joeylott

Author Archives: joeylott

3 years ago

Stress

The_ScreamWhat do the following all have in common? chronic Lyme disease, anorexia nervosa, multiple chemical sensitivity, obsessive compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, and chronic dieting. There’s probably more than one correct answer to this question. But my answer is: stress. All of these conditions and many more that plague people for years or even for lifetimes contain stress as a common factor.

The trouble that I notice is that most people seem to make the mistake of believing that the stress is caused by the conditions and therefore can only be resolved by first resolving the conditions. I believe that sort of thinking only perpetuates the conditions. Although stress may result from the conditions, my own observation is that it is possible to resolve stress first, and by doing this it is possible to turn the tide and begin improving the conditions. Stress may not be the only thing that one needs to address, but by addressing stress it becomes much easier to address the other things that need to be addressed.

Here’s an example: years of restrictive eating as in anorexia nervosa requires re-feeding and nourishing the body. Eating a lot more food is absolutely essential for healing from anorexia. And the truth is that there is a turning point, a threshold, at which after eating enough for long enough the stress hormone production naturally decreases, which leads to a reduction in stress. And yet, to get to that point requires confronting patterns of stress that have held the eating disorder in place. So here is a the catch-22: you must heal the body to reduce the stress and you must reduce the stress to heal the body. So both are important. The truth is that without addressing the stress component early on the likelihood of successful re-feeding and nourishing the body is greatly diminished. Those of us who have lived with the stress and anxiety of an eating disorder know that when a person is stuck in the mode of restrictive eating the very thought of eating enough and eating foods that have previously been “forbidden” is stressful. Weight gain is often an essential part of healing from anorexia, and this too can be stressful for someone who has a distorted view of what a “healthy” weight is. So in healing eating disorders we absolutely must address stress concurrent with re-feeding.

The truth is that no matter what the condition, stress only serves to make things worse. Stress is an integral part of many unpleasant conditions, and the delusion that it creates is the belief that the stress is somehow part of a successful strategy to cope or heal from the condition. The beginning of healing is the recognition that this belief is false. Stress cannot and never will improve things. Stress is a major part of the problem, particularly when we hold it as a strategy that we believe can be successful in making positive changes. For me there is a very simple way to analyze such a belief. All that is necessary is to ask the question: “Am I feeling stressed?” If the answer is yes then I can be assured that my current strategy is not one that will work to my advantage.

Stress changes the entire metabolism. The way in which the body functions under stress is completely different from how it functions when relaxed. The autonomic nervous system is conceptually divided into the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. Only one of those two systems can be dominant at a time. Under stress the sympathetic system is dominant. The result is that the body becomes poised for “fight or flight.” Digestion slows, immunity is reduced, blood flow to the brain is reduced, and all sorts of stress hormones are produced and flood the body in preparation for survival. We are meant to enter sympathetic dominance only under extreme and relatively rare circumstances. Otherwise, we are designed to primarily exist in parasympathetic dominance. In this mode we are relaxed, blood flow goes to the extremities and to the brain, digestion is optimal,etc.

One key thing to note about sympathetic dominance is that blood flow to the brain is reduced. In particuar, blood flow to the frontal lobes is vastly reduced. In such a state the parts of the brain associated with the stress response such as the amygdala are the only parts that continue to get proper nourishment. So it is important to understand that during states of stress cognitive functions can be impaired. In fact, it can seem as though you are making good decisions in such a state, but later on, from a more rational perspective it can be obvious how completely distorted the thinking was. Anorexia nervosa is, again, a perfect example of this. Anorexia is characterized by chronic stress, and people with this condition notoriously have very distorted perspectives – making decisions to restrict eating when already in a starving state, for example. While the addictive qualities of some of the stress hormones may play a strong role in this sort of behavior, what is also true is that stress itself produces distorted thinking because the rational thinking parts of the brain are essentially “off line.”

So once again it should start to become obvious that addressing stress is an important part of the healing process. Stress should be addressed directly along with other important factors.

So then the question is: how to address stress? My answer is this: first and foremost, understand that stress is a physiological response, and therefore you can only successfully address it by addressing it physiologically. This is significant because many people make the mistake of trying to address stress mentally, and I believe this is a mistake. Although we may experience some of the effects of stress mentally or emotionally, the truth is that these are secondary effects, not primary. Stress occurs at a purely physiological level well before it is possible to have any awareness of the mental or emotional effects.

Once you understand that stress is a physiological issue then it makes sense that the only effective way to deal with stress is to physically relax. There are plenty of techniques that use psychological devices to effectively reduce stress, but I believe that the primary way in which any of these techniques achieve success is through indirectly producing a different (non-stressed) physical response in the face of a stressful trigger. The effect is to reprogram the body so that it learns to respond to the same trigger with a relaxed (non-stress) response.

