You can’t walk past the magazines in the supermarket, go out to dinner with friends or check your Instagram feed or Facebook these days without being bombarded by diets aimed to cure whatever ails you. All these plans—whether they’re gluten-free, Paleo, organic, vegetarian, or vegan—involve eliminating foods purported to cause a host of health problems.
One such popular program goes so far as to promise it will “change your life in 30 days,” offering testimonials (which, I might point out, do not count as scientific evidence) from participants who claim it has cured them of a long list of so-called “lifestyle-related diseases.” These include but are not limited to: high blood pressure and high cholesterol, diabetes (both Type 1 and Type 2), asthma, allergies, infertility, depression, bipolar disorder, arthritis, ADHD, and inflammatory bowel disease. The psychiatric literature, last I heard, doesn’t consider depression, bipolar disorder, or ADHD lifestyle-related diseases. That’s a topic for another post. But for now, I’ll get back to the subject at hand.
Even the widespread trend towards “clean eating”—whose proponents like to think of it not as a diet, but as a lifestyle choice or even a movement—comes with rules. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Eat only “whole” meats, preferably organic, whose sources you know. Eat only whole grains. Avoid all processed and refined foods (e.g., sugar, baked goods, white flour, white rice, empty-caloric junk foods). Avoid saturated and trans-fats. Drink at least 8 cups of water a day.
“What’s wrong with trying to follow a healthy eating plan?” you might ask. And my answer would be, “Nothing. Usually.”
But if you tend to become fixated on avoiding specific foods because you’re excessively concerned about controlling your weight or think they might cause cancer or other diseases, be careful. Even a so-called “non-diet” like the clean-eating approach can lead to emotional struggles for perfectionistic people prone to eating disorders or health anxiety.
Any time perfectionists impose all-or-nothing restrictions on themselves, they run the risk of getting upset and ditching the diet altogether if they think they’ve broken the rules. It doesn’t even have to constitute a major transgression, such as picking up a Big Mac, fries, and large Coke from the MacDonald’s drive-through on the way home from work. If you’re evaluating your food choices from the perspective of a black-and-white mentality (and comparing them with the colorful Instagram images of the kale smoothies, grain bowls, and lush farmers market produce others appear to be eating), you could easily beat yourself up for popping a handful of M&Ms at the movies or having white rice with your homemade, clean Pad Thai. Then you might decide you’ve blown it for the day (or week), and let loose with a full-blown binge. You’ll feel guilty, vow to atone and never stray again, and set yourself up for the next self-punishing cycle of deprivation and excess.
Let me make my position clear before the critics jump on me for questioning sound nutritional practices. I’m not suggesting you go overboard with the junk food and the trans-fats. I’m not urging you to forego whole grains in favor of Wonder Bread. I’m not recommending you trade your bottled water for a Big Gulp. I’m not even telling you the clean-eating lifestyle is bad. (Though I might be telling you not to drink the diet Kool-Aid du jour without seriously evaluating its claims from an evidence-based perspective).
But when food—no matter how nutritionally pure, unadulterated, and good for your body it may be—becomes a source of internal conflict, guilt and anxiety, you might want to think about what it’s doing to your mind.
As with most things in life, moderation and flexibility are the keys to emotional wellbeing. Your mindset about eating is just as important for your health as the foods you eat. Sadly, Instagram can’t capture that.
I just read an article on the popular home design website Houzz: “What You’re Reading this Summer–and Where.” Readers submitted their suggestions for books and their photos of favorite places to curl up with them–comfy chairs, plush sofas, porch gliders, and poolside chaises.
It got me thinking. I love nothing more than to lose myself in a long novel, and some of my favorite childhood memories involve trips to the musty library in the quaint Long Island town where we spent many summers. I’d collect a stack of books to last me a week and settle into an old wicker chair, legs dangling over the arm, to read until my mother insisted I go outside for some fresh air.
I still get that same feeling of anticipation when I’m searching for new literary material, though these days I browse Amazon for titles to download rather than library stacks for volumes to check out. But when I considered the question posed by Houzz, I realized I no longer have a special spot where I go to read. In fact, as much as I enjoy the act of reading for pleasure (as opposed to reading for professional development, which I tend to do in my office), unless I’m sick or on vacation, I never sit down just to read.
