Rules for a Happy Life: Eat Less

myplate_yellow_livetype copyMy go-to response to stress and depression is eating. I love sugar and I love carbs. It turns out that for people with depression in their families or who regularly experience depression, sugar is a source of craving. Too much sugar can jack your hormones and create more craving which plays right into addictive patterns of behavior. It’s the great proxy for people getting sober as well. When you stop drinking, your body consumes less sugar so you naturally it will seek out sugary foods. Talk to any recovering addict about ice cream and they will let out a knowing laugh.

Most of my calories have been from processed carbohydrates which turns into sugar at some point in the power plant of the human body. Since I was not exercising, that sugar turned into pounds and sent my already unstable emotional balance downhill. Moving helps this problem since by using up the energy found in the glucose stores in muscles, your body is processing all of the crap it would normally store. If you are a runner, you need this stuff because after about an hour or so, you use it all up. But if you were a slothful slug like me, all of that ice cream, potato chips, and pasta would just put on the pounds.

I used the idea of calorie cutting first to help with the weight loss process. But what it also does is helps me to build an awareness of what I am putting in my body. Carbs feel great for a little while, but they don’t satiate hunger for a very long time. Something like a can of Pringles (screw not eating just one, I eat the whole damn can every time) is 900 calories but will only help you feel full for like an hour. Ice cream is even worse. Protein rich and fiber rich foods on the other hand are filling, take a lot of work for the body to digest, and far more satiating. So if I am going to cut my gross calorie intake a day, it had better be with those kinds of foods. That means more things like veggies and legumes.

I used to be tired and sluggish after lunch. At the start of 2015 and all of the years I can remember before that, I would avoid meetings after lunch and would feel exhausted for the hours afterwards. I ate too much and was doing nothing to burn it off. That sluggishness is gone. Now, I snack more periodically throughout the day and my main meals I try to keep around 500 calories. If I go over the limit of around 1500-1800 net calories, it’s not a big deal, but I try not to slip all that much. I dropped the excess pounds and now sit at a very comfortable weight that gives me enough fuel for a long run without the need for gels and other crap – even though they help sometimes. For that I will intentionally jack my system with complex carbs but only with the intention of burning it off.

I use MyFitnessPal to track what I eat. It is a great tool to build awareness and to see what I am actually putting in my body. I can’t trust my eyes or stomach to tell me the truth. Only data can do that for me. This is not a diet. It is part of a lifestyle change. And it works.

Part three of a series of Life Rules. See the explanation here.

Rules for a Happy Life: Move

Stuart_Smalley

Stuart Smalley was wrong.

Thinking my way out of bad thinking does not work. I used to confuse action with things I could do with my mind alone. For the longest time if I had a bad thought I believed that all I had to do was pray or meditate and replace the bad thought with something good.

If I was starting in on the monologue of “I’m worthless, I’m stupid, I’m useless, I’m expendable,” I believed that all I had to do was reverse the spin in my mind with affirmations. “I’m valuable, I’m smart, I’m useful, I’m special.” Or I would pray, “Lord help me see my worth…blah blah blah…”

But I always felt absurd doing that and it never helped. I think if it helped, I would feel less absurd. No matter how much I worked on it, my thinking would come back to its pitiful default. Then I would feel worse because I couldn’t seem to do what worked for others.

If something isn’t really working, no matter how much people tell you that it should work, just stop. You need to do something else. So I stopped praying and self-affirming. I stopped reading about it or thinking about all of those things that I had been told by well-meaning people for whom these methods had worked. Sure, I could get temporary relief from prayer, but I would always return to the fundamental structures in my brain that were firing off these awful messages that were mentally and physically exhausting me on a daily basis. I refused to accept the belief that this sort of thinking is just “who I am.”

The solution was literally to get out of my head with physical movement. The problem is in my brain which is a mass of chemicals and energy and moving my body helps to change what is happening in there at the most fundamental levels. Just doing the Stuart Smalley thing by telling myself I am “good enough, smart enough, and people like me” was like trying to clean up a spill on the floor with a soaking wet towel. The towel might be fine, but I needed to wring that thing out before it would work. Moving my body is like wringing out that towel.

If I am bored and want a snack even if I am not hungry, I go for a walk. If I am feeling lonely or stressed that just means I have energy I need to release so I walk over to the YMCA and work it out on a treadmill or something more low impact if I am injured. In good weather I will just go for a run. Or I will take the dog for a long walk. This is basically a specific method of leaning-in to the problem. 100% of the time since I started this, whichever thoughts were bothering me or whatever emotions were starting to weigh me down disappeared.