Therefore, I believe that the most effective way to address stress is to use a direct approach. Rather than indirectly provoking a relaxed response, I suggest that it is more effective to directly relax. I have written about some of the mechanisms by which I believe that stress gets programmed into the body in How Memory Affects Your Health. In that post I made some suggestions for how to reprogram memory to reduce stress and improve health. My views since then have evolved slightly, and I now believe that it is possible to reprogram to reduce stress more directly by the following process:

  1. Hold the stressful thought, situation, or idea in mind. Make it as mentally disturbing as is feasible and practical. (Obviously don’t go beyond your ability to do this process successfully. So use good sense here.)
  2. Simply observe your habitual response without trying to change anything. Do not attempt to reduce stress or change your habitual response in any way during this step. You must simply observe what you do habitually, including physical tension and (this is important) your usual strategies for trying to change the situation. You must notice that your usual strategies have not been successful, and therefore they will not be successful. Seeing this, choose to abandon your usual strategies. Commit not to engage in your usual strategies no matter what.
  3. Now, while still holding the stressful thought, situation, or idea in mind, relax your muscles. Notice where you are holding tension, and relax the tense muscle. Do this one muscle at a time. Notice feet, hands, forehead, jaw, shoulders, back, and belly – all of which are chronically tense for many people. Relax the muscles over and over for as long as you need to.

Doing this process you will begin to reprogram your body. You are telling your body that your thoughts and your experiences are safe – that you can meet them with calm and with a relaxed and healthy body. This process may work very quickly or it may take some time. Everyone is different. But if you commit to this, I truly believe that you will notice improvements in your life. By doing this you will begin to feel better. And you will begin to be more able to think clearly and make better decisions that are in alignment with your values and goals such as health and happiness.

I welcome your comments and questions.

3 years ago

Improving Sleep

320px-Take_ours!When I was in high school I slept wonderfully. I slept so soundly that my roommates reportedly brought other people into our room to watch me for entertainment (apparently I would speak in my sleep) and with lights on and laughing at my bedside I never once woke up that I can remember. On school days I usually slept about 8 hours and only woke up because the alarm was blaring. On other days I easily slept for 10 or more hours straight without waking.

I don’t know exactly when things began to shift, but by the time I was in my mid 20s I started having more trouble going to sleep and I started waking more in the night. Night-time urination frequency went from zero to an average of four times in the night over the course of several years. And then I got Lyme disease, after which my night time urination frequency skyrocketed to an average of eight times per night! When I wasn’t getting up to pee I was often laying awake with adrenalin pumping through my system at 3 or 4 in the morning. So to say that my sleep went to hell would be somewhat of an understatement.

My sleep now is vastly improved over what it was for so many years. I won’t claim that my sleep quality is quite what it was in high school, but it ain’t so far off and it’s improving every night little by little. I’m absolutely delighted at how much my sleep has improved, and I know that many people are struggling with this issue. So I want to share in this post some of the insights I have gained in terms of how to improve sleep. Not only is is really unpleasant to have sleep problems, but it is severely detrimental to one’s health. No matter what else you do, if you don’t improve your sleep you’re going to have a really hard time getting well. At least that’s my opinion. At the very least, you set yourself up for greater success if you improve your sleep. So here are my suggestions for how to improve sleep.

