. Many years later, my body, my mind, and my heart all know that a steady state of clarity and self-esteem is so much better than the illusion I carried around so long. Enduring and consistent confidence is a
thousand times better than those few moments stolen on the back of a sugar high. I didn't know this until I did the food plan and kept doing it over time. But I do now, and there is nothing better in the world than living from this place.