The Journey From Overeating To Trust

How do you feel about your body? If overeating is a problem for you, especially if you’re heavier than you’d like to be, chances are you don’t feel very good at all about it.

People who overeat generally distrust themselves and dislike their bodies. You hear people express this: “I have no self-control when it comes to chocolate….I hate my thighs….my stomach is a bottomless pit….”

But reflect on the wisdom of your human body. We take it for granted that we can walk, see, drive, listen to our kids, but we couldn’t do any of these things were it not for the wise bodies that so many of us dislike.

Chances are you don’t spend much time thinking about how it is that you pick something up off a table. This simple activity relies on information your body gives you. You decide you want that glass on the table and you extend your arm.  You know you’ve touched the surface of the glass by the feeling you get in your fingers and hand.

Your appetite works in a similar way. Just like you know how it feels when your hand makes contact with the glass, you can tune in and feel from your body what kind of food it wants and how much of it.

Try something right now: close your eyes, tune in to your stomach and abdomen area, and find out what they have to tell you. Are you full? How full? Give yourself a number between one and ten. Are you hungry? Rate your hunger — not very much? Somewhat? Very? Whatever you find out is neither good nor bad; it’s just information.

This exercise may be hard for you if you’ve distrusted your body for many years and consequently come to override your hunger and fullness signals. But don’t worry — it will simply take you a little time and practice to remember how to do this.

Information is power. As you learn to consciously pay attention to the hunger and fullness signals that are always available to you, you build trust in your own wisdom. This trust is the foundation of a whole new relationship with yourself, which in turn will help you heal your relationship with food.

How To Cool Down Arguments

Sometimes a good fight clears the air. Too often, though, heated arguments just hurt a relationship. One or both of you say mean words that you can’t take back. Feelings get hurt. Resentment builds.

This is not to say that you’re supposed to sit on your feelings or that you shouldn’t get angry. Anger is a part of life, and it certainly comes up in every relationship. It’s just a question of how you manage your anger.

“Pause” is the key word. Not “stuff your feelings” but pause, step back and think. Buy yourself some time. You can teach yourself to stop, go inside yourself, and practice a healthy self-restraint.

“Sounds good,” you say, “but how in the world do I do this in the heat of the moment?”

The first step starts long before the argument begins. Decide that, from now on, you’re not going to go to that destructive place. A decision like this is powerful and can help you remember to stop when things start to go out of control. If you argue frequently, remind yourself daily that you’ve decided to practice self-restraint because you love your partner. And because you want to become more mature.

The second step also takes place before an argument. Take responsibility for your own misbehavior. It’s too easy to blame your partner and see him or her as “the problem.” We have a harder time realizing that we are the problem the moment we begin to blame. Fortunately, we are also the solution.

If you do these things, during an argument you won’t so readily indulge the feeling that this other person is wrong and that they need to agree with you. Just stop talking. Do this gently, without glaring or making a face. If your partner takes this as a hostile gesture, tell them you’ve just realized that you’re creating a problem with what you’re saying, and you need to take some time to compose yourself. When you’ve both calmed down, you can have a productive discussion about what made you angry.

This will take time and practice. Don’t judge yourself when you don’t “do it right.” Instead, give yourself a pat on the back for deciding to nurture your relationship and further your own growth.

The Unhappily Married Man

There lived a man who was absolutely miserable with his wife. Once deeply in love, over the years they first grew apart and later began to treat each other with contempt. They would have terrible arguments and then go for weeks in tense silence.

The man ruminated day and night about how to solve his dilemma. Divorce or separation was out of the question because of the customs of their land. Finally he began to ponder a most drastic solution.

He went to a wise elder in his town and said, “I hear that you’re able to mix up poisons that kill people slowly, so that no one will suspect foul play. You must make up some poison for me so that I can give it to my wife. Living with her is unbearable, and the only way out of my misery is to kill her.”

“I think I can help you” the elder replied. “But I’m not sure you’ll be willing to pay the cost of this solution.”

“I’ll pay anything. Anything! Whatever you want from me, I’ll do it.”

“Very well,” the elder replied. “It will take me one month to prepare the poison. Give me no money now. The only thing I require of you is that during this next month, you treat your wife as though she was the most precious, lovely, desirable woman in the world.”

“What?!! I can’t do that! I hate her! It’s absolutely impossible to treat her as though I love her.”

“But you said you’d do anything to get your hands on the poison.”

The man swallowed hard, grimaced, and said, “Fine. I’ll do as you say. I’ll do anything to escape my misery.”

So the man bought some flowers and went home to face his wife. Sure enough, she greeted him at the door with a sneer of disgust.

“What are you doing with those flowers? They’re hideous. You’re hideous.”

“These are for you. I want to make peace.” He felt nauseous as he said the words, but he put the flowers in a vase and placed them on the table.

Over the next two weeks he spoke to her kindly every day, asked for her opinions, did the dishes, and tried his best to act as though he loved her. At first he could hardly bear to do these things, but he wanted the poison so much that he was willing to do anything. She responded at first with hateful words, then with silence. And strangely enough, it began to get easier for him to treat her well.