  • First and foremost, get your metabolism working optimally. I believe that the best way to do this is to eat enough, particularly emphasizing sugars, starches, salt, and adequate protein. Mostly, though, eat as much as you want of whatever you want. And eat all day long and eat in the night if you need. If you’re metabolism is slow it’s going to lead to all sorts of complications that can cause sleep problems, including frequent urination and stress hormones spiking in the middle of the night. So I strongly recommend eating a lot all the time. This one thing has had the most profound positive impact on my sleep quality.
  • Get some sunlight during the day. I find that when I get sun during the day it helps with sleep at night. I’m sure this has a biological explanation, probably having to do with so-called vitamin D levels. But whatever the reasons, good sunlight exposure during the day makes a positive difference in my sleep. If you cannot get good sun exposure then some recommend that electric lights can do a good job in place of sunlight. The key is to use enough light in the right spectrum to mimic the “important” spectums of sunlight. I haven’t personally experimented with this, but I can share what I have read on the subject, which is to use standard incandescent bulbs and to use lots of them to get enough light. Definitely don’t use fluorescent lighting for this purpose.
  • Eat something just before bed. It is best if it includes a good balance of stress-reducing macronutrients. Sugar and salt are essential, and I find that balancing that with some easily-digested protein and saturated fat is great. My favorites are honey, gelatin, and coconut oil. Gelatin is great because it contains a high level of glycine, which is a relaxing amino acid. A  lot of people find that gelatin helps with sleep. And coconut oil helps for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, but it does seem to smooth things out for the night. So personally I like to mix two tablespoons of gelatin in just enough fruit juice to make a nice gel (too much liquid and you might have to pee in the night!) Then I eat a few spoonfuls of honey, a bit of salt, and a spoonful of coconut oil. So this isn’t exactly a meal or anything like that. It’s just a little bit of easily-digested food to keep metabolic function smoothed out over the evening.
  • Salt before bed is fantastic. I already mentioned this in the previous point, but it is worth emphasizing. Salt is pro-metabolic and it has anxiolytic properties. Also, my own theory is that salt helps prevent excess urination at night, which is very helpful for me. I’m generous with salt just before bed.
  • If you wake up in the night then eat a bit of sugar and salt to help get back to sleep if necessary. Waking in the night (and difficulty getting back to sleep) may indicate spiking stress hormones, and the sugar and salt will correct that. A pinch of salt with a spoonful of honey is great for this.
  • Reduce fluids during the afternoon and evening so that your fluid intake is just enough to quench your thirst and no more. This is a good guideline throughout the day, but particularly during the second half of the day. Obviously I am not advising intentional dehydration. Rather, I am simply suggesting only enough fluids to quench thirst, which should be adequate for hydration (especially if combined with sugar and salt to help fluid reach the tissues.) I had years and years of frequent urination problems in the night, so I am very conscious of the importance of water balance. I tried to regulate night-time urination frequency for years by drinking water at different times of day without any real success. So this one tip on its own probably won’t solve any sleep issues. However, when coupled with improving metabolism and eating adequate salt, this tip can make a big difference.
  • Take some time to unwind before going to sleep. Instead of watching TV or reading just before bed, consider some intentional downtime. Take this time to release any tension from the day. Physically relax the entire body, muscle by muscle. And then if there are any lingering thoughts (which I think is unlikely after relaxing the body) then consciously let those go, choosing to totally relax and have a good rest, knowing that tomorrow will be a new day with new energy and new ideas.
  • Take an epsom salt soak either in a tub or just a foot soak. I soak my feet in epsom salts and water for 30 minutes or longer sometimes. I find it very relaxing. Soaking in epsom salts may increase magnesium levels in the body, which has a relaxing effect. I sometimes also add baking soda to the water along with the epsom salts. Some people claim this increases absorption. I don’t know if that is true, but I enjoy it. Adding the baking soda makes the water fizz.
  • I also personally have found benefit in doing some forward-bending “stretches” for long holds. This tends to have a calming and restoring effect on the nervous system according to modern yoga therapy ideas, and I have to say that I agree in my own experience. I like simple seated forward bends, i.e. seated, toe-touches. However, my favorite way to do these is to bend the knees enough that I can rest my chest on my thighs and my head on my shins. Then I very slowly begin to move the legs toward a straightened position, all the while keeping contact between my chest and thighs. I don’t aim to get my legs straight. I just move them in that direction as far as I can while keeping contact between chest and thighs. All the while I keep my boy relaxed. There should be no unnecessary tension. After just a few minutes I begin to feel very relaxed.
  • Do some reduced breathing exercises (as described in the Buteyko breathing post I just wrote) just before laying down to sleep. I find that this is very relaxing and improves the quality of my sleep. Even five minutes is enough to make a difference. Twenty minutes seems to be the ideal length for me to get optimal benefits. Everyone is different, of course, so see what works for you.

These are the things that have worked for me. My sleep has improved tremendously since doing these things. I am not rigid about it. I don’t always do all these things. I play it by ear, so to speak. I find no benefit in making any of these things compulsive. But these things are so helpful for me that I quite enjoy doing them much of the time. I often skip the foot soak just because it isn’t always feasible with two kids and a one-room home like I live in. And I rarely make time for stretches. But these things are beautiful luxuries when I do make time for them, and I can highly recommend them based on my own experiences.

Please post below if you have any comments. I would enjoy hearing if any of these suggestions are helpful for others.

3 years ago

Buteyko Breathing

ProfbuteykoI’m a fan of Buteyko Breathing. It’s a bit strange, to be sure. But then, most things are strange…especially professional sports. And personally, I enjoy Buteyko breathing much more than, say, American football.

If you’ve never heard of Buteyko breathing, then here’s a brief bit of background on the subject. In the second half of the 20th Century a Ukranian doctor named Konstantin Buteyko (pictured left) developed a system of breath retraining that he believed was nothing short of a panacea for all sorts of health problems, including asthma, heart disease, anxiety conditions, and probably even cancer. The breathing exercises and lifestyle recommendations that he developed now have somewhat of a cult following across the globe. There are Buteyko professionals all across the U.S. who will teach you, for a fee, to do Buteyko reduced breathing exercises. Personally, I learned from a book. I learned from Patrick McKeown’s Close Your Mouth book. And on this page I’ll give you a brief introduction.

The basic idea underlying the Buteyko breathing method is that many (or perhaps all) sick people hyperventilate. I cannot personally verify that this is true, and so I will not make any such claims myself. But this is what Buteyko breathing aims to correct in theory. Whether or not this is the mechanism by which Buteyko breathing is effective in helping people heal I do not know, but however it does work, it has helped me tremendously. The theory is that sick people hyperventilate, thus exhaling too much carbon dioxide, which then reduces body’s ability to utilize oxygen. Therefore, the theory states that by reducing breathing volume it is possible to retain greater amounts of carbon dioxide and improve oxygen utilization. Again, I don’t know if this is exactly what happens. But I do know that modifying my habitual breathing has been very helpful for me.