By moving as a response to negative or harmful thinking, the thoughts evaporated almost instantly. The payoff is that I have effectively conditioned my mind to the degree that these thoughts, which I have been a victim to my entire life, are very rarely present anymore. Whatever was in me that responded to the environment with depressive thinking is basically gone.

By moving my body, I have evicted my depressive self from my mind. It has taken several months and practice not just every day, but every time the thoughts appear and as soon as they appear. Depressive thinking is tenacious. It is incredibly difficult at the beginning because it is so unconscious. It takes time and practice just to build awareness of when and under what circumstances it happens. But it gets easier because with consistent and equally tenacious practice, the thoughts begin to fade. And fade they have.

Now I move my body mainly because it’s fun and I feel good doing it, especially if I am having a bad day. I now schedule my days around it. I know that the more I do this, the more likely my depressed visitor will never want to stop by for a visit. I don’t even need the towel to clean up the mess because the mess no longer exists.

Part two of a series of Life Rules. See the explanation here.

Rules for a Happy Life: Lean In

fish-355349_960_720Walter Bradford Cannon was a physiologist born in the late 19th century and made waves in the early 20th century when he observed the reactions of animals to high stress situations. What he found is that when animals were presented with stressful environmental stimuli, their autonomic nervous systems combined with adrenaline production to produce a response to escape the danger or to contest it. This is now called the “fight or flight” response in pop psychology.

The central cause of suffering from the Buddhist perspective is attachment. If we become attached to things in our experience too tightly, we are invariably setting ourselves up to experience pain at some point. Attachment presupposes that whatever we experience or possess will stick around forever. But this belief is false. Nothing is permanent and everything that we can experience in this life will eventually go away.

How are these two ideas related? Pema Chödrön teaches about attachment in terms of what is called shenpa. She describes the feeling of attachment as “being hooked.” Think about this like when you get an itch on your skin. It is automatic that you will scratch it with the hope that it will go away. Scratching has the expected result that relief will come soon. If you have ever had a cast and an itch underneath, you may have tried the old trick of bending a wire hanger to get underneath. There are few things that feel quite as pleasurable.

Life has may kinds of itches that we automatically try to scratch in order for the feeling to go away. We often “scratch” by doing what is easy or pleasurable to flee what is unpleasant – have a drink, eat ice cream, watch a movie, go for a walk, go shopping. These are avoidance behaviors that are like “flight” responses. When we get that pit feeling in the gut and the heart races while our thoughts start to get rapid and jumbled, we are hooked. Think about the last time you could not fall asleep because you kept replaying a problem in your life.

I have had a flight response to discomfort for as long as I can remember. A few years ago I read Chödrön’s description of shenpa and I saw myself in it. I was like a fish who had been nibbling on a snack underwater only to have the line snap taught in my mouth and the hook jam under my lip. Rather than relax with it and let go, I would fight the hook doing anything to get away from it. This always made my body and mind feel worse. Like the fish fighting the hook, it would only get deeper and more painful.

Somehow my memory of the misery I created through this response was so short I would do the same thing every time. Psychologist George Kelly (1955), called a disorder “any personal construction which is used repeatedly in spite of consistent invalidation” (Kelly, 1955, p. 831).* My go-to avoidance therapy for many years was drinking. That never worked very well. No matter how many times I avoided the uncomfortable conversation, paying those bills, or dong those tasks the problems still sat there and only got worse as time went on.

The drinking eventually stopped, but the escapism did not. I found that even after I had resolved one set of escape responses, I had replaced them with a different set. Eating sugary snacks, binge-watching TV, playing mindless games on my phone, over-using Facebook and Twitter, etc. became a new set of avoidance behaviors. Whatever I was avoiding that gave me that initial unpleasant sensation of being “hooked” was gone, but I kept doing the same things to escape the feeling.

The solution is to lean-in to that discomfort rather than to run from it. Make the phone call, send the email, have the conversation, make the payment, complete the workout, eat an apple with a big glass of water instead of that big bowl of delicious chocolate ice cream, don’t buy the thing. Leaning-in took a massive amount of energy when I started to do it. But it wasn’t a palpable, physical kind of energy. It was a mental exertion that felt like pulling two electromagnets apart that are desperate to make contact. Once I was aware of that connection about to happen, I would mentally pull them apart by doing the thing I was avoiding. To fix my anxiety, I had to change my behaviors.

