Validate me, please!

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Photo by LBoatwright

Have you ever had your parking validated? Basically, in a place where you’d have to pay for parking – such as a shopping center – if you purchase a product or service therein, that store will sometimes offer to validate your parking. They stamp your parking ticket, and as you exit the garage, you no longer have to pay. In essence, you’re one of us now, so we share with you our benefit of free parking. Parking validation is a wonderful thing! On the flip side, losing your parking ticket or not having it validated can be stressful and costly.

It’s an amazingly accurate metaphor for real life. Personal validation is also a wonderful thing, the sense of belonging. It takes countless forms: people shake hands, or hold hands, hug, have meaningful conversations, get praise, get promotions – even something as seemingly insignificant as a quick “thank you” from a store clerk is a tiny affirmation: you belong.

When we are hurting, our emotional eyesight can easily become impaired. Rejection and failure are real, and they are survivable, but if our self-worth is already damaged, if we struggle with depression and negativity, setbacks such as these not only feel insurmountable – they can seem like an overwhelming condemnation of our entire person. We may be able to see the validation in the lives of others, but can no longer perceive it in our own. Losing our emotional parking ticket can leave us feeling as if we don’t even belong in our own lives. It’s a horrible place to be, and a difficult one to pull yourself out of, but it can be done.

Start by determining the source of most of your personal validation. For some, it comes from within – from their faith in a Higher Power, or from a positive self-image. For those with depressive disorders, validation is frequently sought from outside sources. We desperately want the people around us to say and do kind things which cancel out the critics in our life and in our brain.

The problem with the external approach is, although we may find somebody who validates us at first, at some point they will have a bad day or become critical. When we build our self-image on the opinions of others, that first unkind word – even if it was unintentional – can completely erase all of the previous positives in their entirety, leaving us desperate again to silence the inner critic. We begin to doubt the other person ever meant any of the nice things they said. If criticism is frequent — if a family member, friend, partner, or employer is constantly pointing out our flaws — over time we allow these to criticisms to become our truths.

Try to consider the opinions of others, whether good or bad, as “free parking” – a ticket which can be easily lost, but not a show-stopper. Remember, nobody has ever had to live in a parking garage because they lost their ticket. Likewise, you don’t have to remain lost in your own life because you’ve lost the validation of somebody else.

Spend time each day strengthening your internal validation. I mean, really give it a workout! Begin making a list of accomplishments and go back as far as you can remember. Any “A” on a school assignment, any raises or promotions, even any “thank you’s” – nothing is too small. You may be tempted to self-edit by sorting your accomplishments into buckets of “that didn’t really matter” or “it’s stupid to consider that an accomplishment.” DON’T! If you find yourself editing, recognize your brain has become wired to filter out the positives. Remind yourself the only way to fix your filter is to count every positive, no matter how small it may seem.

You can heal your brain, and you can learn to filter out unwarranted criticisms. You can get to a place in your life where, when somebody says something hurtful, you can recognize it as just a thing which was said and not a guilty verdict about who you are. It takes a lot of practice, and for many it will mean making conscious decisions throughout the day to filter out messaging which tears you down.

For every criticism you hear – whether internally or externally – remind yourself of three of your accomplishments or positive characteristics. Over time, this positive three-point counter-punch will become a habit. Your new way of thinking will allow you to be content within yourself, and to never again lose your sense of belonging.

 

 

 

Forgiveness vs. Second Chances

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Photo by Zach Reiner on Unsplash

Have you ever known somebody who said something like, “If you really forgive me, you’ll give me another chance”?  It’s such a powerful challenge. It simultaneously manipulates us while evoking guilt and self-doubt. For nearly my entire life, I was led to believe forgiveness meant giving second chances – and third, fourth, then infinite chances. I believed if I wrote somebody out of my life or burned bridges, it wasn’t because the other person was toxic, but because I was faulty.  Have you ever felt like you were a bad person simply because you wanted to protect your self-worth from a bad relationship?

Lately, I’ve come to understand the difference between forgiveness and second chances.  I’ve also learned failing to understand the difference often leads us to make decisions which not only have a lifelong impact, but can worsen or even cause chronic depression and anxiety.  In short, the difference is this:

Forgiveness is about us.  Second chances are about the other person.