The first thing to note about the Buteyko method is that all breathing is done through the nose. The reasoning for this is that the nose provides important filtering functions and it naturally limits the volume of air exchange with every breath. So anyone beginning the Buteyko breathing method who is in the habit of breathing through the mouth is first encouraged to breathe only through the nose. This extends to night-time breathing as well, and so those who breathe through the mouth at night are encouraged to find ways to breathe only through the nose while sleeping. One way to achieve this is to tape the mouth shut at night. There are also chin straps that could serve this purpose.

The foundation of the Buteyko method is a diagnostic exercise called the Control Pause, or CP. This is meant to be the measurement, in seconds, of oxygen reserves in the body. (If you happen to have extreme anxiety or other severe condition then Buteyko tradition cautions against any breath holding such as with the CP test. Therefore, use your own judgment as to whether or not it is appropriate for you to do this test. If not, you can still do the reduced breathing exercise without measuring your CP until your symptoms reduce.) The way to measure the CP is to do the following:

  1. Breathe normally through your nose for several rounds if inhalation and exhalation, relaxing your breathing.
  2. After an exhalation take a small inhalation through your nose.
  3. Exhale, and then hold the breath by closing your mouth and pinching the nose closed so that no air can enter.
  4. Watch a clock or watch that indicates seconds, and continue to hold your breath for only so long as it is reasonably comfortable. Do not strain to hold your breath for as long as possible.
  5. At the first sign of air hunger, note the time, and inhale through your nose. The inhalation should be smooth and controlled, no larger than a typical inhalation. If it is larger or gasping then you have held your breath too long.

The number of seconds that you can hold your breath at the bottom of an exhalation until the first signs of air hunger is your CP.

Buteyko found that CP correlates with state of health. <20 CP indicates poor health (<10 is often very severe.) 20-30 CP usually indicates some minor health problems. 30-40 CP usually indicates good health with some health problems brought on by certain stimuli such as specific allergens. And 40+ CP is meant to correlate to good health without qualifications. Again, I cannot confirm that this is true for everyone. I can say that as my own CP has increased I have noticed improvements in my health.

For all the breathing exercises in the Buteyko method the inhalations are active and the exhalations are passive. Furthermore, all inhalations are done using the thoracic diaphragm as the primary inspiration muscle. This is all in line with the basic anatomy of breathing in the human body, and so it makes a  lot of sense. The way to measure progress in this is to place one hand on the belly and one hand on the chest. The belly should move outward on inhalation and should relax and move slightly back inward on a passive exhalation. Meanwhile, the chest should not move. If you notice that your chest moves during breathing then stay with this as an exercise until the only movement is in your abdomen and not in your chest.

The fundamental breathing exercise in the Buteyko breathing method is basic reduced breathing whereby you strive to reduce the inhalation volume. The way to do this is to start out breathing as usual for several rounds, and then on the next inhalation only inhale about 3/4 of the usual volume. Continue breathing in this fashion, inhaling only 3/4 of the usual volume. The idea is to reduce the volume enough that you feel a very mild air hunger, but not so much that it is stressful. It is important that you maintain a mild sense of air hunger by keeping the inhalation volume below what is usual for you. The key is to make it sustainable for about 20 minutes. If you reduce the volume too much then you will feel air hunger that is too strong and you will not be able to maintain it for long enough. Patrick McKeown suggests that the air hunger should be similar to what you might feel if going for a walk. Over the course of a 20 minute session you may find that the 3/4 volume becomes easier and the air hunger reduces. If so, then reduce the volume a bit more in order to maintain the same level of air hunger.

That is the basic exercise of Buteyko breathing. There are other exercises that one can do after becoming proficient at the basic exercise. The intermediate and advanced exercises involve breath holds at the bottom of exhalation and physical exercise such as walking combined with reduced breathing. I may write about these at another time.

I want to add another note here to state that I don’t necessarily believe that Buteyko breathing is the be-all-end-all of health and wellness. I believe that it can be a great adjunct to other practices and lifestyle modifications. I believe that it has helped me tremendously, but it isn’t the sole thing that turned my health around in a positive direction. For me I have found Buteyko breathing to be very complementary for reducing anxiety and improving metabolism. However, I attribute the positive changes in anxiety primarily to other practices and exercises that I have practiced and developed, and I attribute metabolic improvements mostly to eating and resting. There is a big overlapping effect between all of these things in my own experience: by reducing anxiety I was able to eat more and by eating more I was able to reduce my anxiety. So all of these practices and changes in my lifestyle worked together in a positive feedback loop to build health and reveal happiness and peace in my life.

