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The Incomplete Lifestyle Change

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I try not to think or talk too much about weight loss, as I’m laboring to marginalize that aspect of my life. I find that unless one makes an effort to minimize the influence of the shadow of weight loss over their lives, it will eclipse all else and become the sole definition of self. That being said, it’s rather hard not to think about it when you’re sitting around taking in your bras and pants (yes, you can take in a bra), weighing your food, and logging your calories online in order to keep track. Whether I like it or not, it is a part of my life, though thankfully not an all-consuming one by any stretch of the imagination.

Since I abandoned my old blog in the middle of last September, I’ve lost about 20 more lbs. (now about 215, though I haven’t weighed myself for 2 weeks so I can’t know for sure). That puts my loss rate “down” to about 5 lbs. per month, but that lower average loss comes with a caveat. I’ve stepped up certain types of exercising that build muscle mass and I’m sure that I’m regaining muscle lost during the initial year or so of loss. In terms of overall size, I believe there have been some more tangible losses, so I’m not too fussed about dropping from nearly 10 lbs. of loss to 5 lbs. per month. The numbers on the scale matter less than perceptual changes in overall size. This all serves to reinforce the notion I have had all along that the scale needs to be used sparingly and as a very rough and somewhat poor measure of overall progress.

At any rate, this is not a progress report on my weight loss, though it is reading like one so far, but rather some thoughts on the way people talk about adopting “lifestyle changes” in order to lose weight. Most people talk about such things in a manner which I think are difficult to relate to because they convey the idea of drudgery (forcing oneself to exercise) and deprivation (eschewing certain foods). I’ve found that that is absolutely not necessary, though clearly big changes are necessary, but not the mechanistic ones that people tend to focus upon.

One thing I have noticed is that people tend to talk about “choices” a lot, and I’ve written before that I believe we do make choices, but our capacity to make good ones is not equal. Each person is driven by their personal history to choose a particular path and the momentum that drives an individual to make poor choices is stronger depending on your past. It has been my focus throughout my weight loss process to work with the factors that drive choices rather than focus on the choices themselves so strictly. If I remove the forces that drive bad choices, then I am freer to make better ones.

As I have grown nearly completely comfortable with living a lifestyle which is conducive to weight loss, I’ve come to understand just how powerful and important the psychology is. It’s even more potent than I have felt from the start, and I felt pretty strongly about it initially. I mainly notice this because I realize more fully how expectation, perception, and the ability to delay or mitigate the need for certain types of gratification factor powerfully into fully embracing a “lifestyle change” without serious difficulty and especially resentment. There are many people who have lost weight and even maintain it who still struggle with the boundaries they have to live within. They struggle to stay within the lines of their calorie guidelines. They obsess about food. They hate their limits and exercise needs. They do it, but they fight it and struggle every inch of the way and the fear of regaining or falling off the wagon is a specter that lurks over their lives.

The reason that people struggle with this is that they have “normalized” their behavior but they haven’t normalized their thought processes in regard to their necessary lifestyle changes. By ignoring the underlying attitudes and emotional issues and focusing on the mechanistic aspects of weight loss, they have made the healthier choices, but not dealt well with the personal history that makes them want to make the unhealthy ones. Imagine someone driving a car which has a steering wheel that pulls to the left and they have to fight very hard to constantly force it to go to the right. It’d be a lot easier to  keep going right if you fixed the thing that was pulling you in the opposite direction rather than just kept applying brute force against it.

A true and lasting “lifestyle change” doesn’t simply mean weighing your food, counting calories, and exercising. It means you place food in its proper context rather than view it in a distorted fashion which makes you feel deprived. It means you don’t find food calling you to your doom like a siren, but rather see it as a source of sustenance and pleasure. Exercise isn’t something you force yourself to do, but something you do because you feel good doing it. In essence, all of the emotional baggage that is associated with food and weight being jettisoned is essential to a real lifestyle change.

Most people refuse to acknowledge the psychological component, and I think it’s because they deny that there is an issue in that quarter. I’m not sure if this is because they lack sufficient insight to see a connection, feel uncomfortable (or ashamed) with the possibility, or are too uneducated in the complexities of psychology to realize that many of the pat explanations for “emotional eating” are shallow and imprecise. They see a lot of talk about food and psychology and can’t see themselves so they assume that is not on the table for them. It’s not all about trauma or Freudian substitutions for love or emotional gratification. Sometimes, it’s about habituation, conditioning, etc.

