Archive for the ‘Psychology’Category

God-replacement: filling the void with food

“Oh my god, is she going to talk about religion?”

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HAH.  You bet!

Peripherally, at least.  Now’d be a good time to exit if existential questions make you uncomfortable.

We live in a godless world.  That isn’t to say that people don’t believe in God.  They do, and that’s cool.  In my own hyper-qualified, super sciency way, I believe in God, too.  And that’s important.  I’ll get to that in a bit.  My point, however, is about what we, as modern humans, lack, and the crazy ways in which we try to make up for that.

What we lack is Meaning.  Fulfillment.  Serenity.  Assurance.  Gone are the days where we could ease fears about dying with assurances of heaven and limbo and reincarnation.  Gone are the days where we can assume we partake in a beautiful story unfolding throughout a grandiose history.  Gone are the days where we are hunter-gathering humans who have no concern for these things… because in that case what you do is go about your daily life, return home to your cave  at night and make love to your husband(s), and sleep peacefully knowing that your tribe is alive and well.

Today, we worry about things.  We question them.  We live in a world of hyper doubt.   The constant barrage of resources and differing opinions makes living otherwise virtually impossible– and who would want to be a hermit, anyway?   What’s worse than that, however, is how we are situated in this culture of doubt.  Doubt by itself is no evil thing, but doubt in a world in which feelings of support, love, and communal comfort are generally rare is something I would like to call a Big Fucking Issue.

But just you wait, you say.  I like doubts.  I like truth.  I like having the hard facts of the world laid out in front of me.  Even though I know it’s psychologically difficult, I would not have it any other way.

I agree with you.  I am the same.  I cannot sacrifice truth.  I cannot let go of doubt.  We are the modern world.  We are born of it, we breathe it, and we actively construct it ourselves.  Fears about our existence, and uncertainty about purpose….. these are things that we just have to live with, and that’s okay.

The problem is that we don’t live with them correctly.   These desperate fears and anxieties are deeply rooted in our psychologies, probably far deeper than we could ever imagine.  They worm their way in our brains from early childhood on, and our lives are constant reinforcements of the fact that nothing is ever certain.  In some worlds, this might be mangaeable.  If we lived in small communities, if we spent time every evening in the company of people we loved, doing activities that we loved, rather than being isolated by computer screens and our obsessions with internet communities, we might feel less despair.  We might feel less like something is missing.  

If we had more human contact, I think a lot of things would be better in our lives.  This is one of the big ways in which we might ease existential fear.    Because humans–real, live, squishy humans who rub our backs when we go to sleep at night–these are the things that assure us best that we are not alone.  It is crucial for our well-being that we do not feel alone.

But we are, in many ways, alone.  And even if we don’t feel alone generally, we spend a lot more time in isolation these days than is probably optimal.  And then even if we did have optimal human comfort, we might still be floundering.  Meaning still might be missing from our lives in important ways, even though we  can construct meaning in things such as hedonism, activism, and the arts (which I do not deride–they are important for our well-being, too).  We still might be mired down by questions.  Why is there so much suffering in the world?  Why is there so much suffering in my life?  What is the underlying nature of reality?  Is there a god?  What is going to happen to me when I die?   Oh god, please don’t let me die, please don’t let me die…

 

I think a lot of these questions lead us to live a bit of frantic lifestyle.  Because we are unhappy, and alone, maybe, and because we worry so much about what it means to make a meaningful life, we spend all of our free time doing our best to fill it.  We cannot have a still second, otherwise we have to be alone with our thoughts.  Or, even worse, beyond that: we cannot have a still second because resting would mean that we are not achieving perfection.  We are not getting that promotion.  We are not earning enough money for an HD TV.   And if you don’t take over the world with your ambitions, (or at least get that TV you promised your children) then what the fuck is your life amounting to?

Will you arrive at your 80th birthday party and have terrible regrets?

Is that not one of your greatest fears?

Anyway.  That’s my case for the existential worry.   I think it’s in all of us, to varying degrees.   I think there’s a big, gaping, hurting hole there, and if we don’t fill it with good things like deities or other human beings, we fill it with negative things like perfectionism, consumerism, and mind-numbing devices like TV and the internet.