Time may heal all wounds, but forgiveness keeps them from festering.  Have you ever heard the saying depression is anger turned inwardWe forgive others and ourselves because it frees US.  It allows us to remember whatever took place as an event and not a reflection of ourselves.  In other words, we don’t have to allow a mistake or another person’s behavior to define who we are.  Instead, we can learn from it, and even appreciate it as a valuable life lesson, then move on.

The movie Diary of a Mad Black Woman teaches some powerful lessons about forgiveness, but I especially loved this idea (paraphrased):  You know you’ve forgiven somebody when the opportunity to hurt them in some way becomes available … but you don’t take it.  Be careful here.  If you are experiencing depression and anxiety because somebody else is continuing with a behavior which you have told them is hurtful to you, you may not actually be forgiving them, but rather feeling guilt about your anger towards them.  We can unwittingly end up in a cycle of you said you were sorry, I said I forgive you, then you went and did the same thing again, unsure of how to get off the roller-coaster.

In reality, allowing somebody to hurt us again and again, whether it is a partner who cheats on us, or a boss who constantly belittles us, is not forgiveness and it’s not second chances — it is low self-worth.  When we don’t learn to love and respect ourselves, we frequently find ourselves in relationships with others who also do not love or respect us.  Some people just have a knack for tapping into our already-damaged self-image, and our brain’s filter translates the message for us:

This person said horrible things to me, so I must be a horrible person, which means I deserve for people to say horrible things to me.

Somehow our brain manages to completely disregard the fact the other person has lied to us, or humiliated us, or made us feel “less than”.  Because of faulty filtering, we stay in relationships with people who berate or bully us.  We stay in jobs with bosses who make us feel worthless.  The danger is not only in believing how others make us feel about ourselves is true, but in believing we have to let it continue because we have mistaken forgiveness for second chances.

Forgiving somebody doesn’t mean you have to allow them to keep hurting you, and only you can decide when “enough is enough”.  When you do reach that point, try not to allow yourself to be guilt-tripped into basically rewarding bad behavior.  I know … It is never as easy as just walking away.  We may be in a committed relationship, unable to change jobs, or have especially difficult parents.  In these types of situations, we have to accept we cannot change other people, but we CAN strengthen the part of our brain which absorbs those negative thoughts and feelings, and teach it to filter those messages out as garbage.  This takes time and practice, but IT CAN BE DONE!

Give this a try next time somebody hurts you. Get your notebook or journal and make two columns.  In one column, list the negative thoughts and feelings you are having about yourself.  In the second column, challenge each of these thoughts.  When our anxiety or depression is bad, it can be very difficult to find something good to say about ourselves, but keep trying.  Your challenging statements don’t have to be anything grand.  They can be as simple as, “I’m not stupid. I might have made a mistake when typing up that report, but now I know what to look for next time.”  Over time, your self-worth will strengthen to a point where those incoming hurtful messages can be processed realistically, allowing you to make changes where necessary, but also allowing you to avoid owning those faulty accusations.

Fog in Your Throat?

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Photo by Rory Björkman on Unsplash

There are many behavioral symptoms of depression such as isolating, neglecting one’s personal hygiene, undereating or overeating, and more.  These symptoms are fairly easy to conceal and frequently go unnoticed by others.  One of the noticeable symptoms (and a costly one) is negative speech.  Our depressive behaviors can become habits if we aren’t careful.

Negative speech can set off a cycle of rejection and isolation.  Friends or family members may try to coax us out of our depression by pressing us to talk about our feelings, but are completely unprepared for our response.  These snap out of it people are usually well-meaning, but have no idea of the depths to which depression takes our thinking or how difficult the climb back up can be.  They simply don’t get it, and we then end up on the receiving end of comments like, “Don’t be such a downer” or “I can’t be around you when you are like this” or “Why don’t you just stop feeling sorry for yourself?”

They make it sound so simple — why don’t we stop?  As painful as these remarks may seem at the time, there is actually a clue to escaping negativity in them.  At the root of our negative speech problem is depression hovering around us like a fog, clouding both our anticipation of the future and our interpretation of the past.  People who love us say, “Count your blessings.  Look at what you’ve accomplished!”  The brain fog lies to us and whispers, “You’ve never accomplished anything and never will.”  And we believe it.

