Forest Fires and Mental Health. How to deal with life’s disasters.

I'm currently living in an area impacted by a large wildfire. Although I used my personal impact for the topic, this was written for anyone who is living through stress and overwhelm regardless of the cause.


Every year fire season rolls around and we talk about it. We talk about how dry or not dry it is, how much snow we did or didn’t get. We talk about the trees, the heat, the lightening potentials. We try to predict where and when we’ll come around the corner and see the plume of smoke we know is not a cloud. We desperately hope it won’t be in our backyard. 

And then it happens. Somewhere, somehow a fire starts, we come around the corner and we see it, we can smell it, we hear the people on the street, the radio, and at work or play talking about it. 

We all stop and look, pointing while trying to determine how much space is between us and it, where’s it’s located, and is it affecting spaces I know. At first there is usually a lot of chatter, energy, maybe even excitement that parts of the forest may become more healthy, yet over time our endurance wanes and our hearts become heavier. 

We run out of “fuel” to stay positive about the impacts of such a natural event. At these times it is important to take care of ourselves because the effects do not go away easy.  Caring for our mental health is as important as caring for our physical health during forest fires (or any other disaster in our lives). 

Physical Health:

First, lets talk about physical health and mental health intersections. With an event like a fire we have a strong response in our bodies. We feel the primal nature of the event and register the lack of control. These add stress to the body and mind. Mind and body are not separate entities to be regulated to sections of your physical frame. In fact, if I want to know your serotonin levels (a marker for depression) I would take your blood or look at your gut health where the majority of it is made. 

If I want to know how stressed you are, I’ll take a saliva sample to check your cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone that impacts inflammation. Inflammation impacts joint pain, brain efficiency, heart health, and obesity to name a few mental to physical health connections. 

Your breathing rate is tied to your heart rate, and both are tied into your nervous system. When breathing or heart rate run too fast or too slow, your brain registers danger. When you feel like you can’t breathe it’s a big deal. Breathing is necessary for survival and your brain’s ultimate goal is to keep you alive.  This lack of oxygen (or the perception of it) shifts the brain into a hyper-vigilant state because it needs to find the danger. This elevates your nervous system and impacts items like digestion, rest, inflammation rates, and positive social connections. 

728x90gif

Sleep is a huge piece of physical and mental health. When we can’t sleep all sorts of things happen to the body and mind. The body goes through a number of important cycles during sleep. When we miss these cycles – guess what happens … the brain registers the lack of these important steps as a problem, it’s stressed because it’s running on lower than normal / needed systems. It’s like taking your car out but forgetting to top off the oil and then wondering why things don’t run smoothly. 

Here’s a concrete example of how the body and mind interplay on our health during an event like forest fire:

On a concrete level we have to deal with lots of smoke. This smoke makes it hard to breathe – stress response in the body – and may have a direct or indirect response getting enough sleep. So much smoke, gotta close my windows, now I can’t sleep because it’s hot or I’m so worried or sad for those effected. I can’t sleep because my mind is playing images over and over, or I’ve been evacuated and now I can’t sleep with all these people around me in the center. Soon our ability to mange regular daily stressors wanes and we have a harder and harder time being present to our life routines and relationships. Bottom line, because our physical systems are impacted – our mental health will be too. 

Here’s how to help make sure you are as physically strong as you can be during a stressful event. Get enough rest, good foods – these help make sure the body has what it needs to make the right neurotransmitters. Engage in healthy social contact. Being with people who help us feel safe and connected tells the brain that we are ok and the environment is ok, we have support. Move everyday. Moving gets things flowing through the system and allows your body to help you metabolize stress hormones and other emotion traces. It also helps you be grounded in the moment. This is important because all we have is this moment. Exercise helps us learn to be present to the current experience through physical sensations and teaches us that our behavior matters. Practice breathing with control. Do your best to slow down your breathing rate. When you slow the breath it slows the heart rate, when you slow the heart rate the brain registers that you are safe. This allows your body to help calm your mind. In as little as 3 deep breathes your body will begin to shift from stress responses to the relaxation response and re-set your nervous system, even when mind is trying hard to throw you off with all her chatter.

The Mind:

Second, let’s talk about mind. One of my favorite things is the mind. Mind is so creative and interesting. Sometimes mind drives us bonkers with it’s constant flow of ideas, thoughts, and review of our life. As noted above mind is influenced by the body and that means body is influenced by the mind. 