Or FOOD.

It’s a bit much for me to say: “solve your existential crisis, be at peace, and you’ll stop exhibiting disordered eating behavior.”  But that is essentially what I am saying.   I am not trying to convince you that it’s 100 percent effective (or that people who believe in God don’t have eating disorders– of course they do).*  But I can tell you that these kinds of worries, the big deal kinds of worries, underlie a lot of the anxiety that manifests itself in our lives in different ways.   And we know that anxiety is one of the biggest triggers of disordered eating.  Believe in God:** salvage your digestive track.

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Let me tell you a quick story.

I have been an anxious person for 23 years.  I don’t think there has been a moment of my life that wasn’t consumed by anxiety of one sort or another, and I think, too, that a great many of those moments were overlaid with pressure, by impatience, by irritability, and by anger.  I don’t know if I would have been able to attribute those nasty personality traits to my existential crisis, but I might have ceded the point to you if you asserted it yourself.  I was a high-strung, angry person.  It sucked.

I did a lot of eating.

For a variety of reasons, many of them scholarly and some of them experiential, I have come to see death as less terrifying.  I have come to feel a Buddhist-type release of my attachment to the world, and I have morphed into a more spiritual, less nihilistic being.

My anger has dissipated, my anxiety has floated away, and my eating…

well, it happens less.

I have always known that I ate to fill a loneliness hole.  I felt isolated, and the mechanical act of ingesting food made me forget that fact.   Now that I don’t feel so existentially lost and afraid, and now that I am at peace with existence and myself when I am alone, I don’t feel the need to fill the void with food.

It’s something to think on, anyway.

 

 

*but I can tell you that it is almost 100 percent definitively known that the greater belief one has in “something beyond humans” spanning from apophatic mystic conceptions of God to the Dao to a man with a beard in the sky, the greater psychological stability and well-being he exhibits.

**God-type thing.

 

09

02 2012

What is conditioning, and how does it affect our lives?

It has been far, far too long since I’ve written a post on the likes of Ron Weasley.  Where is the fire and brimstone?  Where are the charging hordes?  Where are the Kirbys, the Spocks, and the Sonic and Tales?  We all need a little bit of Patton in our lives, and I’ve been remiss in going astray.  So I want to talk first about a very important psychological phenomenon, and second about it’s implications for contemporary lives.

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Everyone and their grandma has heard of Ivan Pavlov.  But he was such an important man, and his ideas so profoundly impacted psychology, that he merits a recap.

Ivan Pavlov was a Russian scientist in the late 1800s.  He was a medical researcher, and he made important strides both in organ physiology and in the functioning of the nervous system.  He was particularly interested in the idea of “reflexes,” which is what brought him to his most famous works.

Pavlov was investigating the salivary response to foods when he happened upon a phenomenon now known as classical conditioning. What he found was that dogs salivated not just at the sight of food, but also at the occurrence of “food is coming” signals.  First, the dogs responded only to the food itself.  Then, after having food delivered with the sound of a bell for a certain period of time, the dogs began salivating at the sound of the bell.  Even without food present, the dogs salivated.  They had been conditioned to salivate, and no amount of mental “no no no” would stop the saliva from coming.

What does this mean for human beings?

This means that we can condition responses to just about anything.  Repeat a certain event with a stimuli for a certain amount of time– say, dinner (the event) at six o’clock (the stimuli) or food (again, the event) when I see a Starbucks (again, the stimuli)– we come to expect these things.   Naps in the afternoon, workouts in the morning, the same drinks every time we hang out with the same friends…

Moreover, it is not just a psychological expectation, but a physiological expectation.  I had a professor in college prove this to us.   For two months he would ring a bell then submerge his arm under hot water.  His arm would turn red.   At the end of two months, he rang the bell, without submerging his arm, and his blood vessels opened up, and his arm turned red.  Make no mistakes about it.  Classical conditioning is a very, very real thing.

We also have things called “habits” which are very similar to conditioned responses, only less specific and less strong.   Both are inherent parts of our every day lives.  Both are powerful, and both are hard things to break.