The reason that this has been on my mind as of late is that I struggle very little these days with my relationship with food and exercise and on those occasions when I do, it’s much easier to push back against my urges than ever in my lifetime. The relative ease with which I battle my hunger on days in which I’m hungry all day (generally just prior to or during ovulation) occurred to me and felt quite gratifying. The notion that “it’s only food” comes very easily all of the time. And when I say that, I don’t mean that “it’s only food” in a manner which minimizes its importance as a substance or diminishes the pleasure I take in it. I mean “it’s only food” in that it no longer drives me powerfully psychologically. Food has assumed it’s proper place in my mind so doing whatever I have to do to continue to lose weight is easier.

Right now, the next stage in my “evolution” with my relationship with food is going to restaurants. I have been reluctant to go to them mainly because it often requires that I accept a level of uncertainty and potential “sacrifice” of calories to err on the side of caution when making calculations. Since I don’t live in America, restaurants rarely offer nutritional information so it really is about  my existing “education”. However, what I am finding as I wade into these waters is that it’s easier than expected. The food is more caloric than what I prepare at home, but it’s very easy to simply not eat it all and control the calories with portions. I’m always satisfied when I finish and enjoy the different food immensely. I also don’t feel unhappy about “wasting” food I paid for and leaving it behind or resentful that I can’t eat it all. After all, it’s only food.

I’m not claiming that it was easy to get to this point, but I am going to say that this is a great place to be emotionally and psychologically. It took a lot of work (as detailed in my former blog) to get here and it does take continued (though actually quite small) effort to stay here. I still have to kick in a mantra or two occasionally and resist eating when I  might prefer, but it really does come more naturally and more easily as time goes by. I have no doubt that this is a lifestyle change that I can maintain for the rest of my life and that it will lead eventually to a healthy weight, and I didn’t get here by hating on myself, drinking water until I felt like a fish, or categorizing food into “bad” and “good”. I got here by avoiding those things.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

January 19, 2011 at 2:44 am

Course Corrections

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I have been hoping for quite some time to write some blog posts, but my life has become incredibly busy in a variety of ways. One of the things that has happened since I have lost so much weight is that my weekends are spent outside of the home and I have little time to sit down and type posts, even when I have things I want to say.

I mentioned some time ago on my former blog that successfully losing weight in the long run is really about self-actualization, not simply adding healthy eating and exercise to your life. I have come to more fully appreciate what that means over the past six months, and it has not been easy. On the one hand, the manner in which I have reframed my relationship with food has not sent me scurrying to the pantry in times of stress, but the amount of stress has increased because the changes that occur have brought up other issues.

For one thing, being out and about so much brings up a serious approach-avoidance conflict for me. I want to get out more for the enjoyable aspects, but find the experience oppressive in so many ways because of the overwhelming sensory stimuli. Since I live in one of the most densely populated cities in the world (where people are literally crammed onto trains during rush hour by conductors shoving them into the doors), every step out of the door involves dodging people, listening to unpleasant noises (construction, loud speaker announcements, etc.), and having to adjust to a variety of unpredictable variables which directly affect my comfort but are utterly out of my control like whether or not I can sit on public transport (and therefore take pressure off of my gimpy knee).

These logistical issues and overstimulation were anticipated problems as a result of being more mobile and free to leave my apartment after losing weight. Related aspects which I hadn’t considered are also cropping up and tapping into other neuroses of mine. Going out and about involves more money being spent, and I grew up poor and have a lot of anxiety about money in general. This isn’t helped by the fact that I’ve spent the last 7-9 year focused rather strongly on saving money and being frugal in anticipation of leaving this Asian country and going home to America. Loosening my notions of what is “reasonable” to spend with certain unemployment in my future and after training myself to live as low on the hog as possible has been very difficult for me.

There is actually an almost humorous irony to the current situation that I find myself in. At 380 lbs., I used to avoid restaurants for fear that I’d be too fat to fit in the seating and be embarrassed (a fear I still have at around 225 lbs., but I realize that it’s irrational for the most part). Now that I am physically able to sit in a restaurant, I find that I have anxiety about the money spent on the meals. It’s hard not to feel strange paying about $25 for a meal when I can make something at home for 1/5 that amount or less (and have leftovers to boot).

Before I go any further, I must stress emphatically that I am not substituting a new anxiety for an old one in some psychological balancing act which will allow me to feel stressed and neurotic all of the time. That is not what is going on. This is an existing neuroses (about money) that wasn’t being brought as strongly into play because the circumstances were such that the responses came out less frequently than they do now. It shows in yet another way how being so fat as to be essentially disabled from normal life was actually beneficial to me. It allowed me not to engage in anxiety invoking behaviors.

