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Coaching the Prefrontal Cortex

In this article, we explore how to coach a client whose work responsibilities bring increased stress, leading to unhealthy food choices and overeating. First, let’s explore how stress leads to poor health choices. The brain’s region for self-direction, self-control, self-management, and self-coaching is the prefrontal cortex (PFC), behind our foreheads (the red area in the Figure), which I like to describe as the CEO domain of the brain. The PFC at its best appreciates and deftly manages our negative emotions, and drives our attention and focus so we are calm, organized, creative, wise, strategic, and productive.

The conditions that enable optimal function of the prefrontal cortex include a calm, positive, and energetic mindset supported by a healthy, fit, well-nourished, and well-rested body. When we are tired, stressed, unfit, and poorly nourished, when our emotional weather report is negative or “cloudy,” the PFC is impaired. It struggles to stay in control and on top of distractions, impulses, and stay focused on doing a good job on the task at hand.

A calm and energetic PFC can:

•    Set overwhelm aside and enjoy a focus on the task at hand

•    Stay focused on meaningful goals and a higher purpose, resisting temptations that are in fact “error” messages

•    Recognize that cravings (checking texts, junk food, etc.) and negative emotions fade and go away like clouds in the sky

•    Be self-compassionate and not indulge the inner critic

•    Find the positive silver linings in stressors and negative emotions, thoughts, and events

•    Detach from a negative emotional weather report to get a strategic perspective (“maybe I’m overreacting…”)

A depleted PFC is hijacked easily by:

•    Overwhelm caused by a daunting to-do list

•    Cravings for “addictive” foods and drinks

•    The negative self talk of a mean inner critic, triggering the inner rebel to make an unhealthy choice

•    A negative emotional weather pattern, clouding the ability to notice and savor positive moments

•    An overdose of stress, leading us to feel out of control

How can you help your clients improve the function of the PFC and stay confidently in control, happily making healthy choices? Be a great role model, and suggest they experiment with one or more of the following and discover what combination of habits works best:

•    Drive: Create a compelling vision and goal for the moment, the day, month, or year (e.g., to radiate energy and health) to bring to mind at the moment you have a choice to make, dozens of times each day. Design the vision and goal (e.g., picture, poem, or statement) so that it energizes you when you recall it and inspires you to make a healthy choice most of the time.

•    Exercise: Over time, regular exercise leads to a strengthening of the PFC and its capacity to manage negative emotions and stress.

•    Brain breaks: Take brain breaks where you allow your mind to wander, or move your mind’s attention to your heart through deep breathing, or move your muscles through a few stretches or strength exercises. Even 2 to 5 minutes of walking, stair climbing, or yoga poses will refresh the PFC. Nothing is better than a good night’s sleep, or even a catnap to hit the PFC’s reset button.

•    Self-compassion: Turn your inner critic into your inner friend. Be kind to yourself. Negative self-talk is particularly depleting.

•    Mindful practices: Take deep breaths or do short meditations to unhook the mind from the frenzy of out-of-control thoughts and emotions. Create mental pauses when making decisions on eating and exercise to give the PFC a moment to get back into the driver’s seat. Regular meditation also improves PFC function over time.

•    Savor and cultivate positive emotions: Positive emotions were designed to be fleeting, like butterflies, in contrast with negative emotions, which move lightning fast and stick like Velcro. Positive emotions improve cognitive function, in contrast with the impairment caused by negative emotions. Cultivate a ratio of at least three positive emotions for each negative emotion (check out your ratio at so that you have the cognitive resources to manage or overcome the negative in your life.

•    Connect with people you care about: The most powerful positive emotions “lighting up” our brains are those we share with others. Express gratitude for someone’s contribution to your life, do some- thing nice and unexpected for someone, or harvest and celebrate what’s going well with people you care about.

•    Nourish your brain: Feed your brain a nice steady dose of glucose, enabled by a good balance of lean protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates. A well-nourished brain is a brain that wants to make healthy choices.

Thankfully the field of neuroscience has caught up with the mind/body practices. Here’s to a world full of high functioning prefrontal cortexes—calm, positive, energetic, healthy, fit, well-nourished, and well-rested.

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