Associative Learning is a psychological term used to describe the concept that humans learn to pair certain thoughts, feelings, actions or objects with other thoughts, feelings, actions or objects. For example, we may connect the action of flying with the feeling of anxiety. Just the same, we may connect the action of eating chocolate cake with the feeling of happiness, and the action of exercise with the feeling of pain. This is why we may avoid flying or exercise or may enjoy frequent indulgences in chocolate cake.
Think about some of the associations you have in relation to diet, exercise and overall health. What feelings or words pop up when you think of diet, exercise, vegetables, fiber, vitamins, jogging and weight loss, for example? What feelings or words pop up when you think of cookies, television, potato chips, fast food and chocolate?
The associations we make affect the daily decisions we make. The daily decisions we make affect our lives. We therefore need to control our associations before they control us. But how do we do that? We’ve already learned that our eating habits and activity levels are the results of learned behaviors. We can change our behaviors and the associations that invoke them through the process of re-learning.
The most powerful form of learning involves emotion. When we learn things on an emotional level, we are more apt to first, remember, and second, to apply, the information to our own lives. Since most of us have attached an emotional component to eating, we will work with emotion, rather than against it, to change negative associations and to break bad habits.
Every time you are faced with thoughts, feelings, actions or objects associated with health, weight loss, exercise, good nutrition, etc., re-condition yourself with positive thoughts, feelings, actions or objects in response. For example, when you think about exercising, also think about the benefits of exercise and how you will feel and look once you have completed a work-out or a month of work-outs. Train yourself to say things like, “I love working out” and “I can’t wait to work out again,” even if you have to fake it at first.
You can connect non-related thoughts, as well. Try remembering your favorite vacation or the day you met your spouse. You might imagine a beautiful sunset, a field of blooming flowers, or another pleasant thought. Whatever thought or memory it is, it should invoke pleasant feelings in you.
Conversely, when you think of things like eating fast food, lounging around watching television or eating high-fat treats, focus on the negative aspects of such behavior. Think about fat thighs, clogged arteries and tight fitting clothes. Think about the uncomfortable feeling of being seen in a two piece swimsuit. When you are tempted to indulge in your favorite fattening food, imagine a fly crawling all over it or envision the treat soaking in vinegar- or worse! Use whatever mental imagery methods necessary to train your mind to avoid the pitfalls and to embrace the productive.
Once you have learned to associate positive feelings/thoughts with healthful behavior, and negative feelings/thoughts with unhealthy behavior, you will be more inclined to follow through on the positive, healthful elements. It may be difficult at first, but it will get easier and more natural as time goes by. At first, you may catch yourself making old associations out of habit. Before long, however, you will automatically make positive associations that will encourage lifelong health and a New You!
Back to LifeStyle Guide This information should not serve as a replacement for therapy. Please visit the Can Therapy Help Me page for more information if you think you may have an eating disorder, or should require individualized help.
FCCS is directed by Melinda Haynes, MA, California LMFT license number 102308. Oklahoma LMFT license number 1153. North Carolina LMFT license number 2143.