When we believe the lie, our ability to expect good things diminishes.  The happy times of our past are distorted as we inventory each and every little flaw throughout our life’s history.  The fog filters our thoughts, and the words we say reflect our foggy brain filter.  The people who care about us don’t understand our responses, and leave us to ourselves until we are “better.”  We end up feeling isolated when we desperately need connection.

Battling depression requires energy at a time when we have none.  This is why it is important to prepare for the next valley when you are on the current hilltop.  In other words, when you are feeling good, channel that momentum to push you through the next rough patch.  Begin by acknowledging your accomplishments – no matter how insignificant.

Dr. Seuss said, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”  The same can be said for accomplishments.  If you’ve been in a fog for a long time, admitting you actually DO have some accomplishments may feel a little weird, but do it anyway.  Write down everything, from “I got out of bed this morning” to “I got that promotion.”  If you find you are censoring yourself or are in a valley right now, ask for help from somebody who knows you.  BUT – and this is important: Don’t censor THEM, either.  Just write everything down in a journal or notebook and keep it handy.  Two things will happen if you do.

First, simply writing down three accomplishments each day will lift the fog.  Our thoughts generate chemical reactions in our brain, and these reactions generate physical sensations.  Some of us have brains with low activity in the positive-feeling areas, and high activity in the negative-feeling areas.  Writing down three accomplishments each day forces positive chemical reactions.  In other words, you are exercising the positive-feeling area of the brain, making it stronger and more active.

Second, if you encounter another bout of depression, you can refer back to your list of accomplishments.  It’s a reminder of what you CAN DO and have done – PROOF that you are capable of doing things, even when your brain is shrouded in fog.  You are also setting off those little positive chemical reactions in the brain every time you read your list.  Update it daily.  FILL A NOTEBOOK with accomplishments, big and small.  Use it to chase away the fog so you can see your life and yourself in a positive light.

 

Sometimes, Okay Really is Okay

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I recently had one of those “the whole universe hates me” mornings.  I was getting ready for work, and my dental partial snapped in half.  Do you remember Witch Hazel from the old Bugs Bunny cartoons?  That partial is the only thing which keeps me from looking like her when I walk out the front door each day.  I admit to having an almost desperate dependence on it, and when it broke, all the panic buttons in my brain went off.  Thankfully, the most important section of the partial – which, incidentally, contains one of my front teeth – was intact and I was able to go to work, sort of smile at people, and enjoy a liquid diet for the day.  Still, a lot of self-talk was required to pull myself out of panic mode, and I purposed to identify the root cause of my anxiety response.

I know there are women in this world who would have responded with laughter.  They would have walked into work, flashed a big toothless grin and said, “Witch Hazel’s in the house today!”  I pondered the difference between myself and such women, and I realized; it’s an abundance of joy vs. an abundance of shame.  You may already be familiar with the concept: guilt says I made a mistake, shame says I am a mistake.  Shame is the thing which makes us believe it is somehow wrong to accept our faults, even if they’re not, well, our fault.

I remember a rhyme which was drilled into my head during childhood:

Good, Better, Best

Never let it rest

Until your Good is Better and

Your Better is Best

I hate that rhyme.  On the surface, it may seem harmless enough and many of us have been on the receiving end of similar messaging by well-meaning people.  Ever been told if you try your hardest, you can’t fail or you can always do better?  These may seem like words of encouragement, but they carry a damning implication: If you are not the best, then you are not good enough.  Very often, this is the message received and stored in the depressive brain, and it can generate a multitude of anxieties.

There is nothing wrong with trying to better ourselves.  However, when we “never let it rest” we put an awful lot of pressure on ourselves, and risk losing the ability to accept a compliment.  The depressive brain has a glitch in its filter and filing system.  It will take an incoming signal like “you look great today” and deliver it as “I must not look great every day.  I NEED to look great EVERY day”.  We hear a, “wow, she’s lost weight” comment about somebody else and although we may nod in agreement on the outside, inside our brain is misfiling that message into an “I must look fat, I better lose weight, too” directive.  We run exhausting mind marathons, secretly competing against others as we try to have the better job, better house, better relationship, better figure, etc.  In other words, we never let it rest until we are the best.  The trouble with this is there will always be somebody who is better than us at something.  We will die trying to out-do others and ourselves in our perpetual quest for perfection.