UPDATE: I received an email asking about how I reconcile the traditional Buteyko dietary teachings with my own views regarding the importance of eating more to improve metabolic health. Here is the reply I sent in email:

I am an advocate for doing what works and being honest about your own needs versus following the dictates of some system. I personally have found tremendous benefit from Buteyko breathing as a guideline but not as a rule. Frankly, I find a good deal of Buteyko breathing teachings to be a bit obsessive and even borderline cultish. I should probably add a note about this in the blog post to make this clear. In the Buteyko obsessive community upping the CP is the most important thing above all else. Some recommend no talking no laughing no coughing no sneezing and sleeping only on the left side in addition to dietary recommendations. I just don’t agree. I think the breathing exercises, done with a light attitude and a smile can be tremendously helpful. I completely understand the deep desire to regain health, and so I understand how a practice that can be helpful can be turned into an obsession, but I don’t think it is healthy to do so. I think it is best to do it with an inquisitive and curious attitude, but don’t take it too seriously. Above all, relax, smile, and enjoy life. That is my view of it. You have to understand that I am, perhaps ironically, a bit obsessive about NOT being obsessive simply because of my history of being so obsessive with negative consequences. So I try not to take any practices too seriously.

If a person needs to eat more (i.e. low metabolism or history of starvation) then this person should eat more. Breathing exercises don’t change that or make an excuse for not eating more when it is appropriate and necessary to do so. I don’t know what your story is, and so I don’t know if you need to eat more or not. But if you do then my advice would be to try the reduced breathing exercise if you are inspired to do so AND eat more. Also, I don’t personally find that eating more or less makes such a difference in breathing exercises as the obsessives would have us believe. Same as I don’t find that sleeping on my back is a problem. Same as I don’t find that laughing is a problem. In fact, I enjoy sleeping on my back and I enjoy laughing. I also enjoy eating because I feel better. So my advise is to do what you know to be right for you. You probably know, at heart, what is best for your own health and happiness. Since you’ve asked this question, I’m guessing that you know that eating enough is important for you. So if I’m right about that, then I’d advise eating enough.

3 years ago

Obsession vs. Happiness in Eating Disorders

What does it mean to be truly happy? In my opinion true happiness is unconditional happiness. True happiness doesn’t depend on what I see in the mirror or how my clothes fit me. True happiness doesn’t depend on what I’ve eaten or how pure and perfect that food is. True happiness doesn’t depend on how morally and spiritually perfect I am (according to my own ideas of what that even means.) I’m not suggesting that this (true happiness) is the easiest thing to achieve, but I am suggesting that it is a worthy thing…much more so than happiness that depends on what the scale says or how my body matches some ideal that I’ve formulated in my mind based on media images and what I’ve read in books and my idea that people would like me more if I was more [insert your own idea of a desirable physical attribute] Much more than happiness that depends on being perfect and worthy.

I spent 20 years hating my body, being at war with my body, and determined to make my body fit my ideal image. Incidentally, those were 20 years of anxiety, obsession, and compulsion that eventually led to extreme sickness. If only my body would just admit defeat and finally shape itself according to my will I knew that all would be well. Except that it just doesn’t work that way. Hate doesn’t seem to yield happiness. It breeds misery and suffering. It took a long time, but eventually I realized that I am not separate from my body. This is the elusively obvious truth that was staring me in the face all the while. And so as I warred with my body I was really warring with myself. I was hurting myself. All the anxiety and sickness was the result of my war.

The crazy thing about this type of obsessive way of being that I lived is that it became a self-reinforcing loop. It started out as an obsession over my body, which led to an obsession over food and exercise. But the consequences of starvation and over-exercise and chronic stress are things like more stress, anxiety, fear, paranoia, and generalized obsessions with compulsions to boot. And for me all of that started to take on moral and spiritual overtones. I started to seek answers in philosophy and spirituality – things which I would then distort to serve my sick perceptions. I would meditate for hours followed by chanting and prayer. I would view insomnia and digestive problems as spiritual problems to be solved by greater purity and moral uprightness.

But for 20 years I was starving myself. I was denying myself basic necessities – nutrients and energy. My problems weren’t spiritual. My problems were dietary. I just needed to eat. Well, to be fair, I needed to eat and I also needed to relax. Mostly I needed to do both at the same time.

I feared so many foods at different times over the years. I feared sugar, refined grain, grain in general, meat, dairy, starches, vegetables, beans, fat, polyunsaturated fat, and probably even more if I cared to think about it any longer. I would obsess for hours and days over things that I had eaten or even things I hadn’t eaten. But what is amazing to me is that when my rules would change then I could eat something without any worry even though it had previously been a cause for stress. For example, I was fearful of meat for well over a decade, during which time I couldn’t even think about touching meat without being stressed. But once I gave myself permission it was no problem. I swore off all forms of concentrated sugar for many, many years, but then once I gave myself permission to eat it again it wasn’t a problem at all. So my realization with regard to all this was that the foods themselves were not a problem. It was only my attitude that was the problem. I was making myself miserable with my attitude.