The changes I’m going through and the new issues that are coming out have taxed me greatly. I am constantly battling my negative responses and trying to wrestle them to the ground with logic and positive conditioning. It’s the equivalent of talking myself off the bridge day-in and day-out rather than allowing that jump to happen. “The jump” in this metaphor would be deciding not to go out and live life as a “normal” person would and remain secure in my home with my neuroses ruling my behavior. It applies to more than simply my fears about money, fears that were built into me by my upbringing as a very poor person and my mother’s constant dialogs about our issues with it.

Every day is exhausting for me because of these needs to correct the course of my mental pathways. They want to go straight ahead and I keep forcing a right turn. It isn’t really all that dissimilar from the sort of mental conditioning I did when I changed my relationship with food. These other issues are just as persistent, but more ambiguous and vague than the simple choices related to food. This makes mental conditioning more complex as I’m not as certain of the outcomes.

I can tell myself that I will get a job in the future so I don’t need to save every cent from now until when I leave for home. I can tell myself that I have a little over a year left here and that I should take advantage of the time to see and do everything I might want to do and spending a little money on that is a good thing. In fact, I may regret not doing so. However, in the back of my mind is the thought that I could regret spending the money and the fear that I might end up broke and in dire circumstances. This is unlikely, but not out of the realm of possibility. And even when reason succeeds in convincing me that I should spend a little more money now and worry less about later, it doesn’t mitigate the feeling in the pit of my stomach which remains.

So, one of the reasons I haven’t been posting is that I’m constantly wearing myself out trying to deal with new feelings and problems. I constantly feel as though I’m being torn from safe and secure moorings and setting sail into unknown and potentially dangerous seas. The fact that I’m the one choosing to do it doesn’t make it any easier. I simply know, however, that if I want to “get anywhere” (continue to grow as a person and self-actualize), I have no choice  but to keep forging ahead.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

November 26, 2010 at 4:28 am

Changing your biology (through psychology)

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As someone who has pushed herself to change in a lot of ways psychologically, particularly in regards to food, but also in terms of my personality and temper, I strongly believe that psychology and behavior can reshape biology. It takes time, but I think the bodies various systems and cells adapt to changes through time. Changes that are initially difficult become close to effortless as you push your body to endure them longer. The extent to which you suffer as a result of such changes is determined by how radical they are as the leap between who you were biologically at the start and who you will be is a much larger one.

The idea that biology follows psychology and behavior is certainly not unknown. We know that people who meditate can lower their resting heart rate and improve their blood pressure. We also know that exercise improves the function of many bodily systems for the better. However, we can see and realize how behavior, particularly in regards to what we ingest, can alter biology quite profoundly when we consider drug use and abuse.

One of the reasons that many heroin or opiate users find it difficult to stop is that as they ingest or inject chemicals into their bodies to release endorphin-like responses their brain reduces the production of those chemicals in response. In essence, the more you give the body something, the more it adjusts by giving you less of whatever it stimulates. When you stop giving it what it has grown accustomed to, it takes awhile to adjust your biochemistry to compensate, and you suffer during the adjustment period.

Recently, I read a study which indicates that a similar effect may occur with people who habitually overeat. That is, the very act of overeating may cause your brain to react less pleasurably to food, so you need to eat more and more to achieve the same levels of pleasure from food. In turn, this will cause you to want to eat even more. In essence, abusing food, like abusing drugs, will lead to the desire for more and more.

This study was one that rang true to me because I have discovered that mindful eating, that is eating slowly, paying attention to the texture, smell, and taste of every bite, has changed my need for more food. Coupled with portion control, I have found that I no longer desire large quantities of any food in order to feel satisfied. This change took about 8 or so months to reach a state of relative completion in which I did not desire more than a small quantity of pleasurable foods to be satisfied, but it is quite real. It isn’t a psychological trick. It is a biological reality.

This study is compelling in what it indicates, not only in terms of overeating, but in all aspects of our lives. One possible indication is that we need to place a high value on novelty in order to extract the most pleasure from experiences. Another is that what feels like immutable nature can be retrained with effort. If you are a person who is easily upset, it could be that practicing psychological techniques each time you are upset to shorten the duration and diminish the intensity of your negative emotional response will eventually change your reaction. Conversely, being angry, aggressive, or combative on a regular basis may actually find you needing to be so more and more so in order to release the chemicals that are released when such behaviors are engaged in. In particular, adrenaline is released when angry. Frequent anger may tamp down adrenaline response (which brings about a sense of power and strength) and one may want to be more aggressive and hostile more often to get that same feeling on a regular basis.