A lot of what we do in life is ruled by habit.  Habit makes things easier.  I always sit in the same seat in class, I eat a lot of the same foods, and I often eat at the same times.  Cool.  These are all helpful things.  But I also have some nasty habits.  I eat every time I come home.  Sometimes this act is so ingrained and subconscious that I have consumed an entire chicken leg before I even know I have food in my mouth.  Yikes.   Some other bad habits I have had in my life are eating while I talk to my mom, walking down the “bad” aisles of grocery stores, and pulling over every time I see a sweet potato cart.  These were subconscious, powerful, and–don’t forget–physiological compulsions.  They ruled my behavior.

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It’s not all BAD NEWS BEARS for team humanity, however.  And why not?

Because as easily as we are conditioned to bad habits, we are broken of them. Without the hot water my professor’s arm still turned red, but each day afterwards, when the stimuli of the bell was rung, but the result of the hot water was absent, his arm got a little bit less red.  Within two weeks it didn’t happen at all, and he felt no difference.   He was, by then, conditioned to the new order of things, which was: ring bell, have nothing happen.  Cool!   We can be programmed to respond, but we can also be re-programmed, or de-programmed, to have different responses.

So if I forcibly stop myself from walking to the refrigerator the next time I go home, I will be de-facto starting the de-conditioning process.  Each time I do that it takes me further down that road.  This process is difficult as hell, especially at first, but each time gets easier and easier.  I can build up momentum in this way.  The more and more time we spend actively denying a bad habit, the easier and easier it becomes to let go.

How does this relate to Mr. Weasley?

Well.   It’s about being the hero of your own life. It’s about recognizing your bad habits, and about owning up to them, and facing them dead on.  It’s about being honest with yourself, and determined, and about taking action.  In a lot of ways, it boils down to bravery.  Here, we have the science to back us up.  We know what the road is going to be like.  We know it’s tough, but we also know that it gets easier over time.  We know that we have conditioned ourselves to act a certain way, but we also know that we can de-condition that behavior.   The first time you get yourself past the McDonald’s without pulling over, it’s an enormous struggle, but it’s also a momentous victory.  Huzzah!  And the second time, it’s still a struggle, but it’s yet another victory.  Bad habits suck.  Let’s be real.  But letting them rule your life and perpetuate disordered eating is even more horrific.  Be a Ron Weasley.  Be an Odysseus.  Be Mufasa.  Whatever.  Whoever.  Use every tool you have at your disposal to improve your life, then commit, and do it, god damnit.

Easy Peasy.  Pavlov says so, and he was the man.

09

06 2011

Gratitude

What up, friends.

I was having a discussion with a client of mine about positivity, and it struck me that I’ve never straight on discussed on my blog how I feel about positive thinking.  I think it’s… well.  It’s amazing.  Perhaps the most important thing in our lives.   For mental health, for our relationships, for our bodies, for our souls…   Gods!  It’s a huge topic, too.  “Positive thinking.”  So I’m going to focus on, like I said, the most important points.  First, gratitude.  Then, what does gratitude do to improve our mental and physical health?

First, there’s a caveat. (I feel like Prometheus.  These damn things never go away.)  Positive thinking is, while the absolute most important, also the absolute most difficult part of this whole recovery deal to wrap our heads around.  Whether it’s because of our natural wiring and drive perfect ourselves, or our consumer culture, or globalization, or stress, or what-have-you, we are really, really good at being down.  Sadness and futility are pervasive.  The English language, you know, has twice as many words for describing sad emotions as for describing happy ones.  That shouldn’t be surprising.  The real kicker of the whole deal, too, is that sadness begets sadness.  Once we start thinking negatively, more negative thoughts pull us further under, and before we know it we’re being dragged along the bottom of the ocean bumping our heads on all sorts of lava flows and abandoned ships.  I see this time and time again with my clients.  Everyone recognizes the fact that positive thinking is the pavement on the road to recovery, but no one has it easy internalizing this fact.  So take it slow.  Practice some of the ideas and activities I (and others) propose when you feel like it.  Affirm yourself as much as you can.  Love and forgive yourself as much as you can.  Try and think of how you would treat your partner, or your child, and give yourself the same leeway. Look at the things in your life that give you stress and see how you can change them.  Trust me– the world really is a bright and beautiful and lovely place.  All we’ve got to do, well, I guess is warm up to that idea over time.  Then give it a bear hug and fight as fiercely as possible to hold on to it forever.