So I started eating. I made a choice to acknowledge that my strategies had not only failed, but they were the very problem itself. So I decided to stop using the same old strategies or variations on them. Instead, I decided to listen to my body and my real needs. I ate what I wanted, and I ate often and a lot. I threw out the rules. My only guideline was to eat as much as I could using my desires as a way to determine what to eat. I did have goals to keep me honest – aiming to eat 3500 calories a day at least. But I didn’t stress about it. I didn’t look at the situation as one to win or lose. Rather, I chose to see it as life, a process, an adventure. And I started to feel better.

Therefore, in any restrictive eating situation I believe that one of the most important things a person can do is to eat. Eating enough (which is WAY more than you think) helps with so much – energy, mood, sleep, and more. But just eating is a difficult thing to do without also addressing the coincident obsessive tendencies that have gotten hardwired after living with an eating disorder.

So what I have come to believe is that true happiness is the natural result of a conscious choice to disregard obsession. True happiness is not something to attain as much as it is what is already present – what becomes clearer the more one chooses to ignore obsession. By following this advice – to turn away from obsession and instead discover true happiness – I found that I was able to eat more, experience faster recovery, and enjoy life for the first time in years. I stopped worrying about perfection, purity, and spiritual enlightenment because I was actually nourished and naturally felt good!

I have written about this elsewhere on this site, but it is worth mentioning again because I find it to be so powerful: I have found (and others have reported to me that they also find this to be true) that mental tension and anxiety are secondary to physical tension, and it is impossible to be anxious or obsessive when physically relaxed. My own experience of all those years of obsessiveness and anxiety is that I was usually struggling with my thoughts and obsessions…unsuccessfully. What I finally realized was that no amount of struggling with obsession will lead to a way out of the obsession. It is like a Gordian knot – the more you struggle with it the worse it becomes. So I started looking for a different approach.

What I asked myself was this: how did I know I was anxious? How did I know I had a problem? The answer? I knew it because I felt it. I felt it physically. I felt tense. So instead of obsessing and getting tangled up in thought and worry, I decided to ignore that and focus instead on the physical sensation. I noticed that I could find all the places in my body where I was tense and I could physically relax those areas, one at a time. At first, because I was in the habit of being tense, I could only relax a muscle for a split-second. So I’d have to consciously relax it again. But eventually I started to notice that I just started to be more relaxed. This practice, simple as it is, has been the most powerful force for healing in my life. It has helped me to effortlessly integrate all the wisdom I have learned throughout my life. This simple practice has helped me to rediscover happiness, peace, and laughter! I am so much more easy going now than when I was super uptight and focused on obsessions. Eating is easy and pleasurable. And things just keep getting better. Sure, I still get upset. Sure, I have my problems. But this simple practice has dramatically improved my life like nothing else.

3 years ago

Interview with Matt Stone

I’ve just published an interview with Matt Stone in the Interviews section. Check it out! I am very pleased with how the interview turned out. Matt was very gracious to agree to the interview, and his responses really far exceeded my expectations. I have a great deal of respect for Matt’s transparency, honesty, and humility…not to mention the wisdom he has gained with regard to metabolism and health.

3 years ago

What Is Health Food?

200px-BlotterKelloggsCornFlakesAdvertizement1910sListen, if you’re obsessed with eating healthfully, then I’m going to guess that you’ve got some mistaken ideas about what health food is. I know I did…for a very long time. Here’s a brief history of some of my ideas about health food:

  • healthy food contains no fat
  • healthy food comes exclusively from plants
  • healthy food is whole food such as whole grains
  • healthy food is raw food
  • healthy food contains no salt
  • healthy food is grain-free
  • healthy food is low carbohydrate
  • healthy food is no carbohyrdrate
  • healthy food is vegetable juice
  • healthy food is grass-fed beef liver and raw grass-fed butter (and maybe the occasional piece of organic red leaf lettuce) and nothing else

The truth is that there is no such thing as health food in the universal sense because what is healthful for one person at one point may not be healthful for another person or even for that same person at another time.

I contend that what makes food health food is the following:

  • The person eating the food eats it because they feel a desire for the food and joy in eating the food
  • The person eating the food releases all stress and anxiety about food, eating, or anything else before, during, and after eating

We all have our reasons to seeking out “health food”, and I would suggest that a good many of those reasons are dysfunctional and really don’t serve our health. For me the search for health food started as a way in which to rid myself of breasts. After years and years the habit of seeking health food was so ingrained that I lost sight of the underlying reason that started it all, but I kept going with the obsessive search for perfection. I wanted to be superhuman, pure, and achieve what amounted to god-like status through diet. But as my health food continued to lead me further and further into a downward spiral of worsening health, eventually weakening my digestion, my metabolism, and my immunity to the point where I could barely eat 1500 calories even on a good day, I was irritable, I was fatigued, and I was caught up in a full-blown nightmare of obsessive thinking and compulsive behavior. I know I’m not the only one either. I have heard from others. I have read others’ stories. I know that this is a well-kept secret epidemic that affects millions of people. Millions of people who are bloated, insomniac, cold-intolerant, depressed, constipated, dehydrated, and/or suffering from all sorts of other mysterious ailments. And the search for health food is a big part of the problem, not the solution.

