Limiting Damage from Dysfunctional Coping Mechanisms

If you’re like me you might have been indulging in some dysfunctional coping mechanisms that last few weeks. You know what I’m talking about, right? Eating, drinking, impulse buying, avoiding exercise…

Well, those are mine. The bad news is that with the holidays fully upon us the emotional situations that bring on the need to cope are likely to only intensify. Your family is not going to stop arguing about the current US political situation just because it’s December and the Christmas spirit should dominate. They’re going to get worse, and we’re going to want to hide in a cave, eat chocolate candy, and buy sparkly things on Amazon while sipping a fruity cocktail and blasting the new Metallica album in our earbuds.

Or maybe that’s just me.

This post isn’t about changing all that and causing you to suddenly switch to a perfect food and exercise program this week. It’s about limiting the damage, because sometimes that’s the best we can do. So I’m only going to talk about limiting the damage, focusing on the dysfunctional coping mechanisms I myself am familiar with (for example, if smoking is your problem I have no idea how that feels so I wouldn’t even try to offer any suggestions but check out WebMD, maybe something they have is useful).

Eating Too Much

Yep, big one. Mine and everyone else’s. Eating releases dopamine. In short – eating comforts mammals. Evolutionarily, that’s an advantage. Real-world modern today, not so much. My best advice is to swap out the less-supportive foods you might want to binge on, with something that will do less damage. Remember, this article is just about limiting the damage. So, if your go-to is chips, switch to popcorn. Try some Skinny Pop, it’s tasty and only about 40 calories per cup. You can eat a LOT of it without causing too much damage. Or make some popcorn at home, light on the butter and salt.

If sweet is your thing, go to your grocery store and grab a bag or two of grapes, green or red or black, doesn’t matter. Wash those up and eat the whole bag if you want. Same thing with baby carrots. We can all admit that we’re not eating for the gourmet experience right now, we’re shoveling food in because it feels good, so look for foods you can eat in bulk with good texture: Broccoli spears, carrots, grapes, berries, slice up some apples. Honestly, if you just need to be putting something in your mouth, you can eat all the fruits and veggies you want without causing too much damage.

And dump some of the junk. If it’s not around you can’t use it/eat it.

Drinking Too Much

First of all, I’m not going to tell you to stop drinking. I’m not your mom, and this ain’t AA. If drinking a bit too much is what you need to do to get by for a while, let’s just limit the damage and sort out the rest later.

Light beer. Ugh, I know, it’s not as awesome as Guinness or local craft brews. But let’s be honest, are you really drinking for the nuanced flavor profile and deep complexity, or are you drinking because things look shitty and you need a little fuzziness around the edges to cope? If you’re drinking to cope, make it something less damaging. If beer is your thing, pick up some light beer, just to get through for a while.

Wine. It’s gonna be a better option than sugary cocktails, hands down. Dryer varieties have fewer calories, so skip the dessert wines (again, we’re not drinking for the flavor, let’s all admit it).

On the Rocks. Get right down to business. A shot of vodka, whiskey, gin, tequila, or whatever your spirit may be, is going to have about 65 calories per serving (shot). If taking the edge off is what’s important, have a straight up shot or two and call it good.

Mixers. Stick to low-cal mixers like diet soda or diet tonic, light cranberry juice, light juices in general (they exist, you just have to know to look for them), lemon or lime juice, or club soda.

Dilute. I’ve been adding water to my wine to reduce the caloric load and also slow myself down. It’s perfectly legitimate to dilute your drink with sparkling water or club soda. It’s also helped me avoid several headaches.

Water round. Drink non-alcoholic beverages every other time. Get yourself some flavored sparkling waters so you can feel fancy while you’re doing it. This will also help you to avoid hangovers so that you can continue to be a productive member of what’s left of society.

Shopping/Impulse Buying

I’ve been buying too much stuff – it’s so easy when you can stay home in your sweats and bring the world to your doorstep. Again – I’m suggesting ways to limit the damage.

Coupons. Check out Honey, a browser extension that scours the internet, then automatically applies the best coupon code at checkout wherever you are shopping. It’s not going to stop you from shopping, but it will apply discounts to limit the damage to your bank account.

Try Pinterest. The thing about Pinterest is that you can curate your own little world of things you like without actually purchasing them. You still have them, there, in your virtual world, if you want to look at them. I’m not sure how useful this would be, but it’s worth a shot.

Return policies. Most companies allow you to return stuff once you’ve received it. If you find yourself drowning in things you’ve bought recently and maybe shouldn’t have, it’s not too late once you’ve received it, although you may take a hit on the postage.