The world is full of pain.  We all know this.  Yet while it sucks big time, why dwell on it?   Especially when it’s our own suffering?  Focusing on our own problems doesn’t do anything for anybody.  What’s more, everything in our lives could be a whole hell of a lot worse.  We could have a shit show of everything.  That would be very bad.  That would be as bad as some other people do have it.  So perhaps we should feel sympathy for them, and think about their pain and how we can ease it, instead of focusing on our own issues that really could be eons worse. Every day we wake up feeling healthy deserves a prayerful of thanks.  Remember how scary it is to be sick?  It’s amazing that we have whatever health (and existence!) that we do.  This fact is worth cherishing beyond measure.

That said, the pain that we do experience doesn’t even have to be a bad thing.  Instead, we can internalize it as an inherent part of the human experience.  Without pain we would never know true joy, so we honestly have no choice but to be grateful for sorrows.  Moreover, we, as human beings, are united by our basic humanity.   “Hearts united in pain and sorrow,” wrote Khalil Gibran, “will not be separated by joy and happiness. Bonds that are woven in sadness are stronger than the ties of joy and pleasure. Love that is washed by tears will remain eternally pure and faithful.”  Not bad, eh? We are profoundly connected to each other by our abilities to feel and to love and to bleed, and all of our struggles help us to be truly, deeply human.  In this way, our suffering makes us profoundly (and bittersweetly) beautiful creatures.  We can–and should–find gratitude in our hearts for every experience, even for this.

What else do we have to be grateful for?  How many good, or fine, or acceptable things are there in our lives?  How many beautiful things surround us on a daily basis?  One of my favorite pieces of prose I have ever read was by a female prison inmate.  In it, she discusses the simplest of pleasures, and how desperately she yearns to experience them.   The greatest aspect of all, to me, is that she talks about color.  She yearns for color.  When I read this piece, I think about the fact that no matter where I am or what I am feeling in my life, I will always have the beautiful, wonderful experience of color.

“I want to see the colors, all of them, every color ever spun into existence.  And white, true white, pristine and unblemished.  And acres of green trees, and miles of yellow-ribbon highways, and yards of Christmas lights.  And the moon.”

What a rich and lovely and vibrant thing.  This passage will never leave me, even in my saddest times.   And it will always remind me of what it means to be human, to have senses, to experience the world, and to live and love and absorb beauty.

One of the great loves of my life once said this:

“I love life. I love everything about it. Smiling, laughing, loving, crying, breathing, jumping, running, flying, standing still – arms open, head tilted towards the heavens. Everything in, around, and about my life is beautiful. I watch countless sunrises, sunsets, wind blowing in the trees, waves rolling on open water, birds flying in the endless sky and fall more in love with this world every day. I don’t understand how any person could be anything but overjoyed with life.”

And he has a point, does he not?  The things he loves are simple and universal, and they flood him daily with enormous feelings of gratitude and love.

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So what does this do for our bodies and our health?

Feeling gratitude in every moment, and looking at the positive aspects of our experiences, increases the amount of time we spend thinking positively about the world.  With more and more positive thoughts accumulating in our heads, we are de facto pushing out the negative ones.  Instead of spending our time trying to get rid of negative thoughts, which can sometimes help us achieve neutrality, we can actively use positive thinking to shove them out the door. “Sorry, self-hate! My brain is an open invitation party for lovers and optimists only.”    Even if it is only a little bit at first, the ability to think positively and gratefully about our lives grows and grows, and can become more and more the dominant mode of thought.

