Monday, June 23, 2014

When Eating IS the Distraction

One night, home solo for dinner, I make myself a gorgeous plate of lemony greens over fresh whole wheat pasta, snowy with Parmesan cheese. A few of my cookbooks are still open on the table and I start paging through, looking at the pictures and searching for recipes I want to try. Soon, I'm putting the last bite into my mouth and I've barely tasted any of it.

I'm pissed. And disappointed. Despite my intentions and efforts to be more mindful, to be fully present and enjoying the food in front of me, this still happens more than I like to admit. I check the weather (and then my messages and then Instagram) on my phone, or I get absorbed reading the Nutrition Facts on the back of a package. But then I miss the moment, the amazing food in front of me. Studies show that being awake to the process of eating accounts for the majority of the satisfaction you feel. When your mind is distracted, you miss out on feeling satisfied.

You probably know what happens when you don't feel satisfied. You eat more - then or later - because you're still trying to get there. You feel bad about yourself and all your shortcomings. You make promises to yourself you can't keep. You restrict yourself. It's easy to spiral out. That's how I ended up binging on almond butter and cookie dough so many nights. It feels too shameful, too embarrassing, too huge and overwhelming to just change. All the the things you don't feel or don't want to feel, you wind up using food to try to fill or to distract yourself from your mental hunger. And so the cycle self-perpetuates, conveniently creating a problem to distract you from your real issues.

Here's the trick: You don't have to DO anything to change. But you have to BE with your discomfort and the dissatisfaction.

Ok, GRRREAT. That's what most of you are probably thinking. I didn't say this would be comfortable, remember? It's the opposite. The question is: Are you willing to go there and see what happens? I always thought I'd be opening Pandora's Box of Alex's Hot Mess and I'd have a breakdown that would incapacitate me for at least a year. But the most amazing part?  (And I know you know this.) After a good, honest cry, you feel so much lighter.

Here are a few ways you can start allowing yourself to be with uncomfortable feelings in the moment:
  • Crying. I mean it. LET IT OUT. When you hold it in, it becomes tension, it adds to the weight you are carrying around. Emotions are "e"nergy in "motion" - let it move through. Breathe.
  • Running. When I have pent up emotional energy, expending physical energy helps me release. Exhaustion, while not necessary, is potent medicine. Think about a child who plays or cries themselves to sleep. A tired body or mind then shuts down to rest and rejuvenate.
  • Tapping. This is a technique that allows to you accept what is happening instead of judging, resisting or avoiding it. I find the physical sensation to be incredibly grounding. Here's a basic how-to video on how to tap.
  • Writing it out. I don't know where I'd be without my journal, the place I dump out my mind and hash out my feelings. I get such clarity from letting it all out on the page. Write knowing you can always burn it. There is such power in acknowledging for yourself what is really going on. Ask yourself: What am I really needing or hungry for?
  • Voicing it. To my most inner, trusted circle, the people I wasn't afraid (although I still resisted) to cry in front of, people who I knew could just hold space and listen. Find a friend (or two) with whom you can be each others' lifelines. Or a professional you trust.
It takes courage to allow yourself to be vulnerable in this way. What resonates best for you? What are you going to try? Or, are there things here you've already tried that have worked or not worked? Please leave a comment below.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Alone with Chocolate Fudge & Not Afraid Anymore: My Four Big Shifts to Food Freedom

We were sitting around the table, with gorgeous fresh strawberry shortcake sitting in front of us, passing around a jar of chocolate fudge to put on top. Everyone was talking about what they would do with the fudge if they were left alone with it, most agreeing they'd eat the whole thing with a spoon in one sitting. I sat there, almost shocked that I had no desire to eat any more than the tiny dollop in my bowl. Two years ago, I would have eaten myself sick on it every day and night until it was gone. Leave me with it now and I'd put it away in the fridge, no uncontrollable cravings, no feelings of guilt or deprivation. "Whoa," I thought, "I've come a loooong, long way."

Overeating, especially when it feels emotional or mindless (you've checked out of your brain, or something else has taken over), does us a lot of damage. I've interviewed over 40 people about their struggles with food, especially the tendency to binge and overeat, and the physical damage is perhaps most obvious and first to pop into most people's minds when we think about the consequences. The digestive stress and bloating. The lethargy. Worrying about what all that sugar and fat is doing to our health in the long run. Gaining weight... Or living in perpetual fear that we will.