If someone has to tell you that some food is health food, then it probably isn’t. Most of what passes for health food isn’t. That isn’t to say that for some people on occasion a raw vegetable salad or wheatgrass juice or a zero-carbohydrate day or a grass-fed beef liver only day might not be healthy. But the key to knowing what is health food is listening to your body and your desires. What truly feels as though it would be the most delicious and satisfying food or meal for you right now? Chocolate cake? Lifesavers candy? Peanut butter? Jello? Sourdough bread and cheese? Ice cream? Or maybe a baked potato with butter and lots of salt? Pretzels? Yum!

Tell me if when I listed off those things you didn’t have objections. Maybe you’re on a gluten-free diet or a low carbohydrate diet. Maybe you don’t eat refined foods. Maybe you don’t eat dairy because of lactose or casein intolerance. Maybe you’re on a low salt diet. Peanuts have toxins, you say. Ice cream will make you fat. You don’t eat sugar. But forget about all that for a moment. Granted, there are some rare cases in which a person knows they have a genuine, intense, negative reaction to a food. In such a case it is prudent not to eat that food (for now.) But tell the truth: most of us don’t have Celiac disease. Most of us just have an idea that gluten is bad. Or maybe we have a mild discomfort from lots of gluten. But that’s different from full-blown Celiac. So this requires real honesty. And if you find yourself craving bread and pretzels and cheese and ice cream…maybe that’s your body telling you what you need.

See, I subscribed to this whole notion that the body cannot be trusted for a long time. I believed that I needed to look to external authorities for help in discovering what to eat. I thought someone else could tell me what is health food. But sometimes health food is raw vegetables and sometimes health food is gluten-rich, chocolate cake with ice cream and goitrogen-containing strawberries and salicylate-containing peppermint and caramel all made with refined white sugar and refined white wheat flour and lots of refined table salt. You can know which is which with a really simple test: what do you want to eat? What does your body want? I’m not advocating for extreme diets. I’m not advocating for eating lots of white sugar…unless that’s what your body wants.

Listen to your body. Trust your body. Stop stressing about the food. Stop stressing altogether. I know it sounds as though it’s easier said than done. But I’m writing this as someone who obsessed for 20+ years. I was so obsessive that I spent years washing my hands and turning in circles every time I even thought the word “sugar” or “McDonalds”. I believe that I know about stress and obsession and anxiety more than most. If I can do it, you can do it. And I’d be glad to help you if you want to reach out and ask. The key, in my experience, really and truly, as simple as it sounds, is to physically relax. Let the thoughts happen and just relax your body. Relax your jaw. Relax your belly. Relax your forehead. Relax your shoulders. And just keep relaxing. And eat what you desire, as much as you desire whenever you desire. Don’t worry about it. Things have a way of working out. Your body will tell you what you need, and it will change over time. So don’t worry about it.

4 years ago

How Memory Affects Your Health

Memory can play a huge role in your health – far greater than most people realize. Many traditions have long held that there is a mind-body connection, often explicitly stating that one’s mental health is largely responsible for one’s physical health. It turns out that modern science is starting to catch up with these assertions.

The information that gets stored in memory is often a complex set of information. This is what is known as associative memory in which multiple things may be grouped together into a single memory coupling. Perhaps the most well-known demonstration of associative memory is Pavlov’s famous experiment in which he intentionally coupled a sound (the ringing of a bell) with the presentation of food to a group of dogs. After enough repetition, the two independent things (the sound and the food) became coupled in the dogs’ memories so that the mere ringing of the bell (without presenting food) would then result in the same response as had previously occurred when the food was present (i.e. salivating.) But we all have lots of experiences of this sort in our own lives. If you’ve ever heard a song and found yourself feeling happy or sad all of a sudden, then you have experienced associative memory.

The fact is that associative memory is responsible for much of our pain. The reason is that our minds automatically encode memories in associative form. When we have an experience our minds group together not only the visuals, sounds, smells, and tastes, but also the kinesthetic response – in other words, our feelings. If you had a traumatic experience, say, a car crash, then your mind may group together the images and sounds and smells with the feelings of shock, terror, and pain. The result is that it is possible that subsequently any of the images or sounds or smells that you associate with the event could trigger the feelings as well.

I find it useful to reference the modern, scientific model of memory, in which we categorize memory as either implicit or explicit. Explicit memory is anything that you can consciously recall. For example, you may recall a specific event in which you first rode a bicycle. Explicit memory includes episodic (such as autobiographical) memory as well as semantic (i.e. remembering facts you learned or recognizing people you have met.)