This is the basic way that I have been rewiring my brain for the past several months. When I start the self-talk of “I don’t want to do that right now, maybe tomorrow,” I am creating an association of doing whatever it is right then to fight against the years I have conditioned myself to avoid it with something else. I did not want to write this post right now because I did not think I had much to say about it. I did it anyway. I did not want to do pushups today – another small, physical goal I have for myself. I cranked out 86 anyway. And I did both of these things at the moment that my desire to avoid them was at its most intense. Achievement unlocked.

If it’s too big of a deal to complete right at that moment, that’s the time to set a goal, plan a few achievable steps to get there, and then complete that first step immediately. Delaying is another way of avoiding and it just feeds the flight response letting that shenpa hook dig a bit deeper. To change my thinking and be happy, I have to act right now.

Lean-in. Do something. Feel better.

*The statement “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” is not from Einstein, nor is it from Benjamin Franklin. It may be actually a modification of Cannon’s quote. A picture of Einstein does not validate that he actually said it!

Source Cited

Kelly, G.A. (1955). The Psychology of Personal Constructs. New York: Norton (republished by Routledge, 1991).

Part one of a series of Life Rules. See the explanation here.

Rules for a Happy Life (And How to Shop for Self-Help)

good habitsLast year I began a life re-boot. I had been through a lot of changes in the past few years. Some of these were for the better, and some just sucked. I had quit drinking, been to therapy, was faithfully taking three psychotropic meds to balance my brain chemistry, and found a group of friends to help me make useful changes. But I was stagnating and sluggish. So I had a choice. Give in to what I was feeling, or do something to change it. I went with the latter. I weaned myself off the meds slowly and started to feel better, but I knew I needed to take other action so I would not end up where I was when I literally fell apart several years before. (If you are on meds, don’t just go off them. Talk to your doc before you change anything. Your life depends on that talk.)

No fan of self-help books, I took a dip in that area of the bookstore anyway. The thing with self-help books is that most people will peruse them and read them only to be told that whatever they are feeling is perfectly normal and ok and that all they need to do is think positive and great things will happen. While it’s true that positive thinking can help, just feeding yourself saccharine affirmations when you feel like shit is putting a band-aid on a festering boil. To make a real change you need to lance that thing, pour some alcohol over it, get your stitches, and work on the thing that caused it so it doesn’t happen again. Better to have a few hours of pain and a scar than a wound that will never go away and will likely only get worse when things get rough again. I was through wallowing in my problems.

But I found a book that actually helped. I knew it was more or less the real deal because it met my criteria:

  1. It needs to be based in accredited clinical research. This can get rid of most of the bullshit people are trying to sell you. (For example, there is no science to support the claim that so-called “cleansing diets” actually cleanse anything at all. And I love juicing, too.) Accredited means that the body sponsoring the research has someone watching them to ensure the process is ethical and reliable. The best spot where that happens is through research universities.
  2. If it presents the proposed solutions as “easy” or “simple,” it is lying. Change is hard. Changing one’s habits takes discipline, time, and practice. Living well is like learning to play a musical instrument. I don’t care what your natural predispositions are to be an awesome guitarist, you have got to practice. More than that, you have to practice the right way by working on specific techniques and skills to make you a better player. Being happy is no different than this. You can’t expect to be happy. You need to learn specific skills that work for you and then you need to practice them every day and in situations that make you uncomfortable.
  3. It has to be simple. Don’t confuse simple with easy. E=mc 2 is simple. But it is not easy. If you have heard of Occam’s Razor in science, that’s what I am think about with simple. Great theories are concise and simple, but they explain a lot of phenomena and can do so in very complex ways. And most importantly, they are testable. If I can’t work through this self-help program and test the results empirically, it’s useless.

+-+643487111_140The book I found was You Are Not Your Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding. They are researchers at UCLA and have used this method with success in OCD patients. The concept is called self-directed neuroplasticity. The basic premise is that you can not only control your thinking, but by controlling that thinking you can change how your thinking works. One example is to label as false all of those nasty messages we tend to tell ourselves and automatically accept as true. The task is to figure out why those messages might be there, under what conditions they are most likely to pop up, and then how to change our response when they do come up. The four steps are to relabel, reframe, refocus, and revalue. So if I have a nasty thought like “God you’re an idiot,” what I will do is say “That’s not true” (relabel); then say, “Shut the fuck up you bastard,” to myself (reframe); I will respond by doing something like going for a walk or even focusing on the activity that I am avoiding that is sending me that message (refocus); and finally accept that my thoughts were never really a big deal (revalue). This is mindfulness training with a systematic process that works.

Through my practice of these steps I started running and changed my habits with just about everything including what, when, and how much I eat  and sleep. My thinking is healthier and I now see depressive or self-loathing thoughts as this little alien in my brain that has no business living there. Very liberating. But it took practice and hard work. And it still takes practice and hard work.