Donate. You can set the amount (make it something you can afford), and you still get the high of shopping for something and purchasing it.

Delay. I’ve got tons of shopping carts floating out there on the internet with things I put in and then waited a day to see if I really wanted them. I like putting stuff in online shopping carts. It feels like buying! It’s fun! Look at all this pretty stuff! And then I wait a day to see if I really, really want the thing more than I want money. Usually not.

Not Exercising

It’s weird that not exercising is a coping mechanism, but it can feel really pointless to expend the energy to improve our bodies when it seems like everything is going to hell in a handbasket. And of course, that’s when it will often do the most good. I personally have been having trouble mustering the energy to do the kinds of workouts I know I should be doing right now – HIIT, strength training, metabolic conditioning. Those are hard workouts that seem like so much effort.  So what I’ve been doing is pulling up my favorite trainer’s YouTube channel and just browsing until something that seems doable comes up. Right now punching things seems good, so I’ve been doing kickboxing workouts almost exclusively the last week. Punching feels good right now, especially when I envision certain faces in front of my fist. Cathartic.

Maybe what you need right now is some yoga, to center yourself and focus on breathing for a bit.

Maybe what you need is to go for a walk and get some sunshine. Maybe you don’t have any equipment but moving your body sounds like a good idea. Maybe burning really hard is how you need to clear your head.

And hey – feel free to zombie-walk your way through a workout. Nothing says you can’t just do the parts you like. Nothing says you have to be enthusiastic. Sometimes I start a video thinking, “Eh, I’m not feeling it, but I’ll humor her and if it gets too much I’ll just half-ass it.” And I do. But sometimes I start to enjoy the feeling of moving and I build some enthusiasm as I go.

In Conclusion…

You don’t have to start a diet and exercise program right now, dear lord no you don’t! But you can limit the damage of some of the dysfunctional coping mechanisms you may be indulging in, until you’re ready to take more drastic measures. So here I am, in the same boat, doing my best to limit the damage along with you. I don’t think anything here is rocket science, I think that sometimes it helps to have a list of things presented, though, so you can pick one or two to focus on. Feel free to just pick one or two. It’s enough.

Also, a Facebook break does wonders for the mind. Give it some thought. A day or a few days can really help with the sense of helplessness and catastrophe some of us are feeling.

Results: I don’t even know what week now

I’ve lost track on this current push to lose 20 pounds. There were two weeks that I was on vacation that I’m not counting because I wasn’t tracking, then I think I’ve been back three or four weeks? The day after I got back I was up 3.2 pounds, the next week after that trip I was down 5, then the next week I was up 2.8, then this week I was down 3.4 pounds.

As I mentioned last week, things are kind of up in the air right now with big changes happening in my life, and last week was an absolute emotional roller coaster that still hasn’t coasted to a stop. I spent most of last week and the week before with a giant knot of stress and worry in my belly. I was not in the least surprised to be up 2.8 pounds last Monday due to the anxiety hormones my body was producing. I’ve heard anecdotally that stress makes the body hang onto water, or something. Plus my birthday was that week and I had some champagne and a cupcake.

Anyway, I think maybe I should stop tracking weeks and weekly change and just track total against my goal. So far I’m down 13.2 pounds – loss continues! My loss rate is slowing as I approach my goal, but also I’m not killing myself with calorie restriction and over-exercising, so I’m not expecting a fast loss. I now have 6.8 pounds to go to my goal. I don’t think I look any different, however my clothes fit again and that is win enough for me – that’s honestly the major thing I wanted out of this!

Looking back through my posts, I started the current push on March 25th, so it’s basically been three months or twelve weeks. That’s a pretty slow rate of loss, but who cares? For something I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life, it’s more important that I find and establish a routine that I can stick to and that is adaptable to different situations – travel, weekends, holidays, regular ol’ workdays. When I set up a system that is flexible enough to stick with despite big changes and many different types of days, then all I need to do is live and my body will do what it is supposed to do, and be where I want it to be.

Yesterday I needed a quick workout because I didn’t have much time, and I found this Cardio Bootcamp Boogie workout from my favorite YouTube trainer – 25 minutes, can be done in very little space, and intense enough that my clothes were soaked through by the end. Check it out if you need a quick travel workout (or just some inspiration at home)!

Motivation and Willpower: Similar Problems

In class this week we talked about motivation, and how you find it, nurture it, and boost it. These are all great things, because often when people fall off the wagon it’s because motivation has waned, and considering that we’re all going to be doing this for the rest of our lives…there’s a long, long road ahead to stay motivated.