We are just chemical-electrical little beings. Every thought we have produces a chemical and electrical pattern we can map using fancy machines to look at live brains in action. When you have a negative thought it increase stress in the body by changing the balance of chemistry in your body. As your cortisol and adrenaline rise these influence and impact things like heart rate and inflammation levels. As noted above, these have physical health complications over time. 

In situations like a fire our mind runs rampant with worry and fear, which raise our stress hormone levels. We watch the news feed and look at the pictures. We talk to our neighbors and friends and strangers and repeat the same stories. All these actions create an electrical – chemical pattern in our brains. 

As humans we are very, very adaptable. We are made to adapt. When we follow a thought pattern over and over we create a neurological change to make it easier to access information “if we are repeating it we must need it”, says the brain. 

When something is continuing to happen repeatedly our brains figure we need it for survival, so it better adapt. It does this by changing it’s wiring. We call this neuroplasticity. Great when we learn to drive a car, not so great when we adapt toward more fear and worry. During an event like a forest fire, it is hard not to feed the fear, worry, grief, anger, and sadness. 

To maintain health we must work with our minds and shift our focus from what is not working to what is. Look for positive things in your life, even small things make big gains. Find a flower, the way the aspen leaves move, the fact that the smoke gets easier during the day, that you like the meal you are eating, or the book you are reading. It doesn’t matter what you shift to, as long as it’s something you like, even for a moment. Those small shifts break the cycle of negative thinking patterns.

We must take responsibility for the thoughts we think and the direction we allow our focus to take. If we let mind run rampant, it will. Those repetitive thoughts feed themselves, creating more negative thinking. Remember, if we feed it fear and worry, we’ll have more fear and worry. Due to adaptation, we’ll focus on and find more negativity all around us. If we honor the fear and worry, then shift our focus to something more positive we are able to control the effects on our body for the better. 

Now, some of you may be thinking, “you just don’t understand, I can’t turn my mind off” or “this is so horrible it won’t get better, this is a very bad thing” or some other version of the negative story. Switching your focus to something positive, does not mean you are ignoring the negative. It just means you are in control of your thought focus and you are managing what you pay attention to, thus what you experience in the moment. 

Happy people do not experience less negative things, they control their focus and perception. They find the positive or neutral pieces of those experiences better than less happy people. They also do a better job of accepting what is in the moment which gives them more control over their experiences and options for changing it. Happier people know they always have choices (hint: we all do) and they know how to manipulate their choices for the best outcome in the moment. 

Acceptance doesn’t mean you like the experiences, want it, or agree with it. It just means you acknowledge what is happening in this moment – not the one you want, not the one you wish you were in, not the one that would be easier. From the place of acceptance, it is easier to see what small step you can take in the direction of positive experience right now. A string of positive experiences creates a different neurological footprint and focus point. From here you have more control of your focus and thus the perception of the event. 

Life happens to us all the time. I can’t control most of it. What I can control is how I perceive it. This makes all the difference in the world when in comes to living under negativity or positive experiences. Acceptance isn’t just about the mind, it’s also about accepting your emotional state. 

 

Emotions:

Onto the third element of mental health, emotions. Emotions are a method of intelligence. Although many do not like feeling emotions or are confused by them, they are important pieces to understanding our experiences. Emotions help us know what we need to do with the experience we are having. During a fire we can feel lots of different emotions from fear, anger, sadness to guilt, despair, and even shame to excitement and happiness. 

When we first hear the news, we often feel fear right off the bat. Where is the fire, who is effected, where will it spread, how will it move, will I be effected? The unknown is scary. It’s hard to feel safe when we aren’t sure of what’s going to happen. This creates fear.

Fear doesn’t live well when we take control of the moment by being present to what we can control and practicing acceptance. Fear is helped by asking for help and support when needed, too. Seek out information that helps you feel supported and safe.

Many feel anger. Anger is a normal emotion when we feel something is unjust or that someone / something we care about has been hurt somehow. Anger is a healthy response that helps us do something with our emotional energy by making changes. This shift helps us feel empowered and more in control of our world, which decreases our level of fear and changes our perception of experience. 