Like I said above, easier said than done.  But it’s true and it’s important and it’s absolutely a practical step towards well-being.   Make a list about yourself, for example, of all of the beautiful things inside and out.  Or stand in front of the mirror.  Or flex and look at your muscles.  Do whatever you need to to appreciate your own body.  Lay in your bed and breathe deeply in and out, and think about your heartbeat and your nerves and all of your fibers working together.  Even better, though, is looking for gratitude outside of yourself. Open your fridge and feel grateful for your bounty.  We live in a world of abundance, so instead of resenting it, be grateful that you have enough food and resources to meet your needs.  It’s okay if you overeat once in a while, or what-have-you.  Isn’t that better than starving for the rest of your life?  I know a lot of people who in secret admit that they have envied starving children in India because it is “effortless” to be thin.  Please don’t be one of them.  It is the most wonderful thing to be fed and warm, and we have nothing to be but grateful for it.  Our societies have hindered our ability to normally use those resources, but that’s okay.  We can get that back.  We just have to love, love, love ourselves and rise above the troubles coming at us in our lives.  We have worlds worth of things to be grateful for, and focusing on them helps us transcend the ugliness in our own lives.

Studies about gratitude have shown time and time again that it increases well-being.   Feeling grateful makes the world a generally brighter place, and we could really use that from time to time.  The thing is that it doesn’t just have to be an occasion, or an intervention, but it can be a habit.   To make that happen, we can routinely focus on our gratitude, AND, if we really want to push the envelop, we can explicitly express our gratitude.  Expressing thanks to others has shown to be hugely beneficial and stress reducing.  One slighter but no less important method is expressing thanks privately, such as writing, drawing, or singing how we feel.  I mean it.  Get it out there.  Share with your loved ones and the wider universe what you are grateful for in any situation, and your brain be much better prepared to deal with future struggles.

I write about gratitude today not only because it is the most important thing in my life but also because it is so incredibly relevant to contemporary culture.  We live in a time that compels us to think about what we can’t have, to wish we could be better, to want want want want need need need need.  Bullshit!  Contemporary culture actively works to eliminate gratitude and appreciation.  Constantly, it chips away at our “gratitude muscles.”  I don’t like this one bit.  Positive thinking is enabled by gratitude and acceptance and love, and sometimes we need reminders of that fact.  So… stop.  breathe.  look up.  look around.   Life certainly is a clusterfuck of struggles and pain sometimes, but we always exist, and we always have something beautiful in our lives, and we always have each other.  If those things aren’t enough to ease the burdens off of our shoulders, I don’t know what possibly could be.

Kevin Spacey’s character in the film American beauty says:

“It’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst…and then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life…”

 

 

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The history behind Paleolithic diets

The palaeolithic diet, is a eating style which is compared to the caveman diet because it only allows you to eat certain types of meat and vegetables and bans sugar and ready-made meals. Similar eating styles were presumed to be used 2.5 million years ago. The modern version permits dieters to have grass fed, pasture raised meats, fish, vegetables, roots, nuts and fruits. However, it excludes grains, legumes, refined sugars and dairy. It tries to mimic what cave people might have lived off of.

The science behind this method is that research has suggested that modern people are genetically developed to consume the diet of their ancestors. In addition, studies have shown that there has been nutritional benefits of trying the old age diet. Some people think it can help with acne because it helps improve their skin. It seems like a good idea if you want to cut down on fatty items and ready-meals, improve your quality of life, living longer which will reduce the risk of your family cashing in on the Aviva Life insurance, or which ever company you might be with. However, it is not popular with everyone, nutritional experts and the National Health Service of England have implied it is likely to be a fad diet. Critics believe it doesn’t reach certain dietary recommendations and the diet provides no benefit, but equally no harm.

The main foods of the diet are based around those which can be hunted or gathered, such as fish, eggs, nuts, fruits and seeds. By eating lean cuts of meat, including wild game and grass fed beef, proved to have higher levels of omega 3 oils. Any product which was not consumed by the cave people are not permitted, these include dairy and grains.

To wash all that down with, dieters can drink water and some teas, but are banned from alcohol.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

16

05 2011

Dopamine signalling findings: Support for a physiological theory of disordered eating and motivation to keep on keepin’ on

Today I woke up to a really awesome, generous surprise in my inbox.   One of my best friends, we’ll call him Dan, recently attended a lecture by Frank Guido, a neuroscientist at the University at Denver.  Dan took great notes, and he took enormously gracious initiative to type them up and send them to me.  And now I am going to pass them along to you.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the details of any of Guido’s studies.  All I’ve got are the take-aways.   So I’m going to put a little bit of faith in Guido’s science (epistemologists say science is a faith anyway) and allow this awesome gift to inform my life and methods.