But I put motivation in the same category as willpower, by and large. It’s a variable emotional state that can come and go at random. The problem is, you have to be able to execute whether or not you’re feeling particularly motivated every day. Just like you have to be able to execute your plan whether or not your willpower is feeling strong.

The thing to do, then, is to set up structures – routines, habits, and environments – that will make it easier to default to “getting it done” than not. That’s when you really need the motivation – use motivation to set up the on-going situation that you’ll need to make success the default action.

Environmental control is one of the biggest factors in this quest. If you’ve set up your environment for success, then failing takes extra work (you’d have to be motivated to self-sabotage! Don’t do that!). If there’s nothing in my kitchen but supportive foods, I would have to make a special trip to the store or a restaurant to go off course. I’d have to stop and think about whether I really wanted to screw up all my hard work badly enough to make a special trip to do it. I never do, because I am essentially lazy.

Same thing with pre-packing supportive foods to go to an event like last weekend. All my food was right there, and I would have had to make a special effort – such as asking somebody else (who knows I’m on a diet!) for some of their food – to get off track.

This is also why my current exercise regimen is so perfect for me. It takes almost zero effort for me to go downstairs and do a DVD or YouTube workout at the time I have allotted in my calendar for my workout. I don’t have to leave the house, I just have to put on a sports bra, shorts, and shoes. If I wanted to NOT do it I’d have to sit there staring at my calendar reminder and think up reasons for not doing it. Then I’d have to justify if those pathetically lame excuses are really worth screwing up my hard work so far. Almost never do they meet that bar. And since there’s such a wide variety of options out there on the web, if I’m feeling low-energy, I can always just pick something that matches my mood, while still getting in my exercise.

Pretty much none of this auto-pilot stuff requires motivation on my part. What it requires, mostly, is an understanding of how my own brain works, and how to use that to catch myself in a web of good habits and practices. Once those are set up, it practically runs itself.

I’m not saying you should set up a routine just like mine, I’m saying a good routine for you should do the thing for you that mine does – makes it easy to succeed.

Prepping for Success!

I wish I could say it’s been really hard to get back on track and do all the things I need to do, like food prep and planning and regular exercise. I say that because if it were really hard for me to do those things then maybe I would be a more sympathetic character because maybe it’s something you are struggling with right now too.

But it hasn’t been hard at all, it’s been like pulling on a dress from the back of my closet that I haven’t worn in a couple of years and finding it fits perfectly. Delightful, and surprising, and quite a bit of a relief. It feels like that moment when you think, “Oh my god this is working! I can wear this, it’s perfect!”

If you find that annoying because you’re struggling with it, think about it this way: I’ve been doing this for more than thirteen years. It had BETTER start getting easier at some point. And it does (isn’t that awesome news?!). Eventually, if you stay at it, it becomes second nature, something you can do without much effort or thought.

Yesterday I had a long, long day of exciting fun events and staying on my feet. I did a minimal amount of prep – I picked up a small cooler from Target Friday night and shopped for some easy-to eat- fruit. In the morning I packed up easy, delicious, supportive things that I like to eat. Grapes, raspberries, pre-cut pineapple, a salad already mixed with homemade dressing in a tupperware, a diet soda, and an apple. These required less than 10 minutes of prep to pull together since they were already in my kitchen (and they were). I then threw some bananas, lunch and dinner entrees, and utensils in a paper bag and headed out the door. I spent all day at a medieval tournament event and didn’t stray off my plan for a second because I had so much food with me that the moment I felt even a stir of hunger I could pull something out of my stores and shove it in my face.

Swanky Evening Out!

Swanky Evening Out!

After I got home I heated up a dinner entree, had a double shake, and got dressed for my evening activity, a costume ball with some friends. I didn’t eat anything at the ball despite there being a table of light refreshments because I was already full when I got there and was having so much fun hanging out with friends and occasionally dancing that there was no draw. I also didn’t loiter near the food table or bar because that’s pointless temptation.

My point is that it gets easier with repetition, until it’s not the onerous burden it feels at first. You can still maintain a glamorous, fun lifestyle even while sticking to healthier eating. I didn’t miss out on anything, or feel left out by not being able to munch my way through the day (or rather, I did munch my way through the day, just not on sausage and cheese and eclairs).

There was a relief that came with the dawning realization I had throughout the day that I can do this, I have done this, and I can continue to do this because it’s not that hard! It takes setting up some structures and patterns in the initial stages, but it gets easier!

Strong Start, Accountability, and Environmental Control

I’ve been dieting for two whole days already, why am I still fat??

KIDDING.

Welcome to day three of my program. Three days is the common wisdom for how long most diets last. That’s because by day three the excitement and enthusiasm of starting something new has worn off and all the old temptations are still hanging around. This is the day when something else has to come to bear to keep things from falling apart. For me it’s a carefully constructed web of accountability and environmental control.

