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Psychology, Uncategorized

Why I eat more junk when I hurt

Most days I eat pretty healthy. I actually typically prefer fruits and veggies to gorging on chips and chocolate, but some days I struggle to maintain any willpower and avoid the junk. I’ve often thought that this is associated with my capacity to deal with things beyond my pain and it turns out I’m right.

Nes, Roach, and Segerstrom (2009) examined the impact of chronic pain on the ability to self-regulate (alter thoughts, feelings, and behaviours). This ability depends on executive cognitive functions like memory, attention, flexibility, planning, problem solving, and inhibition (Najdowski, Persicke, & Kung, 2014). That last one is pretty key to whether or not we give in to eating the food we shouldn’t.

Basically, Nes, Roach, and Segerstrom argue, based on a review of relevant literature, that chronic pain may drain an individual’s self-regulatory strength because you constantly need to rely on it when you are in pain to function in your daily life. If this strength is limited, as the authors argue, than you do actually have the potential to use up that strength in trying to handle the pain and therefore run out of it when it comes to other areas of your life like what you choose to eat.

Notice, some of the other features that could potentially be drained – memory, attention, planning, problem solving, flexibility. I believe I have experienced all of these in association with the pain I experience due to my arm injury. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give me any strategies to improve, just points out that there are actually reasons that I’m eating a lot of chocolate today and having trouble focusing on what I should be doing.

Of course, on the other hand, I wrote this post a while ago about New Year’s resolutions. In it I looked at some research that indicated that you only run out of willpower if you think that it is a limited resource. Which makes me wonder if I actually set different standards for willpower based on whether it is just me deciding whether I want to get my run in or not, or if I’ve been in pain all day and deciding whether I want to run (or eat chocolate). Do I have a double standard for my own willpower?

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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