Ice Cream and Avoidance Behavior


Before leaving the book, The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy (2010)–see last blog post–I include the following experience (verbatim) by author Louis Cozolino.

“I’m a person who has been on a diet all my life with limited success. I could do well all day–eat properly and exercise–but at night, I would seem to have no self-control. I would go into each day feeling bad about the night before and vow to do better, only to fail again….I mentioned this in a (therapy) session and was given the following suggestion: ‘Pay attention to your thoughts, feelings, and fantasies during the transition from doing well to your loss of control.’ It turned out that depending on the day, I felt exhausted, stressed, lonely, or dissatisfied with one thing or another on these evenings. When my therapist asked what I did with these negative and painful feelings, I was stumped. I didn’t remember doing anything with them – they seemed to dissolve. As I struggled to make sense of this process, I recalled a vivid memory.

I was a young boy of 5 or 6 standing in my grandmother’s kitchen and had just expressed being upset about something. I could feel my unhappiness expressed in the muscles of my face and recall my grandmother’s face mirroring mine. Without saying a word she pivoted around, opened the freezer, took out a large box of Neapolitan ice cream (chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry in three neat rows), tore off the cardboard tab holding the lid closed, buried a spoon in the ice cream, and handed me the entire box. Also without a word I went to the sofa, lay down, put the quart of ice cream on my chest and began eating. In fact, there were no words at all. There was no memory of discussing how I felt. Whatever bad feelings I may have been having quickly dissolved in a haze of glucose.

The similarity of this memory to my experience in my adult life was striking. My hidden (neural) layers had learned a pattern – feel tired, sad, stressed, or disappointed; get lots of calories; watch TV; and the feelings pass. These early memories were encoded in hidden (neural) layers and guided my behavior when triggered by similar states of mind….Having no language with which to process my feelings, I could only deal with them through actions. As long as I continued to act this process out without awareness of what was happening, it continued in a stereotyped manner much like a posttraumatic flashback.” (pp. 139-140)


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