From all those conversations, what struck me at the overwhelmingly most painful, frustrating part - and for me this was the hardest part too - is the repeated blow to your self-esteem and confidence. It's facing a recurring personal failure that undercuts all of the rest of your success in life. It's being smart enough to understand the pattern and yet not being able to stop. It's disappointing yourself over and over again, because you know you know better. It's beating yourself up about not treating yourself the way you want to be... which is still not treating yourself the way you know you want to be. It was enough to wreck my first attempt at a Health Coaching practice two years ago. As an emotional binge-eater, my self-confidence was shot. How could I help anyone else if I couldn't figure it out for myself?

My lack of confidence kept me from building my practice and career for over a year, which - though I didn't see it until I was through it - gave me the space to finally step back from thinking about food all the time (funny how I chose a field that perpetuated that, isn't it?), so that I COULD figure it out for myself. All of the shifts I experienced were influenced by the coaching programs I was participating in as a student, and by coaches I worked with myself along the way.

My Four Big Shifts to Food Freedom:

1. Talking about it, rather than hiding it away. Getting honest and vulnerable in front of the ultimate mirror, another person, someone I trusted to hold safe space for me to show up in all my mess and imperfection. For me this was my partner, and then a coach, and then the people I trained with during my own coach training program. I got support and started creating a network of friends and circles that I knew would see and respect all of me, even when I didn't feel like I could. Eventually, I felt safe enough to share my closet binge-eating story publicly. It was one of the scariest and most liberating things I've ever done. What has inspired me most on this front? Brene Brown on The Power of Vulnerability. Bookmark that one for later.

2. Deciding to take radical care of my body, my vessel and vehicle for experiencing everything else. I started getting massages every week for three months. Dropping into and reconnecting with my body, my energy and physical sensations changed everything. I let myself feel into the times it felt strong, centered and beautiful, instead of dismissing myself as vain or judging myself as shallow. I gave myself permission to enjoy feeling good about myself, and to keep going back to what made my body feel amazing: massage, hula hooping in the park, dance, yoga, walks, baths, laying in the sun, sex, running, eating avocado every day, moisturizing my skin...

3. Letting go of trying so hard: to be so good, to be perfect, to look good, to have it all figured out, to control all aspects of myself... including my eating and my body. I gave myself permission to eat whatever I wanted. Yes, that turned out to be largely healthy stuff like quinoa and kale and almond butter, but I had to stop judging and denying myself the foods I was craving. Like cheeseburgers and chocolate cake, whole milk and cereal. It's true, sometimes I still went overboard. I ate stuff and more than I wished I had. I still do sometimes. But I also stopped making rules about "tomorrow I won't eat/I'm on a diet..." and started forgiving myself, realizing that every "screw up" was a learning experience, an opportunity to remember to check into my body for its hunger, fullness and needs, and not just what my mind was saying.

4. Learning to feel and be okay with my uncomfortable emotions. I used to act passive-aggressive (I was a master at the silent martyr role) when I was unhappy or wanted something to be different... I never knew how to express my unhappiness and ask for what I wanted and needed. So I either stuffed all the "bad" stuff, my anger, loneliness, sadness, fears, disappointment, and stress down with food, or I knotted it up as tension in my shoulders, neck and back. I worked with an emotional intelligence coach to help me learn techniques for processing, expressing and releasing my emotions... and even though I was initially terrified I'd be opening Pandora's Box of Perpetually Overwhelmed Hot Mess, I found that once I let myself experience an emotion, it would release. And I could move on SO much more easily. For the first time in my life, instead of being on a ruthless roller coaster or a ship lost in an unpredictable sea, I have a sense of clarity, groundedness and strength that feel like the rooted tree of my being, my emotions just being weather.

These shifts are more like practices I've chosen to live by - they are still things I consciously and intentionally cultivate and practice in my life. It doesn't go perfectly and smoothly, but I've learned to treat myself and my body as a priority (or else nothing else or nobody else gets 100%) and, when that falls through, with compassion and kindness, as you would a friend. I know how long and hard some of you have been struggling to figure it out, to will yourself back into willpower. I feel you. I felt for my friends as they sat around the table that night, laughing about their inability to resist the jar of fudge. Because I suddenly knew, for myself - even though I'd thought for most of my life that surely there was something wrong with me - that another way of living is possible.

I'm creating right now... coaching programs, free guides, sugar detoxes, online webinar trainings. I know what's worked for me, but I know we don't all have the same experience. Please share below or write to me and tell me what you want and need. What are your burning questions? What are you dying to experience differently?