For those of us taught to ignore our anger or those who fear their behavior when angry, it can be hard to honor and express it. It is important to express your emotions in healthy ways to help process and move beyond them. If you are feeling angry it can be helpful to get engaged with an organization we believe in making change in the area of concern, or talking with a trusted friend about your feelings and options for making change. 

It is not helpful to repetitively vent, blame others, use violent language or physicality, or ignore your anger completely. It can also be helpful to do the exact opposite of your anger impulse. Anger wants you to yell, honor it and talk softly, anger wants you to hide, find a friend to talk with, anger wants to stew on the topic, do something completely different, go volunteer to distract yourself. 

Sadness is often a large component of forest fires. As humans we are biological creatures and connected to nature thus we feel loss at the loss of natural life. It is sad and sadness is all about loss. For some of us we have lost our routines, sleeping in our own beds, or habitats we love. For some we’ve lost freedom of being outside and being comfortable. There are lots of things we’ve lost as the fires continue. 

Honor the sadness as it shows us what’s important and helps us create a life worth living around things that matter to us. If you feel your sadness, you know what you care about losing. Then you can make sure to build life experiences that allow you to engage with items most important to you, while honoring change. 

Guilt may arise as we find ourselves in conversation with others who are having a harder experience or we may be feeling a different emotion than others. Shame could also arise. Simply put, shame is about feeling like “I’m a bad person” where guilt is more about “I’ve done something bad”. It can be difficult to pick apart these emotions and deal with them. We often want to push them away and hide from them, however as with all emotions it’s more important to acknowledge them and make your choice to act on them from a place of authenticity. Both want you to hide and neither survive well when you are in connection with an empathic and supportive friend. Tell someone you trust what you are feeling to help mitigate these two. 

Despair can also arise, especially because this is a repetitive cycle. We hope and pray for snow and water, yet experience drought, we have a good year or two, followed by some bad years. Maybe we are engaged in the conversations about human impact on the climate.  All of these create situations where we feel helpless and small, we feel struggle not ease, and we feel as though the problems are so big we cannot solve them. As with anger, it is important to work toward small changes you can feel competent making in your own life. As one person we work in our individual environments to make change, then connect with others making small changes to make a larger impact on the world. Despair results when our sense of helplessness becomes so great that we see no way out. The way out is making small changes we feel good about it. 

Happiness, excitement, or joy could also be part of our experience. For many we understand the transformative power of fire and may feel an excitement at the change fire brings. For some we feel excitement or joy knowing fire is natural part of nature and part of healthy forest development. For some we recognize fire is about creating a new beginning and we enjoy seeing the resiliency of the forest as it returns, reminding us all that we, too are resilient beings. 

The bottom line on emotions is: whatever you are feeling know it’s normal and it is ok. As humans we can feel a lot of emotions all at once and that is ok. When we work to honor our current experience through emotions, we use them to form actions in healthy outlets. As a result our life becomes more vibrant and rich. 

Final Thoughts On Dealing with Difficult Life Events:

If you feel overwhelmed by your experiences seek extra help from a professional. Therapy is great, when else can you sit with someone trained to actively listen to you talk about you for an hour with no bias in your situation. We need other humans to build our brains and make sense of our experiences. Seek out help if you need it. 

Finally, perception is everything. Life happens, and it happens to all of us. We have little control in what is going on around us, however we have much control in how we respond to it. The way you manage your physical environment and body, pay attention to your thoughts and focus, and allow yourself to gather information from your emotions and make informed healthy action choices as a result, keep us regulated. This regulation is important as we continue to be stressed by disruptions and as we continue to move through this year’s fire season and beyond. 

Make sure to take care of you. 

If you enjoyed this article try one of these:

What to do with my emotions  Or  Making sense of physical emotions

#416Fire   #fitnesspsychologist

11 Ways to Increase Your Joy This Summer

I often get asked how to create more joy. People come into my office and ask “how can I be more happy”. The answer isn’t in big changes. The answer lies in your perception of everyday.

When you make small conscious choices to notice more of what’s around you joy begins to follow. When you make a conscious choice to look for good things – we can all find the crap – it’s those of us who find the beauty that surrounds it who find where joy lives. Deep within us.

Finding joy can be difficult to do, especially if you’ve been taught to find the negative. Here are 11 actions you can use to bring more joy into your life starting right now.