So.

Guido’s talk focused on dopamine level comparisons between anorexic, bulimic, and obese patients.  Recall that dopamine is a pleasure hormone, stimulated by the act of fulfilling survival needs.  This is (partly) why we eat, and (partly) why we have sex, and all of those other very basic, very human, very animal things.  One thing that’s both fascinating and important to note is that dopamine, while pleasurable, is associated primarily with survival, and not with pleasure.  Therefore, with dopamine signalling, our bodies are trying to make us “healthy.”   They are doing what they can with the resources they have available.  They don’t want to make us have fun.  They want to fix us.  This, in my humble and highly uninformed opinion, supports the “set point” theory of weight loss.  Your body, for one reason or another, has a certain idea of what your “correct” body size is, and will adjust your dopamine regulation accordingly.   So what do you do with this information?  Maybe that means you want to allow yourself to put on a few pounds.  It could help you feel more satisfied.  Or maybe it means you can now more easily forgive yourself for your cravings.  Or perhaps you want to buckle down and fight anyway.   It’s your body, and your decision.

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Anyway, first, Guido notes that Anorexic subjects generally have high dopamine levels in their cerebral spinal fluid.  This is because anorexic subjects “are good at delaying rewards,” and “have an elevated drive to avoid harm.”   Bulimic
subjects, on the other hand, have low dopamine levels in their cerebral spinal fluid.  This, according to Guido, correlates to bulimic subjects being “impulsive,” and “having reduced inhibition.”  Third, obese subjects experience lower and lower dopamine receptors the higher their BMI.  This suggests that our bodies give us less and less reward for eating if we are overweight.  This makes sense.  Also, according to Guido, obese subjects ” are also impulsive and poor inhibitors.”

Then Guido discusses his experiment.  In an fMRI, researchers measured dopamine responses to sweet flavors.
This is what they found:

Anorexia nervosa patients experience an increased dopamine response to sweet flavors. We can infer from this information that anorexic patients are hypersensitive to self-harm (i.e. weight change).  Their bodies give them high amounts of satiation for eating.   That’s quite enough!, says the sensitive patient.

Binge eating and obese patients have decreased dopamine responses to sweet flavors.  This means that they need more stimulation to feel satisfied. Binge eaters have developed a “food tolerance,” — much like we discussed before, with drug habituation.   (Read: Food addiction: harder to kick than cocaine?)  Moreover, the more frequently someone binged, the more dopamine they required to feel satisfaction.

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Yikes.  So what do we conclude?

The more frequently someone binges, the lower his dopamine response.   Guido also notes that the more (calorie) restricted he is, the lower his dopamine response.  These facts mean that:

1)  If you severely calorie restrict or under-eat in any fashion, or are underweight according to your “set point,” your body is going to try to get you to eat more.   It will require you to eat more food to feel satisfied.  It will do this until you ingest the “proper” amount of calories or until you reach the “proper” weight.  Therefore, it is not necessarily your fault if you feel so restricted and so unsatisfied.  Your body might be veritably begging you to eat.

2)   Your body gives you less and less reward the more and more you binge.  This is because it is habituated to the behavior.  So what do you do about it?  You should binge less.  I KNOW!  CRAZY IDEA!  The thing is:  this motivates me to reach for food less often. It helps me stop.  Because if I don’t binge now, it’s going to make my life easier later.  And how nice would that be?    Every single time I refuse food it is going to get easier and easier to refuse, and my body will get more and more adjusted to my new eating habits.  I will begin to feel more satisfaction from a normal diet, and I won’t have to eat so much to feel satisfied.  Just like my body got conditioned to eating way too much, I can recondition my body to eat the proper amount of food.  All it takes is a first step, and as much diligence as I can muster throughout.

So keep on keepin’ on!  Each time you do a good food behavior you are making it easier to do it the next time.  If that’s not motivation, I don’t know what is.  For real.

Thanks Dan!