Accountability. Means something different to almost everyone. Or, rather, the things that make accountability work for you may not be the things that work for me. Take, for example, weekly weigh-ins. I need them, and I need to do them in front of somebody else. Not my partner either, he’s way too in love with me to care if I gain or lose a few (or a lot of) pounds. It has to be somebody impartial, somebody standing nearby with a clipboard and a pen. They don’t need to say a word, they just need to write down the number while I either cheer or offer lame excuses (this isn’t part of the program, it’s just what happens). I need to know that I’m going to be getting on that scale at the end of the week in front of somebody, it keeps me on track throughout the week.

I also know from years of experience that I can’t be accountable to me. In theory I should be the only person I am accountable to that matters, but in reality I don’t bring the necessary shame to the situation when I gain. I always have an excuse, and I always let it slide. When I have a gain and I’m weighing in at a program, my excuses always sound lame and I know it. Also, when there’s somebody weighing me in at a program, it’s because I’ve paid to be there. This really works on me – dammit I’m paying for this so I’m not going to waste my money! Like a weird hostage situation, I have to involve an outsider in my scheme to make it work. YMMV, as always.

Environmental Control. Means I create an environment in which screwing up is harder than following the program. I have a cabinet in the kitchen where my food lives, and it’s the only place I go. I’ve stocked up the fridge with fruits and veggies, the bowl on the kitchen counter is full of oranges, grapefruits, bananas, and other easy-open snacks.

And I don’t go into tempting situations hungry ever. Yesterday, for example, I went out to a medieval costume event, which could have been a challenging situation but I packed up all the food I thought I would need for a few hours, and made an agreement with my hubby to only visit for a short period of time. I ate lunch before I got on site, and I kept my fruit and other snacks handy. I told my husband before we headed out that I was packing enough food for the length of our planned visit, and once I ran out of food it would be time to go. This allowed me to ignore the many tasty treats sitting out on plates and tables, and also I quickly moved myself out of range of any foods that called to me. One thing I do religiously is ignore food that isn’t on my program. I don’t fixate, I don’t stare, and I certainly don’t longingly gaze. I just ignore it and move away. There’s no point in giving it the time of day, we aren’t destined to be together so I move on. There was one time yesterday when I walked into a space where somebody was eating french fries and the entire area smelled of fries. I turned right around and walked out. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Tomorrow evening is my next meeting. I started Thursday to avoid having a disastrous weekend of debauchery, but Monday evenings will be my regular class time (depending on how traffic shakes out – Thursday night traffic wasn’t bad so if Monday evening is bad I may consider just moving to Thursdays) I don’t expect much of a loss, since it will have only been three days since I started. I’m actually curious to see what happens in three days.

This afternoon we’re going for a bike ride. I’m a weak rider but it’s good for me. As always, with exercise you get points for trying!

Travel and Weight Management, Part 2: Business Travel

Traveling for business can be a much greater challenge to weight management efforts. I frequently travel for business and almost every trip is depressingly similar – I fly somewhere far away to sit in a room at a table where my food choices are very limited. This is a real challenge for weight management because I don’t get any exercise whatsoever during business hours, I don’t get to bring my food along with me to meetings, and often the choices provided are spectacularly unsupportive – pizza, burritos, pasta, fast food – things I would avoid in my real life. This is where things get tricky for weight management. Record keeping, on the other hand, is a breeze on business trips, because often I find myself in meetings, bored to tears, looking for some task to set my mind to – a perfect time to make sure my food journal is up to date!

While I hardly ever seek out a hotel gym while I’m traveling for pleasure, I visit them religiously when I am traveling for business. If I can’t hit it at the end of the day I will set the alarm early and go before heading into work. Exercising not only helps with my weight management, but I find it helps me to clear my head and elevates my mood as well. These things are often desperately needed on a business trip. So always pack your gym clothes and shoes!

If I can possibly swing it, I like to get out and locate a grocery store to stock up on healthy snacks on the first day of my trip. If I’m attending a conference or convention I can usually pop up to my hotel room during the day when everybody else is having their hotel-provided afternoon snack of cookies, brownies and sodas to eat some of my own healthier snacks. When the meetings I am attending are catered, I am often stuck in the position of having to use my willpower, something I hate to rely on. First I survey the lunch options, and if there is any salad to be had I pile my plate with it. If not, I pick the vegetarian option if there is one (unless it is pasta in cream sauce, then there’s no benefit to having the vegetarian option). It helps to have a ballpark idea of the caloric content of various foods when I am making my selections. I do the best I can, and limit my portion sizes as much as possible.