  1. Rest more – we hear this all the time, and the reality is rest helps us balance our lives, our bodies, and our emotions. By making sure you are getting enough rest – not just sleep but rest – throughout your day, you are more likely to enjoy your days more.
  2. Take it slow – along with more rest comes taking it easy. This isn’t about doing less, but being more deliberate in what you do chose to do. Rather than rushing from item to item on your to do list, build in buffer time. Personally I struggle with transitions and “wasting time” if I arrive somewhere early. However, in reality the 10 minutes I think I’m “wasting” help make sure I go to the bathroom, find a parking place, and arrive in a relaxed mood for my next project etc making the quality of my life much better. By slowing down a bit I notice more and am more engaged. In the end it doesn’t get wasted after all. Thanks – Roxann – still hard for me, but great advice!
  3. Laugh – hard, really hard. Laughing is good for our physical system and good for our soul. Find something every day that makes you laugh. Maybe it’s a movie, a song, a child playing joyfully, a friend who tells funny jokes. Doesn’t matter where you find your inspiration as long as you can laugh deeply and fully – big belly laughs. Don’t have anything to laugh at? Here’s a trick … just start laughing. The physical sensations and act of beginning will eventually keep it going.
  4. Find Water – this time of year those of us in the northern hemispheres are feeling the heat cranking up. It’s time to find water. Water helps us release and let go, it helps us recognize that all things are fluid and to find strength. If you haven’t seen the strength of water’s steady determination check out this video … just might help you figure out how to accomplish #5 & 8 below:
  5. Watch the moon come up and find the stars – for many of us, the lazier days and later sunsets have us up into the late evenings. Go outside and find the moon. Watch as she rises and the stars come out. We need moon light just like we need sunlight. Enjoy a full moon hike or lay out under the stars while it’s warm and enjoy preparing for sleep in the quiet of the evening.
  6. Smell the “green” – During the summer months when plants are in full swing there is more oxygen kicking around and you can smell it J Humans like oxygen. Take advantage by taking deep breaths and observing the behavior of leaves, the feel of the breeze, and the smell of “green” as I used to call it when I was little. Up here in the Rocky Mountains flatlanders pay for this stuff (in bottled form) on the ski slopes and in their hotel rooms. When the trees and grass is green no need to shell out the extra bucks.
  7. Read – Summertime is a great time to read. Find a good book or two and just lounge while you read. Get into your imagination as you make your way through a story. It is so fun to find good reads and finish them under the sun or in the shade of a great tree made just for leaning against.
  8. Hang with friends – in the season of vacations – the ones we chose, not necessarily the obligated ones we experience in the winter, allow us to pick our adventures and who we want to adventure with. Find some friends, find an adventure, enjoy! Then repeat.
  9. Start your day with mindfulness – by taking some moments to enjoy your morning beverage on the porch (because it’s warmer) you have the option to breathe deeply and experience # 6 above or talk to a passing neighbor (human or animal) enjoying # 8. By starting with mindful observation you participate in #2 and I think your day incorporates more of #1 just because you set it up to start that way.
  10. Sleep in or wake up early – many of us have an altered schedule in the summer. Be it due to school being out, or co-workers and clients on and off vacation, many of us have something slightly different in the summertime. So take advantage. Maybe you want to do # 5 above so you sleep in, maybe you want to wake up with the sun and have a full fun and long day. Whichever your preference today – make it happen.
  11. Did I say rest more? Even if you ignore all the others on this list … make sure you get this one done!

Here’s to a happy and fun summer – Enjoy!

Align With Your Authentic Self

Last time we discussed how getting out and being alone can help us “hear” ourselves talk. As we spend more time with ourselves we build a strong sense of self and deeper connection to the type of person we want to be.

As great as this sounds. It can be really, really, really, hard to develop your best self. Especially if you have trouble hearing your own voice over the loud, sometimes very loud voice of society. Last post, we looked at values and how to determine your value set. Now we’ll look at how to put the values you identified into action and create your next best self. 

First, determine which values are your top priorities. These might be overarching themes that help guide you in a variety of places (i.e. be kind to all people) or they may be specific and help set you up for successful decision-making (i.e. family is important to me). Once you have the themes and/or specifics, making daily decisions to live your most authentic self gets easier. If your top value is be kind, you know you need to work on being kind to every person you encounter regardless of differences. If you view family as most important, any decision that takes you away from a family connection should be evaluated to determine if it moves you closer to your goal of deepening your connection to family members or moves you away from those connections. If it moves you away, you say no. 