So, where do shame and joy fit in?  Shame leads us to believe okay is never okay.  The person who has found joy has learned — sometimes, okay is okay.  Joy is the life-preserver of self-esteem.  Shame is the ultimate joy-stealer, constantly revealing to us the tiniest flaws in even the loveliest of things, and particularly in ourselves.  For instance, we see a flower and our first response is what a pretty flower.   Within moments, the joy-stealer snatches that thought and replaces it with something like there’s a petal missing.  What begins as occasional pessimism can quickly evolve into a chronic condition of dissatisfaction and self-loathing.  We become unable to appreciate the beauty within ourselves because we are so focused on our own missing petals.

Overcoming this mental misdirection can open the door to joy, but requires a willingness to be very self-aware in order to chase the joy-stealer from our brains.  Try making a point to remember your “up” thoughts, such as what a pretty flower.  When the “down” thought comes, such as there’s a petal missing, counter it immediately by combining both thoughts into one accepting thought.  The internal conversation might go something like this:

What a pretty flower.  There’s a petal missing.  What a pretty, flower – even with a missing petal.

Make a point of celebrating even your smallest victories.  For instance, instead of focusing on the week you didn’t exercise, think about the times you did exercise and know you can do it again.  Write them down in a journal somewhere.  Then, when negativity aims its guns at you, you can reclaim your joy by reminding yourself of your achievements.  There may always be areas where we can use some improvement, but there are also times when “giving it a rest” is the very best thing we can do for our spirit.

Anxie-tea

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We all know life is good at throwing us curve balls.  Some of life’s difficulties — such as the death of an elderly relative or a child going off to college — although unpleasant, are not entirely unexpected.  The real curve balls are those sudden shocks to the system – finding out you have cancer, losing your job, a breakup – that are like suddenly being hit in the face with a steaming cow pie.

Some people expect trouble all the time, living with a constant burden of fear and worry.  Just watching the news for a few minutes should be enough to convince anyone these worries are not completely unfounded or unreasonable.  Bad things happen regardless of whether we’ve been naughty or nice.

Getting caught by surprise can send a shock wave through our coping systems, overloading us with worry and regret.   The result is often a fear of trying new things.  New relationships, careers, adventures – all are avoided because of an inner voice which echoes, “You remember how badly things ended last time, don’t you?

To say you can learn to expect the unexpected would be untrue.  Someday, bad news is apt to hit you like a bolt of lightning, and it will totally suck.  But living with the expectation of trouble also sucks; it sucks the joy out of life.  So how can we weather life’s storms today without losing hope for tomorrow?  The key is in preparation, not expectation.

People in the Gulf Coast often keep a ‘hurricane kit’ on-hand.  Those in the north often have extra supplies on hand for surviving blizzards.  For weathering those soul-crushing storms of the psyche, there is much comfort to be found in small, seemingly mundane tasks.  As an avid fan of British mystery shows, I often wondered why nearly every crisis was met with somebody saying, “I’ll put the kettle on.”  Tea was made and cups poured, but frequently untouched.  After a particularly trying day, I decided to test this peculiarity out for myself and I discovered something: the act of drinking tea is less important than the act of making it.

There’s nothing complicated about making a cup of tea, but something magical happens while we do it.  The part of our brain which handles repetition and sequence is engaged, granting us a temporary reprieve from the anxiety centers of the brain.  Granted, stopping to make tea doesn’t resolve the major issue at hand, but it does allow us a moment to catch our breath.

Try imagining the brain as a file cabinet, with the front files in disarray and those in back in perfect order.  So often, an event takes us by surprise and we feel completely powerless.  This is the front of the file cabinet, but very close behind is order – those things we CAN control in a time where everything feels quite out of control.  It may seem odd to claim there is power in making tea or coffee, or doing laundry, or any number of ordinary household tasks, but indeed there is.

When a crisis comes, allow yourself to stick with some small habit, even if it means encountering some disapproval from the people around you.  If you normally go for a walk every day, try sticking with it even if you have to limit your time.  If you write or journal each day, go ahead and write, even if the topic is how you don’t feel much like writing.  Feeling anxious?  Make a cup of tea or coffee.  Make several if it helps you feel better; nobody says you have to actually drink them — sometimes just holding the warm cup can be soothing.  The point is to focus – if only for a few minutes – on the back of the file cabinet.  The problem of the day may still need to be addressed, but you will be better able to deal with it because you’ve found yourself some breathing room.

