My work means I meet people constantly. While they all come with different needs and nutritional concerns; from performance outcomes to food anxiety, fundamentally they are all looking for that golden nugget, that something that is going to make them feel “complete”.
Indeed, none of us are immune, talking to my close friends, it does feel like so many of us are just trying to “make sense” of what life is and should be. However, in the case of many that I work with, this pursuit for “constant happiness/success/completeness” often results in extreme behaviours, which can result in short and long term health problems.
Its important to remember that the mind and body are not separate entities; making a change at one level can have severe implications and consequences at another point within the body.
Let’s take the example of restrictive eating. It usually starts with the individual believing that changing their nutritional intake; going gluten free will improve their overall health and energy levels. This in turn will make them happier and more accepted. However, when this change doesn’t provide the response they were hoping for, they may remove a further food group. Over time their diet and energy intake becomes so restrictive, it leads to biochemical and hormonal irregularities, resulting in depression, anxiety and bone health problems. Similarly, many of us turn to exercise to help with stress and improve general health parameters; while we know exercise is good for us, there is a dose related response. So if we take it to an extreme, it can become obsessional, leaving the individual feeling more anxious when life or circumstances means they are unable to train.
Where does this all come from? Why the constant need and search for “perfect”? It does feel that we are a society that defines individuals by external validation. We are only deemed successful if we have “achieved”. The constant pressure to live by ideals, from what we look like, to what we eat, even to what the interior of our home looks like. It feels like we live in a constant state of judgment. For those of us who are vulnerable, who struggle with our sense of self, this creates more anxiety; we crack the whip harder but no matter what we do, we are never good enough. While love and happiness are positive emotions to experience, many of us run a mile (quite literally) when it comes to experiencing these difficult emotions such as loss, uncertainty, pain and trauma. Its fairly understandable –any of us who suffer with anxiety know that it can be debilitating; the severe physical feelings, that you can sense deep within you and make you want to just unzip and escape from your body. However, the problem is that no matter what “coping mechanisms” you put in place to “control, contain and numb” these difficult emotions, such as restrictive eating, over exercising, alcohol, sex or drugs, they are always temporary. Those difficult emotions always come back –eventually you have to choose to accept them, work your way through them in order to finally come out the other side and get on with your life. This obviously feels terrifying but working with a qualified psychological practitioner is critical. In order to change a behavior, we have to challenge it which means stepping out of your comfort zone and accepting discomfort, understanding that while it may cause you unease, nothing awful actually happens.
You will never find your answer in food or exercise. These are important components to a healthy life but as we have seen, they can fast become the crux too. Emotional problems need to be dealt with – you lack of self worth and ability to believe you are good enough will have developed through a number of different means –your experiences, your interpretations of situations. In order to be able to navigate through life, you have to learn self acceptance and, as said previously, I highly recommend working with a clinical psychologist trained in this field. So many of us allow our circumstances to define who we are and yet just because you didn’t’ achieve your job promotion, does that really make you a failure or a bad person? Of course not, fundamentally you are still you, the same you, you were a few days earlier when you felt comfortable in your present job.
When it comes to food and exercise, here are my top tips:
- Healthy eating is not about deprivation. In fact, I often describe it as unrestrained eating. Don’t follow fads, they are not the answer to eternal happiness and only leave you feeling low in energy and depleted of essential nutrients for required for optimal health. The key is to keep meals balanced and colorful; nothing should be off limits but be mindful of portion sizes of certain foods and frequency of eating them. Thinks of foods like friends, some you will want to spend more time with than others.
- Don’t compare –most of us have a love, hate relationship with it. More and more studies are finding that social media negative impact on mental health; we find ourselves socially comparing ourselves to everyone we follow. While it may not always be conscious, this can drip feed into our psyche and start to affect how we view ourselves. How come they can work a full time job, train 20 hours a week and have time for family? It makes us feel inadequate and thus feed into our desire to prove we are good enough. The thing you have to remember about social media is that it is rarely real. Most people will only post when life is going well. You also need to ask yourself, why do I need to compare? Fundamentally we are all unique, this is actually what makes us human; comparing yourself to another is futile because there is no-one who is going to have the exact same genetic and lifestyle make up as you. There really is no ideal as rarely are two human beings the same, with the exception of identical twins.
- And finally show yourself self compassion. Even if you do have a training session booked in, if you are tired or you just don’t feel like training, then take the day off. Or change what you are doing. Some mornings I wake and I just don’t feel ready to run; I’ve learnt that pushing through a session is not the answer. Listening to your body and understanding what it needs is. On these days, I just swap my morning run for morning yoga and a gentle walk. I still get the benefits but at a pace that is more suitable for me that particular day.