Next, take a solid look at your life. Are you doing things everyday to show that these are the most important values to you? Many people talk a great game about family, relationships, health, work, etc, however when you look at their lives they are not working out or eating healthy, spending time with friends when they say family matters most, watching  A LOT of TV instead of being present to their kids – you get the picture. Are you talking the talk AND walking the walk around what’s most important to you? If not it’s time to change things up in your daily routine. 

As you take a hard look at your life, what habits and beliefs can you shed to move closer to your goals? Begin by writing down your daily routine. When you wake up what’s the 1st thing you do? Then the 2nd? 3rd? And so on. As you examine your routines in detail you will find there are places you can eliminate wasteful current behaviors and replace with those that get you where you want to go. If you find this overwhelming hire a therapist or a coach to help you step back from your daily grind and create the life you want, not just the one you were handed. Once you know what you want to do differently it’s time to set up practice. 

According to Magen and DeLisser (2017) experiential learning (learning by doing) is an effective way to to learn. The environment that set up practice in their program helped trainees learn skills in a safe, comfortable environment. Practice looks different for different folks. You might need to break your new behavior into small steps and practice the small steps until they become routine; only then move to the next step in the process. Other changes will require you tackle a bigger project and dedicate some time and space to trying out your new behavior in a variety of environments to find success. As you look toward behavior change, recognize it’s hard and possible. With some planning and support you can become whatever you want to be, do whatever you want to do, and grow into your best self.

Once you’ve set your new behaviors in motion you have to assess along the way. Is your new behavior working? Impacting your life the way you want it to? Adding value and authenticity to your living? Cutrer et al., (2017) state “individuals learn and innovate in response to practice challenges”, (pg 70) and report reflection and self assessment are a critical pieces to help move from those uncomfortable places of new behavior change to integrating new skills until they become second nature. Through self assessment we can acknowledge what is working and what isn’t, making micro changes to study the experience of trying new things, and adjusting until it’s just the way we want it … at least until we decide we want the next change. 

Finally, you have changed to the point of being a different person in the environments you wanted to shift. You have aligned your new behaviors with the values you determined matter to you most, and have enlisted reflection and assessment to help you make small shifts until it was exactly what you wanted.

Now, some advice for along the way. Making changes can be hard. Really hard. It may impact the way friends and family relate to you and/or how you relate to them and activities you used to do together. In my work, I often work with people who are struggling to change while those in their environments aren’t helpful. In fact, they may even encounter people they love sabotaging their efforts. Often this isn’t malicious, just a response to the fact that as you change you impact those around you, and they may not want to change. They may like the patterns you’ve set and feel threatened by your personal development. Your development may require that they become more responsible for things around the house or in your relationship, or it may require they release some control. There are all sorts of ways we impact each other and ways to work with change to make the bumps easier. If you feel overwhelmed by this idea, get some support. A good friend who believes in you, a therapist, a support group, a coach, a personal trainer, a nutritionist, a health coach can all be options. Check out this previous poston behavior change and setting realistic goals to help focus your efforts.

So as you look through your values list and contemplate your next steps, it’s important to evaluate a few things. What makes them so important to you? Are these values yours? Not initiated by an outside source (i.e. person, group, etc), but really yours? This step is important as you begin to determine life changes. You’ll need to understand why these values matter to you. Your why keeps you motivated and buoys the hard times during the change process you’ll inevitably face. Once you have your why and know the changes needed to align your life with your values list, you’ll be able to put into place daily practices and rituals that help you meet your authentic self right where she belongs  … with you at all times.

References:

Cutrer, W. B., Miller, B., Pusic, M. V., Mejicano, G., Mangrulkar, R. S., Gruppen, L. D., … Moore, D. E. (2017). Fostering the development of master adaptive learners: A conceptual model to guide skill acquisition in medical education. Academic Medicine, 92(1), 70-75. 

Magen, E., DeLisser, H. M. (2017). Best practices in relational skills training for medical trainees and providers: An essential element of addressing adverse childhood experiences and promoting resilience. Academic Pediatrics, 17(7S), S102-S107. 

#SoloAdventures: Why being alone is important for our society. 