 

Perception and Conditioning

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Photo by David Boatwright

It may seem there is no rhyme or reason to what precipitates a panic attack.  Some days, anxiety appears to creep up out of nowhere, often at the most inopportune times (not that there is any good time for a panic attack).  There are natural physiological reactions in the brain which contribute to negativity, depression, and anxiety.  However, there are some learned responses which also contribute, and unlearning them can be helpful in restoring your happiness.

Anticipation is typically associated with a positive event.  For instance, we look forward to spending the holidays with our family, or an upcoming wedding or graduation, with anticipation.  There are two components to anticipation: perception and conditioning.  Our perceptions begin to develop in early childhood and conditioning reinforces these ideas throughout our lifetime.  If an early perception is negative and nothing ever happens to alter that perception, as adults we may experience anxiety when presented with similar ideas or events.

Going to the dentist is a fairly common source of anxiety for many adults.  However, the person who had regular cleanings as a child is less likely to feel anxious than somebody who only saw the dentist when they had a toothache.  Likewise, the child who was told, “You’re being very brave” is going to have a different experience than the one who was told, “Quit being such a baby.”  As adults, we try to rationalize with ourselves — we know we’ll be fine, we know the dentist is a trained professional, and yet there is still a “this is awful” feeling in the pit of our stomach.  This is the perception aspect of anticipation.

Consider a young child who spills a drink and is told, “You’re so clumsy!  Look at the mess you’ve made!”  Perhaps the story is then repeated, “We were having a good time until he spilled his drink.”  The perception has now been created for the child, and reinforcement – or conditioning – has begun.

People who spill their drinks are clumsy and messy; therefore I am clumsy and messy.

I ruined everyone’s day by spilling my drink.

This is how a common event such as a spilling a drink becomes over-important.  Life is messy and spills happen, to children and adults alike.  There are people who, even as children, can spot the blown-out-of-proportion-ness of some adult reactions and grow up unaffected.  But the depressive brain is predisposed to absorbing negativity and feeding it back to us throughout our lives.  Even long after toxic relationships have ended, our brains replay the tapes over and over again.  This is conditioning; the reinforcement and repetition of self-defeating thoughts which are fed to us by others and ourselves.  As adolescents and adults, these messages become a source of anxiety.  We may skip out on social occasions because we think, “I’ll just end up embarrassing myself and ruining everybody’s day.”  In other words, we have learned bad things not only happen to us, but because of us.

Have you ever had one of those days where you felt you couldn’t do anything right?  Maybe it started with a bad hair day or you burned breakfast.  Then you got reprimanded at work or school over some mistake.  Some people have the gift of isolating these incidents, but for others, the brain pairs each incident with an earlier perception, bundling them all into one reverberating theme: I am a loser.  It is therefore crucial to remember two very important truths:

Your brain will lie to you.

You can retrain your brain.

Learn to isolate incidents.  It can be easy to look at life like a big bowl of spaghetti, with people and events intertwined.  Everyone and everything becomes tainted by a few negative comments or events.  Try thinking WAFFLES.  Keep a notebook handy and track what happens throughout the course of the day – both the good and the bad.  Instead of looking at the day as one collective bummer, consider it as a series of incidents, some good and some bad, but each independent of the others in its own little waffle square.

Counter-punch those negatives.  For each bad thing, identify a good thing that happened.  On a particularly challenging day, your good thing may be to simply acknowledge at least it didn’t get worse or at least the day is nearly over.  That is okay!  You are still forcing your brain to spark up a positive reaction.

Identify and eliminate ‘always/never’ thinking.  As you chronicle your day, pay close attention to both internal and external messaging.  Do you have a parent who still claims you always do this or you never do that?  Do you say those things to yourself?  Write them down.  Then, at the end of the day when you can relax, rewrite each statement without the definitive.  Beware the definitive in disguise!  “I’m such a screw-up” has exactly the same meaning and effect as “I always screw things up.”  Capture these thoughts and reconstruct them.  For instance, “I’m lousy at my job” can be rewritten as “I messed up on that project, but now I understand my mistake and can do better next time.”