Out of this experience, I have started coming up with little rules that have helped me and continue to help me on a daily basis if I practice them.

  1. Lean-in to what’s uncomfortable. When I don’t want to do it and start procrastinating, do it any way. The hardest part is the first 10 seconds. You gotta focus and punch through that wall.
  2. When my mind starts to wander, I need to move my body. The brain basically runs on sugar. If you are focused on something for a long time, you use up the brain’s fuel and get sluggish. That’s normal. If I am bored or anxious I see that as energy in my system that has nowhere to go. Either way, moving my body gives my brain a break and restores its energy load while expending excess energy the rest of my body is jacking up my system with.
  3. Eat fewer calories. This keeps me from being sluggish, keeps my gut happy, and keeps off the pounds. Energy and self-image both improve.
  4. Exercise every day. This is about heart rate. I feel better if I get my heart rate up over 70% of maximum for at least a sustained 30 minutes. This changes my body and changes how well my brain works.
  5. Sleep. At least 7 solid hours a night. If I am using my body that much, it needs to heal. Sleep does that.

Over the next few posts I am going to take each of these rules and explain how I do it and how I got started. I don’t know what will work for you, but these sure as hell work for me. These steps have proven to be better for my mental health than any combination of prescriptions or therapy than I have ever tried.

If you are interested in what self-directed neuroplasticity is all about, do watch Jeffrey Schwartz’s presentation on the science behind the practice.

Running for ALS

als-55a4d357dc4252016 Goal #1: Run a Marathon (or Two)

I started running last year for my own health and this year I want to make it count. If I can run for my own sanity and well-being, I figure that I can also put part of that for the benefit of someone else.

I was never much of an athlete in high school. One year I went out for wrestling, but after a few weeks of feeling sore and beat up; and after a simply terrible outing at the first meet, I dropped it. People around me told me that I should stick it out, but I never had the motivation to push through. It was part of a litany of experiences where I felt that I did not fit for whatever reason. So I dropped the athlete idea. The team went 10-0 that year and won the state title.

Fast forward 25 years. After a couple of injury setbacks in July and October as a novice runner, I trained hard for three weeks in November and ran the Nittany Valley Half-Marathon. Despite the setbacks I ran 6 minutes faster than my target time. The old me would experience a minor setback and start the litany of self-pity and self-loathing. This would quickly convince me that eating potato chips and binge-watching hours of whatever-I-could-find-that-was-the-most-depressing was the best choice to make. Not this time.

What I have learned is that stopping a behavior is a choice and setting an achievable goal is motivation to push through setbacks. Moving my body changes my brain. This means a plan that includes numerous smaller goals in order to attain the big one.

Large goals that are decomposed this way work out better – which is probably why big New Year’s Resolutions like “lose 30 pounds” or “write a book” fail. Goals that are too lofty come with rewards that are too far delayed and motivation comes in short supply. You have to break the big goal up in order to experience the value of the changes in behavior that you will need to accomplish in order to get there. (By the way, if you haven’t made progress on your Resolutions, do something towards it right now, or you will wake up tomorrow that much closer to a Facebook meme declaring all the shit you planned to do last year but didn’t.)

I am training again, but this time for the PittsburghPitt2015Logo Marathon. And more than that I am running for the ALSA of Western Pennsylvania. I am doing it in memory of my grandmother who died from ALS in 1999.

My grandmother Rita was pistol. When I was a kid, I remember her fire-red Firebird parked in her Paoli, PA garage. The color matched her rosy cheeks after a few nips of scotch. She was a neat freak, loved lime green and yellow, and cooked amazing food.

After my grandfather died, she spent much of her time with her best friend. They were active and had fun in both Italy and on the Mississippi river. Like a blue-haired Thelma & Louise. But then Rita started to lose control of her body even though her mind was running full throttle. In just two years she stopped driving, then lost her house, then her independence, then her life in 1999. We watched as that same full-of-life mind and spirit became imprisoned in her body that just stopped communicating with her brain. Awful.

Her very last words to me are burned in my brain. “Whatever you do with your life, have fun.”

So I am doing that this year. I am Running for Rita. She is going to be with me in memory and spirit. Why not invite others to join us in the race and join others as the work to stop ALS continues.

Follow through to my fundraising page and donate if you can. My target is $500.00. I know I can reach it with your help. Run with me in spirit, even if all you are planning to do May 1, 2016 is binge watch Buffy again and eat Doublemeat Medleys!