I was talking with my daughter as she came back from a camping trip with friends. I asked her what she learned about her self and others on this trip off grid. She said “I learned that there’s times I need to be alone. When I’m alone I am able to find my values and myself”. I thought this was a pretty brilliant answer for a 15 year old who struggles to find her own voice in an age of intense peer pressure.

When I asked her what she thought her values were, she didn’t have a good answer. She said “that’s why I need to be alone, I need time to think about what kind of person I want to be and what’s important to me so I can be the best version of me”. Pretty … damn … smart.

I started thinking, regardless of our age, we struggle to determine the people we want to be. We often struggle to find ourselves in the face of change and our voice gets buried in the load roar of society’s voice. That’s why being alone is so important. You need time to reflect and contemplate what you want in your life, who you want to be.

When you find yourself on solo adventures you only rely on you. You are only doing things you want to do, eating where you want to eat, and exploring what you want to explore. You do not listen to anyone else’s voice, hear anyone else’s opinion, or deal with anyone else’s expectations. When you solo adventure you have to rely on yourself and find your own strength to navigate, to get around, to figure out timing, and make decisions. 

This is no easy feat, in our world there are so many choices in every moment it’s often safer to stay between black and white, right and wrong, good and bad. When we don’t know ourselves well and have a strong identification with our personal values, it’s safer to adopt values based on someone else’s voice. It’s easier to let someone else tell us what we should and should not do, who we should like, what we should like, what we should eat, how we should move, when we should go to sleep, what we should read, the list goes on. It’s also a bit of a cop out. If things go wrong or don’t turn out as we expected it’s not our fault we were just following what we were taught. Solo adventuring allows you the opportunity to find out what your own values are and then live your authentic truth. 

I know this is a commercial … but I like all the different places it shows. I do not know about this company. I just liked the video. 🙂

Finding values is hard. There’s great freedom and responsibility in value choices. If you haven’t given your values a thought in a while, now might be a great time to take a value inventory determine what it is that matters most to you. From here you can look at your day to determine if you are living up to your values. So many of us give great lip service to values, but we don’t really live by them. We say we care about our health while tanking it with our food choices, say we care about being present while using substances to alter our state whenever we are with good friends decreasing our ability to be fully present to them. We say we want to move more, while driving around looking for the closest parking spot. If you haven’t spent some time soloing – it might be time to book yourself some alone time and reflect on how well you’ve been living up to the person you say you want to be. 

If you haven’t thought about your values in a while check out this values inventory to help you get started. This is a great place to start. It’s important to check in on your values every so often. The person you want to be today, may not be the same person you were 2 years ago, 5, 10 years ago. Solo adventuring offers an opportunity to take space and develop a relationship with yourself. 

728x90gif

When you have a strong self-relationship, you know who you are – deep down know who you are. You know you are not trying to fit yourself into someone else’s category. You have an understanding of what’s important to you. Once you have clarity, you have an opportunity to practice skills that move you toward the person you want to be every day (more on this in the next post). Other people’s voices no longer crowd your mind, you know what to do to live your most fulfilling life.

This is an amazing gift to the rest of us. When you live your most authentic self, the rest of us are free to live our authentic lives. We all get an opportunity to bring our gifts to the world and be valued for them. Ahhh, isn’t that what it’s all about in the end?

For years I have worked with people who are lost when it comes to follow through on goals and behavior changes. It can be frustrating to set goals only to fail at achieving them. One reason people do not reach personal goals is they do not prioritize themselves above others. Now this may sound selfish, and many of us have been taught that to focus on myself would mean I am not a community player. However, the reality is … you MUST focus on yourself first. You cannot take care of anyone else if you are depleted. You HAVE to put yourself first if you are to be in a place to give. 

Many of us are so busy. In fact you may be saying “if I take that hour for myself, I won’t be able to feed my kids dinner or walk my dogs or get that project done at work”. Believe me I know. This is a constant struggle in my life. How can I balance my personal creative outlets, workouts, work tasks, feeding people, being a good pet owner, and showing my kids and husband how much I love them? Some days it feels like an unsurmountable task.

Yet what I know is … if I take care of me first, then the other stuff gets done AND gets done better. I’m more focused, engaged, and connected to my family, friends, and pets. I am more efficient at getting my work done because I am focused. I am happier because I feel better about myself. This is a direct result from accomplishing a goal I set in front of me. I feel masterful. The feeling of mastery is important in building self confidence which brings out my best self to share with others. To have all this, I MUST put myself first. 