Taking control of your thoughts will strengthen those positive-thinking areas of the brain and reduce activity in the areas which feed into your depression and anxiety.  In time, you will learn to filter out the negative messaging around you, and live a happier and healthier life.

Sad for a Season

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Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters

Many of us love a rainy day.  It’s a great reason to snuggle in and enjoy a good book or movie while sipping our favorite warm beverage.  However, there is something about multiple consecutive grey days which leaves many people with a major case of the “blahs”.  For some, this results in a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.  For others, it contributes to an overall ‘bah humbug’ feeling throughout the wintry holiday season.

The symptoms of SAD are very similar to those of depression, such as:

  • Chronic tiredness or malaise
  • Sadness and irritability
  • Lack of interest in activities previously enjoyed

The big difference between those people dealing with SAD and those with clinical depression is that SAD symptoms typically disappear in the spring whereas chronic depression persists in spite of the changes in the seasons.  Fortunately, there are a few simple things we can try to alleviate both short and long-term winter blues and weather blahs.

Boost Your Vitamin D

The exact link between Vitamin D deficiency and depression is still not fully understood, but multiple studies have shown a common correlation between the two.  While increasing Vitamin D is not a cure for depression, it can be useful in alleviating some of the symptoms, so you may want to start by asking your doctor to check your Vitamin D levels.  If they are low, he or she may recommend you try some of the following methods to increase your levels.

  • Vitamin D exists naturally in tuna, salmon, and eggs and it often added to dairy products. Try adding more of these types of foods into your diet.
  • Most multivitamins meet dietary guidelines for calcium, potassium, and Vitamin D. Read the labels and find one which includes 100% Daily Value (DV) of Vitamin D.
  • Sunlight is a natural source of Vitamin D, but can be scarce during the winter months. If your moods are susceptible to the lower light levels of winter or other stormy seasons, you can purchase a special therapy / energy lamp.  These lamps are specially designed to emit safe levels of intense lighting.  When used regularly as instructed, this artificial lighting is known to help relieve depressive symptoms and boost Vitamin D levels.

Exercise

I know, I know…who wants to exercise when just getting out of bed seems nearly impossible?  However, just raising your heart rate for a few minutes can boost energy levels and help chase away the blues.  If the weather outside is frightful, try a quick indoor fitness fix, such as jogging in place.  Make it fun by binge-watching your favorite show and exercising during the commercial breaks.

Take Your Meds As Directed

This seems simple enough, but people with depression often skip doses when they feel like their depressive symptoms have improved.  On the flip side, some people will skip their medication if they think it may trigger a manic episode and thus provide them with a burst of energy and elation, albeit potentially harmful.  This is not the time to experiment.  If you feel your meds aren’t helping, or if you are experiencing unwanted side effects, speak to your doctor about trying something different.  In the meantime, take your antidepressants as prescribed for the best possible results.

Write It Down

If the grey skies are making you feel blue, try journaling.  Writing your feelings down is a great way to transfer internal sadness to something external, like a notebook.  Challenge yourself to list as may descriptive words as possible to convey how you are feeling about the weather, the holidays, current circumstances…whatever!

The holidays can be both joyous and stressful, and sometimes inclement weather seems to cast its shadow over everything.  Take care of yourself to ensure you enjoy the season as much as you possibly can.  Whether you are experiencing a meteorological storm, or a metaphorical one, spring WILL come.

Are you eating your words?

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Photo by Maria Molinero

People with eating disorders get a bad rap.  Behavioral addictions are somewhat of a mystery to society and are very often viewed only as character flaws.  This results in a sort of collective ignorance and judgmentalism which further damages those who are the victims of it.

Like other addictions, eating disorders are rooted in shame.  Unlike other addictions, people with eating disorders MUST continue use of the abused substance – food – in order to survive, thus adding a layer of complexity to the recovery process.  Discovering and understanding some of the reasons behind emotionally-driven eating patterns can be a powerful first step.

If you are constantly fighting with food, consider this; you may be eating your words or somebody else’s.  Addictive behaviors begin with an unmet need and are frequently paired with a sense of having been victimized.  This victimization can be physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, neglect, marginalization, and discrimination — something which resulted in a sense of powerlessness.  Abusive words, whether your own turned against yourself, or those of somebody else are often at the heart of comfort-eating.  However, many with weight-loss issues and eating disorders can tell you: Comfort eating is rarely truly comforting.