Most of my recreational reading takes place in snippets. I always squeeze in a few pages at bedtime until I can’t keep my eyes open anymore but I consider that more a habit, like brushing my teeth, than an activity sui generis. Sometimes I prop my iPad on the bathroom counter to read while I’m drying my hair. If I’m not checking my phone for messages or making a move on WordsWithFriends, I may read while waiting for an appointment or eating lunch.
So why don’t I ever stretch out on the couch with the dogs curled up at my feet to spend a few hours with a good book? Because it would feel too self-indulgent. Pangs of guilt for not tackling my never-ending To Do List would tarnish the experience.
I know I’m not alone in feeling uneasy about taking the time to engage in an activity purely for enjoyment. I frequently tell others with over-developed senses of responsibility and excessive stress levels to unwind by doing something pleasurable and engaging. Perfectionists in particular have trouble allowing themselves, even when relaxing, to give their achievement-oriented behaviors a rest. (Think about the golf enthusiasts obsessively dedicated to improving their games, or the recreational runners always pushing themselves to shave a few seconds off their race times.)
Maybe it’s too much of a leap to expect a chronic striver to hop off the “Doing” treadmill from time to time and embrace the Zen of “Being.” But for those in need of a rationale for resting, it might help to know that even business consultants and productivity experts are touting the value of “strategic renewal” through relaxation. As Tony Schwarz of The Energy Project, a management consulting organization, says: “Downtime is productive time.”
So let’s put an end to feeling guilty about relaxing. As for me, I’m going to find a cozy place to read my book.
Our MBSR class wrapped up a few days ago. We spent the last session reflecting on where we were when we started and where we are now after eight weeks of intensive mindfulness training.
It’s very hard to quantify the benefits of a consistent mindfulness practice (although brain imaging studies are attempting to do so). In our group, participants talked of feeling more patient, handling difficult situations more effectively, communicating more clearly, and recognizing physical responses to stress earlier. But these qualitative experiences are hard to measure.
I’ve noticed a subtle improvement in my ability to concentrate, sustain attention, and maintain an even emotional keel. Nothing dramatic, but enough to make me curious about what might develop over time and to keep me plugging away at it. Daily meditation doesn’t bring me bliss or elevate me to a higher plane of consciousness. More often than not, I have to push myself to do it. Sometimes it’s boring. Just sitting and doing nothing frequently makes me wonder if my time would be better spent in a more obviously productive endeavor, like weeding the garden or writing a blog post. But I’ve continued to maintain my streak (272 days and counting) because a growing body of research touts the merits of meditation.
So what has mindfulness done for me?
Well, I’m pretty sure it’s making my manicures last longer. I’m serious. I used to be able to keep my nails polished for a day, maybe two at the most. I’d see a chip and would be unable to resist peeling it off until every nail would be ruined. But since I started meditating, my manicures stay intact for a week.
There’s actually some evidence basis for my observation. Mindfulness is being used as a component of treatments for body-focused repetitive behaviors, such as trichotillomania, nail biting, and skin picking, to develop impulse control. So it might be helping me resist the urge to pick at my nail polish.
My manicures also may be lasting because I’m actually waiting for the polish to harden. I used to feel so antsy while my nails were drying that I’d leave the salon after a few minutes, reach into my purse for my keys, and mar the finish before I even got into my car to drive home. Now I take the opportunity to practice observing my breath while I wait, sometimes for as long as half an hour.
And one other mindfulness lesson may be helping preserve my nails: the acceptance of imperfection. In my premeditation days, I’d see a slight chip and not be able to stand it. But now I can notice the flaw, cover it up with a topcoat to keep it from getting bigger, and let it be.
You may think the grooming improvements I’ve reaped from practicing mindfulness are trivial. After all, a long-lasting manicure hardly qualifies as a major quality-of-life booster. But if you consider the value of learning how to wait patiently, resist impulses, and accept what isn’t perfect, you might agree it’s much more significant than it seems.
Fellow MBSR classmates: What has practicing mindfulness done for you? I’d love to post your comments.
This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.