Implicit memory, on the other hand, occurs below the conscious threshold. While you may have explicit memories of times in which you rode a bicycle, the actually skill of riding a bicycle is stored in implicit memory. You don’t have to consciously think about the mechanics of riding a bicycle in order to do it. In fact, it would be detrimental if you had to think about it. Instead, the memory is encoded, stored, and retrieved all below the conscious threshold.

When you combine associative memory and implicit memory what can result is that you may experience painful feelings, including not only emotional states, but also physical sensations, as the result of triggers associated with memories that you don’t necessarily even recall consciously. (Although, in some cases, such as post-traumatic stress, there may be clear recall of episodic memories.)

The point is that much of the emotional and physical pain that we experience, even if we cannot necessarily consciously associate it to specific memories, is likely due to association with memories. The good news is that it is entirely possible to decouple the aspects of associative memory, even if it is stored implicitly. The result is that recalling aspects of the memory or seeing similar images or hearing similar sounds or smelling similar smells will no longer result in an automatic painful response.

In order to understand how to decouple associated memories, it is useful to understand how memories get stored. Research shows that memories are unstable for a short period (around 10 minutes) following the actual event. Following that period the information is encoded into the mind-body in a more stable form. What is interesting is that in several studies over the past few years researchers have demonstrated something that alternative practitioners have known for years – that recalling a memory results in a new period of destabilization. That is then followed by a period of re-encoding the memory, a process known as reconsolidation. I think of this a bit like editing a file on a computer – you can open the file to edit it, and then when you save the file, the changes overwrite the old information.

Typically, when we recall memories the memory plays in much the same way as it was stored. It is typical that minor changes will occur naturally, either reinforcing or slightly modifying the memory. But usually the result is that any changes will occur very slowly, and the changes will be unpredictable. If the memory is particularly strong (even one below the conscious threshold that results in a seemingly irrational painful feeling) then the chances are that the reconsolidated memory will be as strong as before if not stronger. However, what is very exciting is that it is possible to use the destabilized timeframe in order to rewrite the memory with conscious intent. We can then reprogram our mind to store the old memory with a new feeling such a feeling of safety or peace or happiness.

There are lots of specific techniques for reprogramming memories, including EFT, FasterEFT, Eye Movement Integration, and various mindfulness practices. It is my belief that all of these techniques share the same basic principles of action. Here is my theory on the mechanics of successful memory reprogramming:

  1. Recall the memory. I believe that intentionally recalling the memory will often yield the best results. However, in practice I find that this process is still effective when used as the memory is recalled spontaneously. If it is possible to recall the memory explicitly then that is usually the easiest and most effective route. In other words, if it is possible to recall episodic memory details such as images, sounds, smells, and tastes, then that is my preferred method. However, if no explicit memory exists, then I believe this process will still work by simply tuning in to the feelings – be they physical or emotional. The key to success with this first step is to make the recall as strong as possible. Our habitual responses tend to be to try and avoid the painful experiences, but my experience shows that intentionally intensifying the memory/feeling is the best way to reprogram.
  2. Bring your awareness to the present and to the peace, safety, and happiness that are naturally present right now. Do this while still holding on to the memory. This is the step during which the various techniques can be most effective in achieving this goal. It is not particularly useful or necessary to try and consciously think about present peace, safety, and happiness. Rather, this will occur naturally simply by becoming aware of the present moment. Tapping and eye movement are two great ways to achieve this. However, by far, I find that the single most effective “technique” is to physically relax. If a memory (whether implicit or explicit) provokes a stress response then the best way to reprogram is to choose to physically relax instead while remembering the memory (which may mean simply allowing the feelings or sensations that arise if there is no explicit memory.) This may seem impossible or contradictory, but I promise that it really works if you do it. The key is to allow whatever happens, even attempting to intensify it while simultaneously physically relaxing. Notice the places where you habitually tense, and relax those areas. Notice your belly, your jaw, and your shoulders, for example – places where many people are chronically tense. Don’t get stressed if you can’t do it “perfectly.” Just by bringing awareness and the intent to relax you will be making positive changes.

That is it. Believe it or not, it is really that simple. Some times multiple repetitions of the process will be necessary. However, I believe that if you do the process with complete engagement, without shying away, allowing the memory recall to be complete and as strong as possible while using the tapping or eye movement techniques or the physical relaxation technique (or all three if you are obsessive like that) then the process will be successful in one round. It may then take several minutes or hours for the mind-body to reconsolidate around the new memory. Scientific research demonstrates that this usually occurs within 10 minutes to 6 hours, which is fairly consistent with the reports of alternative practitioners. During this time the brain and nervous system literally reorganize, creating new neural pathways and structures to support the new memory. And, in fact, because of the complex nature of the nervous system, it often happens that reprogramming a single memory can result in a massive reorganization in which many related memories also re-encode in happier, more peaceful ways.

The result is that you then have increased choice and flexibility. You can recall events that you want to recall, but without having to feel painful feelings automatically.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them below.

1 18 19 20