Overcoming an eating disorder is so much more than simply developing healthy eating habits.  It is conquering emotional pain in order to begin building a new, positive self-image.  I once saw a talk show where a young lady had been told by her boyfriend he was going to leave her if she didn’t lose weight, citing health concerns.  She literally worked her tail off, losing over 150 pounds.  He then said he couldn’t bear to look at her because of the loose skin.  In another case, a man lost weight after excessive criticism from his wife.  As he become healthier and gained confidence, other women began to compliment the wife on her attractive husband.  Was she proud of him?  Unfortunately, no – she felt jealous and became even more critical.  What really happened here?

For anybody who has struggled with weight issues, these stories are not surprising.  Not only is your own identity closely linked to your body image, but others often build their self-worth through attachment to another person – perhaps even to you.  The boyfriend and wife in these anecdotes had boosted their own self-image by being critical of the overweight girlfriend and husband.  In essence, their threats were a bluff — they didn’t really want their partners to lose weight – there was far too much to be gained from feeling superior.  If you’ve ever suffered a relapse of poor eating habits, you may have encountered the twisted glee of somebody who said, “I knew you’d give up.  You’ll always be fat.  Losing weight is too much work” or something similar.  Learn to ignore them.

There are multiple, complicated facets to eating disorders and the psychology of weight loss, which is why we often start a weight-loss plan only to fail, start another, and on and on.  If this is happening to you, it may be whatever course of action you’ve chosen is only addressing one piece of the puzzle.  For instance, losing weight might help you feel and look better, but it won’t make an abusive relationship less so, or resolve memories of childhood neglect or abuse.  Try using a holistic approach to recovery, one which includes addressing those triggers which push you towards food.

If you are setting out on a new weight-loss journey, it may be both surprising and painful to find there are people in your life who are less-than-supportive.  Do it in spite of them.  There may be echoes of critical voices past in your brain, and perhaps even your own self-criticism.  Do it in spite of yourself.  Get yourself a binder for your new adventure.  Include articles and pictures which motivate you, healthy recipes you’ve tried and enjoyed, and write down any negative self-talk you catch yourself doing.  You might also write down negative input you get from others.  Write it down then write your counter-attack.  Resolve firmly to make these changes for YOU— not to please others — and pledge to yourself to never, ever give up.

If you fall of the wagon, jot down the thoughts or events which precipitated the step back, then forgive yourself.  Tomorrow is a new day.  Expect resistance and find local or online groups where you can find and give support.  You can do this.  You can do it even if nobody cheers you on.  Start by taking captive those thoughts which make you want to eat, and replace those eating words with fighting words – words which motivate you to stay in the fight not only for your health, but for your happiness.

 

 

On Becoming an Aardvark

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Photo by David Higgins (unsplash.com)

Do negative thoughts and images seem to pop into your head at random?  In spite of our best efforts to construct and maintain a positive outlook, some brains seem determined to keep their human hosts totally bummed out.  These thoughts can be very troubling and often worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety, but understanding the physiology behind them can help us minimize their influence over our moods and behaviors.

People with depression tend to have an overactive deep limbic system.  The deep limbic system is the area of the brain associated with feelings and memories.  It is also the part of the brain which pairs our words and thoughts with emotions.  For people with an overactive limbic system, most words and thoughts become auto-paired with negative feelings.

By conducting exhaustive studies of numerous brain scans, Dr. Daniel G. Amen found the deep limbic system shows low activity — or cool spots — when the brain is processing happy thoughts.  Negative thought patterns produce hot spots, which in turn produce what he calls ANTs: Automatic Negative Thoughts.  Here are a couple of tips for channeling your inner aardvark, eliminating ANTs, and cooling your brain’s jets.

ANT Elimination Tip #1: Remember ANTs will lie to you.

The depressive brain is predisposed to filtering out or distorting healthy, uplifting thoughts.  When you notice your first reaction to something is pessimistic, or when an unpleasant image intrudes on an otherwise normal situation, take a minute to write it down so you can evaluate it further.  Not everything we think is true, and thinking something does NOT have to mean believing it.