24

04 2011

Re-define yourself

Here’s another mental roadblock.  The thing about this one, though, is that we all face it, whether we know it or not.  And it goes like this:

I N E R T I A

What do I mean by “inertia”?  Inertia is a property of matter defined by resistance to changes in motion.   It means that cars don’t like stopping, boats don’t like turning, and planets like to keep going around the sun in their designated trajectories.   When used abstractly, however, inertia refers to all of the mental resistance we encounter when trying to do anything, ranging from trying to get a project done, to confronting an emotion, or to making personal changes.

The point of this post is that, as human beings, we don’t like change.  We resist it.  And often we don’t like challenges, so we resist those, too.  Often this is manifested in really obvious ways, such as my insistence on walking a block further to go to Family Mart (clearly superior!) instead of 7-11 (which is actually the same exact store as Family Mart).  Or perhaps: we all know people who have heard of the paleolithic diet (perhaps we’ve tried to convince them ourselves?) but just don’t want to give it the time of day.  Compelled by fear or inertia or both, friends and family members daily come up with some pretty nifty rationalizations that make their current course of action continue to be the best one in their own minds.  Whether it actually is or not is not the question.  The important thing here is the mental attitude, and the strong, almost irresistable impulse to never change.

This is a pretty well-known fact.  People don’t like change.  Why am I beating a dead horse?   Because I think it goes even deeper than that.

Sometimes we actively want change.  Sometimes we pursue it.  Sometimes we even achieve it.   We do this by making a conscious decision (not always!), by committing ourselves to new pathways, and by following through.  But it doesn’t always stick, and progress is really difficult, and one reason this is true is because we’re stuck in the same ideas of ourselves.
I’m currently pretty thin.  That happened about a year ago.  Up until that point, however, I battled weight loss and body image issues for eight years.  There were a lot of things going on, and I could probably write a book (have I already?) on them.  Yet one phenomenon was particularly vicious.  Every time I started gaining momentum, I up and threw it away. I pinched my thighs after a week or two of good eating and they felt different.  I noticed and this was so cool.  So naturally the first thing I did was walk into the pantry.  For a long time I wrote this off as my desire to “treat myself” for my progress, but after many years and deeper reflection I realized that my thoughts were far more twisted.  My body had changed, and that was weird.  I was in a place where I could be more confident, and that was weird, too.  Stefani (that’s my given name) is not hot.  Stefani is not thin.  Stefani is not confident.  These changes do not line up with who I am.   I need to prevent that change.  I need to put a little weight back on.

And I did it!  I swear to Hera I did this for years. It was never something I was conscious of.  Instead, this monster watched me from the deep folds of my subconscious, and every time I started getting somewhere reached out and dropped this huge rock of inertia (recall: resistance to change) on top of my progress.

I find myself wrestling with the same subconscious resistance to this day.  It’s like… we have this image of ourselves.  A physical image.  And we have this idea of ourselves, this mental, psychological, personality type thing.  And we don’t rock the boat.  Ever.   Whether it’s by other people or ourselves, our unconscious minds work really hard to preserve norms.  Everybody’s does.  It’s how we’re built.

Except it might be worse in people who are struggling.  Your resistance to change might be compounded by feelings of unworthiness. I often thought: “Stefani is not thin, pretty, or confident, therefore I need to restore the qualities that made her otherwise,” but it was much worse when I thought: “Stefani does not deserve to be thin, pretty, or confident, therefore I need to restore the qualities that made her otherwise.”     This is another reason that it is so, absolutely vital to love yourself. It is vital to forgive yourself.  And it is vital to realize that whatever you’re wrestling with is not your fault.  Only after practicing these self-loving mental habits can we dig ourselves out of the mental pits of unworth, and begin to really see progress in our physical, as well as mental, health.

That said, once we’re in decent mental condition and walking on the path of progress, we’ve got to safeguard against subconscious inertia.  We’ve got to break that mental mode.  We’ve got to be in charge of our emotions and our brains, and to make sure the riptide never pulls us back under.   Subconscious perceptions of ourselves are enormously powerful.   Recognizing that fact can help you re-define yourself, and make sure that that definition sticks.

20

04 2011

Break your bad thinking habits

A lot of this blog focuses on cultivating good habits and getting rid of the nasty ones.  We do this mostly by analyzing our behavior, by thinking up new strategies, and by moving forward with constant awareness.   Constant analysis and reevaluation is important.  I stand by that.