The implications of this study, as well as what we know about the effect of various other behaviors on our neurochemistry, are encouraging. We can be better, healthier and less conflicted people, but we have to push long enough and steadily enough for our bodies to make the adjustments. If we make those changes consistently over a long enough period of time, eventually, it will get easier, not only psychologically, but biologically.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

October 2, 2010 at 6:21 am

No longer a member of the tribe

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I’m a person who does not do well with change. I’m not sure if this is because of something that is hard-wired, or due to my upbringing. It’s likely the result of both. I think growing up in a rural area and being exposed to less rapid change may make me less adaptable, but also that my tendency to be overstimulated because I’m an HSP may also factor into it. I’m aware of my difficulties in this regard, and I try to understand that I will feel stress when sudden or dramatic change comes along. Feeling the stress and anxiety is fine. Acting on it destructively is not.

Recently, I’ve been feeling very overwhelmed by the changes I’ve pushed myself into. I’ve gone from following a lot of diet blogs and forums and writing my own weight loss blog to cutting almost all of that sort of contact out of my life (though I still follow the personal blogs of my former readers). I feel this change is very important, but it is also causing me to feel anxious and depressed as I have to exert considerable energy to establish new routines. It’s probably one of the reasons why people who haven’t yet done the mental work associated with repairing their damaged relationship with food find it hard to continue to stay on track if they are not “obsessed”. Stepping away from any pattern or routine is itself a stressful action and if you haven’t worked out your issues with food, the first thing you may want to do is turn back to food for comfort.

Fortunately, I have not even had the vaguest impulse to misuse food in this fashion. The idea of eating more to relieve the stress I feel hasn’t even popped into my head. This time of difficulty is an affirmation that everything I have done has “worked” for me. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel the negative feelings that I do, but simply that my mind doesn’t seek food as a solution to the problem.

Unfortunately, the “solution” my mind reaches for is an “interim” solution and that is to relieve the stress of abandoning old routines by turning back to them on occasion. I find myself  loading the 3 Fat Chicks forums when I feel at a loss. I have done this only twice in the past week, and I am fully cognizant of the fact that I’m doing something as a response to anxiety which may prolong the sense of anxiousness I feel. What is worse, when I read the forums, I derive no comfort or enlightenment from them. In fact, I am increasingly struck by how dysfunctional the discourse on those forums are. People express concern for being obsessed with weight loss and rather than being offered tactics or advice for coping with their issue, people offer up validation of being obsessed. I recall all too well how I felt that I couldn’t carry on like that, and I can understand how others may feel the same way. It starts to drive you insane. There’s no problem with talking about such things, but there is a problem with perpetuating a cycle of clearly dysfunctional obsession by forming a community which says this is the only option if you want to lose weight. It’s not the only option. It truly is not.

The only “good point” to how I’m responding to the sites which I used to peruse on a regular basis is that it makes me feel happy to close the window and therefore less likely to find myself back in an act of picking up old routine. I actually feel more dysfunctional for reading them and as if I’m involved in a sort of discourse which will lead me down a very unhappy path. I come away more motivated to stay on the path to new routines and identity building that is causing me anxiety.

Perhaps I simply don’t belong in those places anymore, or perhaps they are the hotbeds of dysfunction that I perceive them to be. It’s hard to say, but it is absolutely clear that I need to push on and away from the diet culture on-line and continue to grow in other directions. I not only no longer need to be that person, but I profoundly do not want to be that person.

One other point which I have noticed and I know other people encounter this as well is that I was much better supported when I talked about weight loss, but not so in this endeavor. It is clear that I’m no longer a part of a tribe that is insular and highly focused. Personal growth is not of particular value as compared to body consciousness. I don’t mention this because I feel sorry for myself or to solicit comments or support, merely as a curious and valuable observation. If I were to talk more about weight loss again, I would get more attention than I get now. And that’s okay. I don’t need that sort of attention necessarily, and perhaps people don’t need to learn from this stage of my process as it is too personalized. However, it does factor into why people who become obsessed with weight loss remain so. In addition to everything else that they get, it helps them continue to get support and feel valued.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

September 22, 2010 at 1:07 am