In a study done by Burke, Swigart, Warziski, Derro, and Ewing (2009), the authors found that self-monitoring is a great way to increase understanding of behavior choices and change options, however 2 groups of people struggled to follow through. One group committed half way and the other gave up, completely. Key factors included making themselves and their goals a top priority and finding positive supportive people to surround themselves with. The pieces that separated those 2 groups from the one that solidly made their goal during the year of weight loss, and maintained it 6 months later, outlines ideas we can all use. 

First, the group that made it was organized and focused on the goal. They carried their food diaries (part of the study guidelines) with them, recorded their food and exercise choices, and had supportive people in their lives. They reported an understanding of cause and effect. They knew and/or learned how their choices everyday contributed to the goal they’d set and they made their choices in ways that promoted their success. On the other hand the groups that struggled had some big differences.

In both groups that struggled to meet the goals people were not as organized. They spoke of forgetting their journals or writing down daily food choices on scrapes of paper they later lost. They didn’t have strong support people in their corner and they didn’t prioritize themselves over other obligations. They used more excuses regarding busy life tasks and other responsibilities to make up for emotional eating and lack of adherence to the plan set forth by the study. Some even hid their goals and hopes from their loved ones and co-workers or commented on the sabotaging behavior toward them partners and friends did regarding their goal. In the group that struggled the most they were more overwhelmed with life, reported more physical exhaustion, had more self blame, and were not able to nurture and take responsibility for themselves. 

Want to take control of your life? Track yourself!
Fitbit

It’s interesting how we get in our own way. In the last article on the imposter phenomenon (Feeling Like a Phony. The Imposter Phenomenon) we discussed how we might come to hide our brilliance or feel like we can’t really try because we might fail. Many of us use this as a way to circumvent reaching our goals. Today, we are looking at how not taking full responsibility for ourselves and our personal choices gets in our way. Do either sound like you? If so they may be keeping you from your health goals.

Do you set a goal only to find ways around by blaming yourself or others? I hear things like “I can’t eat that way, my family won’t like it” or “I had to stay late at work because I couldn’t say no” or “everyone does it that way in my family, I don’t think I could go for a walk instead of watch TV”, this list goes on.

Do you find yourself setting the bar so high you’ll never make it on the first try and then blame yourself or others for your failure, shame yourself, or collapse under the strain of trying to be prefect?

What about organizing and planning well? Do you find yourself disorganized and unable to find your keys, journal, pen, a shoe not to mention find the time to collect your thoughts and write them down/track your food and moods?

The bottom line is you have choices everyday all day long. When we understand the link between our choices and our outcomes – plus take full responsibility for those outcome – we become more powerful. Here are some questions to get you started:

  1. Are you the top priority in your life?
    1. If not, why not?
  2. Can you keep your goal in your sights all the time (i.e. the office lunch? Holiday dinner? Getting to bed on time so you can work out early?)
    1. If not, what gets in your way?
  3. When planning your focus, can you follow through on packing snacks, choosing healthy movement/eating options, and getting enough down time in your daily life?
    1. Again, if not, why not?
  4. And if you can do those things – how do you do it? 
    1. What makes you successful? 
    2. How do you hold your focus?

Do you have the right support people in your corner? Who are they and what do you like about their support? If you don’t have supportive friends and family, where can you find them? A group? Work? Trainer? This was an important part of success for the group able to maintain their weight loss and a huge factor for the group that struggled the hardest. Here are some tips on finding a workout buddy who can support you: 3 things to consider when choosing a workout partner. 

If you are struggling with any of the above connect with me. Sometimes the behaviors getting in our way are serving a purpose. For instance, you might not know anyone you respect who is organized, or you may have been taught to be perfect is the only option. You might find that to reach your goal means your friends and family become distant and that is painful and confusing. At times the lack of accomplishing a goal is about the meaning we place on the goal and our identity tied into who we are today and who we believe we can be tomorrow.

Reference:

Burke, L.E., Swigart, V., Turk, M. W., Derro, N., and Ewing, L. J. (2009). Experiences of self-monitoring: Successes and struggles during treatment for weight loss. Quality Health Res 19(6), 815-828. doi:10.1177/1049732309335395 

Photo Credit: Confessions of a Jesus Freak Blog Post