Sort of.

Because constant analysis also means that we spend a lot of time thinking.  About food. Why did I binge?  How can I recover?  Why do I feel bad about myself?  How do I turn that around?  We use our brains a lot – which I will never say is a bad thing — but in search of psychological freedom, we eventually have to learn how to plain old let go.

Sometimes, what we need is to use our brains less.

I’ve often entertained the idea that the healthiest relationship with food is defined by not thinking about food.  I find this to be more and more true over time.  I’ve talked with a lot of you who feel similarly.  If I’m not thinking about food, I’m not obsessing over it.  I’m being natural.  I’m being instinctive.  I’m being spontaneous.  And I’m being… well, free.   Most of us envy this state.  We see it as a distant goal. And, honestly, for as long as I’ve been wrestling with food and with these health/body image/diet issues, it’s continued to be a distant goal for me.

My point being: I have broken bad habits with the power of thought.  However, a lot of the mental anguish is still hanging around.  I feel deprived, I ache for foods, I hate my body for not being able to metabolize sweet potatoes without making me balloon… Moreover, I plan every day super carefully, strategizing the best way to maximize my enjoyment of food while still clinging on to self-esteem, worrying about being too hungry or not hungry enough… generally I feel fine, and I act fine, but on occasion… I want all of the thoughts… about food, about my body and about my worth to just fucking go away.

So, what now?

Just do it.

Stop your negative or obsessive thoughts.  Just– stop. Never let your brain go to a negative place.  When you feel it coming, derail it.  Distract it.  I find that a lot of the success I experience these days comes from my ability to shut off thoughts before they really get going.  Shut it off and walk away.  Don’t let yourself think about your last binge or your thighs or tomorrow’s food at all.  Promise yourself you can dwell on it later if you want, but for right now, you are in this very present moment, and you are being good and psychologically, and everything be damned if you’re going to let thoughts that are nothing but bad habits keep messing up your life.

Because they are habits.  We have conditioned ourselves to think certain ways about ourselves and the world just by a matter of practice.  You can try and think your way past your negative thoughts all you want, but when it comes down to it, you’re still obsessing over them.  Positivity is enormously important.  But it’s not the only way to play the game.   This is just like the “throw a towel over the mirror” strategy.  Don’t look.  Don’t think.  Distract yourself.  Say “no” fiercely and deny your brain the ease of old thought patterns.

Shutting down certain thought patterns helps me feel better, and it also helps me point blank stop eating and stop having cravings.  Is something coming on?  Am I about to get really bored and start grazing?   Have I just subconsciously walked into the kitchen?  Immediately I recognize the urge coming.  Nope!  Gone.  It’s like… here’s a good example. I used to think about dying when I went to sleep at night, and it gave me panic attacks.  Panic attacks are really unpleasant, so it became supremely important that I learn how to turn off that thought process. Now, when I see the thought of death coming– sort of by predicting the path of my future thoughts– I just force my brain to go in another direction.   So.  It’s hard.  It’s definitely hard.  But practice turning it off.   Say no and turn it around and think about something else you like.  Like sex!  Or men!  Or the novel you’re currently reading!  Anything.  I promise, I promise, I promise: take charge of your brain.  Deny it wallowing.  Exercise your will in this way. Decrease the amount of negative feelings you have, Liberate your brain for better thoughts, and recondition yourself to obsess less.

Sometimes I think keeping a leash on our brain is all that we really need to get through this.  The name of the game here is psychological freedom, so what we need is to be in control, and to only permit ourselves to think things we enjoy thinking.   This isn’t always the wisest strategy, since we do need to think through problems, but once resolved, we’ve just got to let them go.  A large percentage of my readership is composed of perfectionists.  Perfectionists tend to seek out weak spots and dwell on them, push themselves inordinately hard, and punish themselves unduly.   This is not the way to happiness. Instead, just be good to yourself and stop nitpicking and breathe.  “Wake up, regain your humor,” says the Way of the Peaceful Warrior.  “Do not worry, you are already free!”

 

 

 

16

04 2011