And even stranger, his wife began to be a little less hateful. And strangest of all, by the third week they were no longer enemies. And by the fourth week, they were enjoying each other so much that he forgot all about the poison.

A month or so later he encountered the elder on the street. “I have a package waiting for you,” the elder said.

The man looked at him, puzzled. “Don’t you remember?” the elder asked. “You asked me to make up some poison for you. For your wife. Why didn’t you ever come to collect it?”

The man shook his head in horror. “Poison my beautiful, wonderful wife? Never, ever in a thousand years could I do that!”

The elder smiled and walked away.

Healing Self Esteem

So many of us are self-critical to the point where we dislike ourselves.

The Dalai Lama was meeting with a group of Western psychologists when the subject of poor self-esteem came up. He indicated that he didn’t understand this concept. After much discussion with his translator he finally said: we just don’t have that issue in Tibetan culture. Not only do we not have words for this, this condition doesn’t exist for us.

Would that we could say the same thing in the west. Those who were most severely criticized, rejected, or abused as children can suffer terribly with self-criticism and dislike of themselves. Even if we were mostly treated well as children, it’s hard to find someone in our lives who doesn’t struggle in some way with self-esteem.

There are people who seem to have too much self-esteem, but if one’s sense of self isn’t based on a balanced and realistic embrace of weaknesses and strengths, an over-aggrandized sense of self-importance will deflate in the face of real hardship. When this person falls, they fall hard.

“Ok,” you say, “I know I’m too hard on myself. I’m much kinder to others than I am to myself. But I’ve always been this way. What can I do?”

Beginning a practice of the Loving-Kindness Meditation could help ease your harsh judgments of yourself.

The Loving-Kindness Meditation is a short series of intentions you can say to yourself silently or aloud:

May I be filled with loving-kindness.

May I be well in body and mind.

May I be free of anger and anxiety.

May I be peaceful and at ease.

A number of my clients have begun repeating this meditation to themselves a few times throughout their day or perhaps for a longer period of time in the morning or evening. They always say it helps. Often within the first week they notice a significant shift in how they feel about themselves.

“Those are nice words,” you may say. “But I don’t believe I could ever be that way. Really loving to myself? Free of anxiety? It would feel like I’m just going through the motions if I tried doing that meditation.”

So take the risk and try it anyway. As you say the words, they become a part of you.

Mindfulness and Strong Feelings

Mindfulness enables us to help ourselves with strong feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger, and more. The key is getting out of our heads and into our bodies.

Emotions express themselves as physical sensations. You may feel a lump in your throat when you’re very sad, a tightness in your chest when anxious, a clenching of your hands and forearms when you’re angry. Finding that place in your body and simply feeling it often brings great relief and always provides useful information about potential solutions to our difficulties.

How does that lump feel? Is it heavy? Constricting? The tightness in your chest may feel solid one moment, and then open up. The clench in your hands may feel hot and shaky.

Our tendency is to try to think our way out of strong feelings. It never works. Noticing what our bodies feel like, though, allows us to process our emotions and extract valuable information from them for solving our problems.

For example, you find that your jaw is so tight it hurts. You take a moment to notice how it feels like solid rock, and find that you’re holding your shoulders up. When you soften them and bring them down, your jaw also relaxes a little.

Going further, you ask your jaw and shoulders what they’re trying to tell you. You realize you’re afraid that you won’t adequately handle some unpleasant upcoming task, that you “won’t do it right.” You weren’t aware that this was bothering you, but now you can remind yourself that you’ve handled situations like this in the past, and that you’ll do ok.

We often think that sitting with the physical expression of an emotion will make it worse, but generally the opposite is true. I’d like to hear your comments about experiences with this or your thoughts about it.

What To Do About The Blues

Whether dealing with temporary disappointments, a difficult grief process, or clinical depression, there are ways to ease sad feelings. Let’s look at three basics for blues management.

Get active. Exercise is one of the most effective ways to lift a mood. Research has demonstrated that exercise is as effective as antidepressant medication in relieving mild or moderate depression

Volunteering. Leaving the house and being around people is very hard during difficult times. However, staying alone at home worsens a depressed mood considerably. Volunteering helps in at least four ways: it gets a person dressed and out of the house, provides for focused conversation, shifts thinking to something positive, and provides a sense of purpose.

Consider helping at The Humane Society. Holding and petting animals and caring for their basic needs feels very good. Animals make few demands on us. Dogs (and many cats) love attention and are generous with affection.

Eating healthy food. Loss of appetite or overeating on junk food both go hand in hand with sadness. When eating very little, food needs to count nutritionally even more than usual. And given that overeating and gaining weight make most people feel worse, fresh produce is a very good choice for those who eat more when they are feeling bad.

Good places to buy fresh, healthy food are farmers markets in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Talking with the sellers provides manageable, focused, friendly conversation. It also feels good and can provide a sense of meaning to support local growers, especially in a challenging economy.

Even though setbacks, grief, and depression are not simple problems, very simple strategies can help tremendously.

Sadness, Grief, or Depression?

There are important differences between sadness, grief, and depression. Each one calls for a different response.