And, of course, at the end of the day you’ll probably have to find a restaurant for dinner. Here are some guidelines to use when eating in restaurants, because there’s just no avoiding that!

Weight management while traveling does require some planning and foresight, but it is possible. In general, if I can hold my weight steady while traveling I feel like I’ve won the lottery. It’s all about striking the comfortable balance between enjoying my travels and paying some attention to weight management essentials.

Travel & Weight Management, Part 1: For Pleasure

Hi guys! I’m working on setting up a new page with quick access to some of the old articles I posted over the years that cover what I consider to be my main tools and modes of thought for weight management. In the process of doing that, I discovered that one of the posts I really liked writing was a cross-post on a blog that appears to have gone dark. So I’m going to repost it here (of course I kept a copy!) so I can link to it, and hey – it’s the Summer Travel Season right now, so it may still be of use to us all this season! Enjoy!

Travel and Weight Management

Travel is one of the biggest challenges to weight management. There are two main categories of travel which need managing: Travel for Work, and Travel for Pleasure, and I’ll start with pleasure (always start with pleasure!). When I hit the road I remember the key elements that work for me at home: record keeping, environmental control, exercise and making smart food choices.

Travel for Pleasure

Traveling for fun and pleasure is the definitely easier of the two, because I tend to have a little more control over the environments I find myself in. I always carry a notepad so that I can write down the foods I eat. This is definitely harder to do on vacation because of the nature of eating while traveling for pleasure – often I am grabbing a quick bite on the go, I may not even be stopping to sit down! So I try to remember to write it all down but if I don’t keep perfect records on vacation, I don’t beat myself up over it. The nice thing about traveling for pleasure is that I usually get a lot of exercise – I’m walking all day long, up and down and around museums, through attractions, in and out of shops. I hardly ever sit down when I’m visiting a new city! That’s a lot of exercise that I didn’t have to make any extra effort to fit into my schedule. In fact, all the walking I do on vacation usually means that I can be a bit more forgiving if other exercise efforts fall short in all the excitement of having new adventures.

When I am at home I do what I call environmental control – making sure not to surround myself with foods that will derail my weight management effort. This means I don’t keep things like cake, candy, baked goods, etc, in my kitchen at home. This is something that is much harder on vacation because I don’t have much control over my environment, but there are a few things I can do to manage myself, and they mainly involve not putting myself into situations where my willpower will be tested. I know that willpower is NOT a muscle, it doesn’t get stronger the more I use it, it gets depleted, so I don’t want to gratuitously force myself to invoke it. This means I don’t wander idly into candy and chocolate shops and ogle the wares. I don’t sidle up to sidewalk hot dog vendors and smell longingly after their goods. When I need a snack I look for a coffee shop or sandwich shop and I search for things on the menu that will be supportive of my goals. When I travel in Europe I find that almost every place that serves lunch has a menu item that is essentially, “Soup and a roll.” I always get that for lunch. Soup is a fantastic food for weight management, particularly if it is a water- or stock-based soup because it has a low caloric density – it’s made mostly of water, often has high vegetable content, and fills me up.

Most places I visit have some version of a fruit and veggie stand that is easily findable by tourists. If I am wandering through a new city it won’t be long before I stumble upon the place where fruits and veggies are sold. Truly, I seek them out. I know that when I get hungry the best thing I can reach for is a piece of fruit, a bag of sugar snap peas, or similar. These things are always available, no matter where you are in the world, and as an added bonus, often you will find fruit that is not available to you at home. That’s what traveling is all about! I always pick up something new to me if I can, to get a little local flavor. The last time I visited Hawaii I packed a kitchen knife and cutting board (checked luggage only!) so that I could enjoy the local fruits back in my hotel room. In fact, I usually carry a backpack when on vacation so that I can carry supportive foods such as fruits and veggies with me wherever I go on my touring – I never want to get so hungry that I’ll eat anything because that’s the most dangerous time to make a food selection. Eating a piece of fruit or other supportive snack every hour or so keeps me from getting too hungry, and keeps me going throughout the day.

Another thing I like to do is stay in lodgings where I can cook for myself – hostels, apartments and long-term-stay hotels. All of these lodgings provide full kitchens for the use of their guests. I love to find the local grocery and make myself healthy, supportive meals using local ingredients. Managing my weight is vastly easier when I know exactly what went into my food.

All of this is not to say that I don’t enjoy a fancy meal out or sweet treat occasionally while traveling. I do, and I relish them, I just don’t eat that way every day. I focus on the new experiences and adventures I’m having and let splurging on heavy foods be only an occasional indulgence.