ANT Elimination Tip #2: ANTs tend to be extremists.

You can usually tell an ANT by its absolute.  Do any of these sound familiar?

  • FINITE: “You are always late” or “You never pay attention to me”
  • PREDICTION: “You’ll only embarrass yourself”
  • LABEL: “You’re such a loser”

Always and never statements are the fuel of defeatist thinking, causing us to believe the very worst of ourselves and others.  Rather than finding encouragement in the idea that we all have room for improvement, we become convinced we and others cannot or will not ever change.  We predict the future, often adapting our behavior according to these mythical expectations.  We may cancel dates, avoid friends and family members, or call in sick to work the day of a big meeting all because an ANT convinced us something bad would happen.  We then validate our predictions with labels.  “I’m better off skipping that presentation today.  Besides, I’m such a poor speaker nobody would want to listen to me anyway.”

 Can you see how easily a cycle of negative thinking can develop?  I urge you to challenge these thoughts.  Keep track of them on paper throughout the day.  Later, restate each one while avoiding finite and predictive phrases, and without using hurtful and accusatory labels.  Try doing your restatements in the evening, so you can kill some of those ANTs which try to keep you awake at night.  And consider checking out Dr. Amen’s book, Change Your Brain Change Your Life if you’d like to learn more about identifying and conquering ANTs.

 

Time to Worry

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Photo by Heather Zabriskie (www.unsplash.com)

There is a song by Mark Knopfler called “Why Worry” on the Dire Straits album Brothers in Arms.  This is the chorus:  

“Why worry?  There should be laughter after pain

There should be sunshine after rain

These things have always been the same

So why worry now?”

For many it seems quite simple; this too shall pass, life will be rosy again, and troubles will cease.  However, for some, worry takes a foothold in the brain.  Instead of making a hasty departure when a problem has righted itself, it latches onto one thought and then another until it becomes a chronic condition.  When this happens, worry can easily be mistaken for normal thought patterns.  In fact, the question becomes “Why NOT worry?”

How can you tell when thinking has morphed into worry?  Trace its path.  Healthy thinking follows a path and eventually reaches a stopping point, or destination.  There may be turns, U-turns, and even wrong turns along the way, but at some point the train of thought reaches the station.  Worry is an enormous, meandering loop which also has its share of turns, but never actually leads us anywhere but to more worry.

Despite never reaching a destination, the outcome of worry can feel very finite, which is why depressive and anxious brains are susceptible to it.  Worrisome thoughts can trigger those emotions tied to experiences long past and buried deep in our memory.  We may not be able to recall the particular experience, but because the current correlating emotion is so strong, the thought becomes valid.  Over time, as one worry leads to another, it begins to guide our behavior and take over our lives.

Can a worrier ever stop worrying completely?  I would be lying to you if I said, “Yes”.  Bad things happen, and when life seems uncertain, it is only natural to worry a little bit.  Allowing yourself to worry a little bit is the key to bringing joy back into your life.  Just as controlled burns are sometimes necessary to preserve a forest, controlled worry is necessary for preserving our peace of mind.

The key is: Worry a little bit.

Try scheduling your worry.

  1. Schedule 10 minutes a day for worrying. Try not to schedule it first thing in the morning or just before bedtime.  You don’t want to start or end your day worrying – at least not anymore, right?
  2. Get yourself a notepad and carry it with you throughout the day
  3. When you find yourself worrying, write the problem down in your notepad
  4. At the appointed worry time, review the things you wrote down
  5. When time’s up, tear that page out and throw it away

Don’t worry (sorry!) if you write the same thing down day after day.  The point is not to solve every problem, but rather to stop allowing worry to control your thoughts.  Consider scheduling worry time just before your bath or shower.  That way you can decompress and wash the day’s worries away.

Scheduling time to worry may sound counter-productive, but it works by putting you back in control.  By writing down your worries and designating an appointed time for them, you allow yourself to quickly refocus on whatever task is at hand.  You also reduce worry about worry.  Ever had trouble falling asleep because you were troubled?  The next night, did you find yourself reluctant to even lie down because you were certain you’d have another night of worrying?  No more!  Write it down and say, “Good night.  I’ll see you at your next appointment, and not a minute sooner.”

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