Sadness is a normal, healthy part of life. Many things cause it: disappointments, losing something important, and self-critical thoughts, to name a few. We often want to just get rid of sadness, or to avoid it by distracting ourselves. Unfortunately, this makes it last longer and even makes the problem worse. The best thing we can do when we get sad is to let ourselves feel it and know that it will pass on its own.

Grief is also a normal part of life. When someone important to us dies, we go through a process of grieving that generally lasts up to a year or more. The terrible sadness we feel shows how important that person was to us. If we don’t push grief away, it will also pass, and eventually we will no longer feel so empty. It is important to have caring people to talk with, and support groups can be especially helpful. In the Ann Arbor area, Arbor Hospice provides groups and workshops for adults, adolescents, and younger children who have lost loved ones.

Depression is a medical illness. Even though it feels almost just like sadness or grief, the brain and brain chemistry are involved in a very different way. Unlike sadness or grief, depression does not go away naturally. Someone with depression may feel worse when well-meaning loved ones say to cheer up, because this person is biologically unable to do so. Medication may help, and is often used only temporarily. It is not a “crutch,” but more like taking medication for thyroid conditions, high blood pressure, or other medical problems.

During a period of sadness, it can be hard to tell if one is experiencing sadness, grief, or depression. Very generally speaking, sadness comes and goes, grief is lessened when one is around family or friends, and depression is constant. For some ideas on how to feel better, this article on what to do about a blue mood may be helpful.

If a low mood persists, especially if there is no apparent reason for it, or if you or a loved one is troubled by ongoing, seemingly insurmountable problems, it is a good idea to consult a therapist. I am experienced helping people deal with these types of problems — please call me.

Meditation Relieves Anxiety and Depression

A study published in August 2010 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science showed that meditation is effective in managing anxiety and depression.

Drs. Michael Posner and Yi-Yuan Tang led the study of a type of mindfulness meditation called integrative body-mind training (IBMT). Adapted from traditional Chinese medicine by Dr. Tang, it uses a focus on present-moment experience rather than on a mantra.

After just 11 hours of IBMT, brain scans showed significant favorable changes in white matter around the anterior cingulate, a part of the brain involved in managing emotions and self-control. These changes did not take place in the brains of control group participants who practiced relaxation techniques.

A University of Oregon news release said that Drs. Posner and Tang found in 2007 that students who did IBMT for five days before a test showed low levels of the stress hormone cortisol. They were also better able to pay attention, and had less anxiety, depression, anger, and fatigue than those in the relaxation control group.

Speaking on NPR’s Science Friday, Dr. Posner recommended practicing any form of mindfulness meditation. I discuss a number of ways in this blog to use mindfulness practice to help manage anxiety, depression, and other issues that bring people to therapy. An article you may find useful describes a short practice that uses your body’s wisdom to develop a more peaceful relationship with anxiety. If you try this practice, I’d like to hear your comments about your experience with it.

Dealing With Worry

Worry is draining. You try to get busy, but your mind keeps going back to the same thing. You forget about it for a while, and then a sick feeling in your stomach brings it all back. You can’t enjoy your family and friends because you aren’t really present. Popping awake at 3 am and knowing that you’ll lie there for the next two hours gives you something new to worry about.

What can you do to stop worrying and effectively solve your difficulties? The first step is to realize that worry is a problem in itself. The situation troubling you may well be serious, but worry keeps you from thinking clearly and taking effective action. Once you get a better handle on your worry problem, you’ll be better able to solve your other problems.

These suggestions may help you exit the worry trap:

  • Do some exercise — it’s very effective for reducing worry. Next, take a hot shower or bath.
  • Decide that for 15 minutes, whenever you catch yourself worrying, you will gently return your mind to the business at hand. Tell yourself that you can worry later if you wish, but right now, you’re going to focus on what you’re doing.
  • Without realizing it, you’re probably repeating over and over, “What if……what if…..what if?” Get a little distance from this by stepping back and telling yourself: I’m thinking “what if?”
  • Remind yourself that, whatever your problem is, many other people have faced the same difficulty and figured out a solution. You will, too.

Your solutions may include talking to a therapist, especially if you find that you cannot stop worrying despite using strategies like these. If so, please call me. I am experienced in helping people with a variety of worry and anxiety problems. Things really can get better.

Exercise Relieves Anxiety

Here’s some good news for people who suffer with worry or anxiety. A recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that exercising for at least 30 minutes significantly reduces anxiety.

The authors analyzed 40 studies that involved 2,914 sedentary people with chronic anxiety. That translates into a lot of people who probably used to hate exercise. However, the pain of ongoing anxiety is a strong motivator.

The research abstract does not specify what the “exercise training” consisted of, but “training” implies vigorous effort. If you decide to start exercising so you can stop worrying, get some moral support. You are much more likely to stay with it when you have other people to encourage you and provide accountability. And get the go-ahead from your primary care doctor before you begin.

You may not believe it now, but you have powerful internal resources to free yourself from anxiety’s vice grip. Even if you are exhausted from the daily struggle to control fear, try exercise anyway. Do it as an experiment. You have nothing to lose and much to gain.