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Why TV Doesn't Count As Down-Time

Have a lot of stress in your life? Do you often feel carried away by anxiety or worries? Do you judge yourself and others way more than you'd like to admit? It's this kind of emotional baggage that leads some of us to stuff ourselves with chocolate or potato chips at night. Or to snap at our partners. Or put our back into spasms. Where does all that junk come from?

Yes, it's in our heads... but we weren't born this way! We've picked it up from all the things we see and hear around us: our families, television, the internet, billboards, books, teachers, movies, social media. As adults, we have more of a choice about the Programming (this was what TV shows used to be called!) that we feed our brains.

What we watch becomes part of our memory and reality. You can't "unsee" or "unfeel" something. Maybe you've noticed, like me, that your own fear-based, judgmental, and self-deprecating thoughts are relatively quick to rise and take you down a dark vortex in your mind compared to your positive, ease-full thoughts. Maybe you've noticed we live in a world that exists in an almost perpetual state of worry and anxiety. And for many people, TV shows, movies and social media have become a main resource for decompressing and mindless escape. Problem is, it isn't mindless.

Many people tell me that they watch TV in their down time especially to relax. Down time is, by definition, time to turn off, to shut your brain and body down for a while so you can rejuvenate. We're not meant to go-go-go all day - that creates chronic stress. Most media plays to that familiar state of mind, keeps us tapped in to our fear so we don't get "lazy" or "fat". Problem is, stress-inducing media doesn't relax you, no matter what you tell yourself. Sure, maybe it does serve as a distraction. But even distractions, while they've got our attention, have their influence on us. When fear-laced TV programming becomes something you consume daily, you are feeding the stress cycle, the same one that may be driving you to mindlessly or emotionally overeat or to turn to "shopping therapy".

Just as I don't recommend watching Cupcake Wars or The Biggest Loser if you want to think about sweets and hate your own body less, by the same token - and especially if you are highly empathetic, sensitive or introverted - I don't recommend you feed your brain violent, sensationalized, or suspense-driven media. What kind of messages are you sending yourself?

When I started really paying attention to the way certain TV show and movies made my body feel (tense, shallow breathing, squirmy), I stopped wondering why I couldn't break free from my stress, my tight shoulders and neck, my midnight mind spins and my anxious late-night food-stuffing sessions. When I started being more selective about what I'd watch, there was suddenly more space to cultivate more of the emotions I DID want... relaxation, ease, clarity.

The great news is that once you acknowledge the power of the media you consume, you can choose to watch, listen to, read and browse from sources that will truly serve the life and mind states you want.

How to Get More Conscious About Your Consumption
(A Simple 5 Step Exercise):

  1. Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. Draw a horizontal line about a quarter of the way down. In the top left box write: "How I Don't Like Feeling" and make a list of all the ways you feel right now that you don't enjoy (ex: stressed, irritable, restless, not good enough, tense, etc).
  2. In the top right box write: "How I Want to Feel" and write a list of all the ways you want to be feeling as the ultimate version of yourself (ex: confident, happy, relaxed, flexible, easy going, etc).
  3. In the bottom left box, list of all the media you consume on a regular (weekly) basis. Things like movies vary more, but write down what is typical for you when you do watch.
  4. In the right column next to that list, make note about how you feel (what you think about, how your body responds, etc) AND the core messaging you pick up on in that media. Stay open to the idea that you might not be fully aware of how each makes you feel, so start to pay attention this week as you watch, read and listen. Observe your body's responses (emotions are physical energy)!
  5. Cross compare your lists. Are you "eating" (watching) to create the state you want or as a reaction to the state you're in? Decide whether it's worth it to you to keep watching, or whether you want to watch something like it in the future. Maybe you're in the middle of a gripping series that you know isn't really evoking the energy you want to be creating more of in your life. Don't judge yourself for wanting to finish it. Maybe you notice you go into comparison/judgement mode on Facebook. You don't have to delete your profile to have a different relationship to it. Just stay conscious about what and how you're engaging, moving forward.
I know this can feel edgy for a lot of us - it was, and still is sometimes for me too. Sometimes it means telling my partner he should go see a movie without me if he wants to see it. We can be really attached to our devices and our favorite flavor of brain food. But watching something on a screen is NOT down time. Down time rejuvenates. Watching a screen is engaged brain-body-emotional activity.

Tell me below: What has this illuminated for you? What challenges, obstacles or questions are coming up? What "yeah, but"s?