December 31, 2014

New Year's Resolutions (and mental health)

If the answer to weight loss or exercise or healthy eating was as easy as "just doing it", we would be a healthy, active, veggie-loving society.  But that's not the it?
I started my professional career as a fitness leader over 26 years ago. Since then, I have slowly progressed from kinesiology and exercise psychology to counselling psychology while keping true to my first love...exercise and health promotion.  Over the course of my career, I have come to the conclusion that the most important influence to (long term) health behaviour change is our mental health status. Interestingly, mental health is one of the last considerations when we think about making a healthy change. 

What do I mean by "mental health"?

While good mental health may
not include a butterfly in one's
head, it's pretty damn close
(kidding...sort of).
Good mental health (or resiliency) could be defined as the ability to manage daily hassles and stressors with the internal (sense of control, positive attitude, etc.) and external resources (social support network, healthy lifestyle, etc.) you have. To be able to manage without going under. Why should we care so much about resiliency? Chronic stress can lead to depression and other mental health issues. In addition, traumatic experiences such as witnessing or experiencing trauma (or even working so hard you burn out) can not only lead to depression but anxiety and suicidal ideation (the reoccurring and habitual focus on suicide).

If the statistic is correct, just about one half of the Canadian population is depressed.  This doesn't paint a rosy picture full of happy people making positive lifestyle change for me.  It may be that one half of us are feeling the pressure to change for our future due to feeling bad about our present.  Pressure to change does not lead to change. Just ask all those smokers out there ordered to quit by their doctor.

For those people looking to shed a few pounds in 2015 (and there are a lot of them), many, if not most, are emotional eaters.  It's not about switching the chocolate bar for the carrot, it's about understanding why we reach for the chocolate bar in the first place.  It could be as simple as boredom (i.e. watching TV...need a snack). It could be stress or sadness or anger that drives us towards the Doritos.  We eat to celebrate, to commemorate, to socialize, and to keep us from focusing on what is really eating us. What many need (to lose those pounds) is a counsellor and not a nutritionist or the latest DVD/book about superfood.  We need to say "no" more often and give ourselves what we give others.  We need to gather more resources to manage our stress. We need sleep not another fitness program. 

We tend to find all sorts of things to keep
us from the pain of revealing the truth.
Could you imagine how much easier change would be if we were in a more emotionally balanced state? What would that even look like? To be emotionally balanced, in my opinion, is to be able to examine, challenge, and become more aware of our behaviour and what drives it. The search for the perfect exercise and diet that promise results in a short period of time will ALWAYS (always!) lead to disappointment.  There are only a few people I have known who were able to make the changes necessary to reap the results long term.  I call them "the overnighters"...they make change overnight and stick to it. They are far and few between and are usually the ones to tell others "it's as easy as...".  I married one of these. When we were dating, and as I was telling him what I do for a living, he mentioned that all he had to do to lose weight was cut out a few desserts during the week.  Nice. Real nice. He is the definitive "overnighter"...but I love him anyway.

I am keenly aware that I am delivering a message that will never be as popular or as well received as one that promises if you eat this super food and do that exercise you will get that sexy physique you have always wanted. I understand this message won't make me rich or sell many books.  I do know, like I know I'm sitting here wishing I were on a beach in Mexico, that this is the answer. If you are sick and tired of banging your head against the wall in the name of permanent behaviour change consider this....

1.  By understanding your beliefs, attitudes, and expectations you will be more able to understand your motivations to change.  Some beliefs can be hurtful (i.e. I believe when I lose 10 pounds I will be loved, valued, and more important) and can lead to disorder. Some are healthful (i.e. I believe if I walk 30 minutes each day I will feel more energetic and strong) and can lead to life long activity.

Many of us are walking around with
broken hearts and pretending
everything is fine (or will be) as
long as we can run that marathon
or lose the weight. Why do I feel so sad
for this cartoon person? 
2.  By seeking mental health support, you are investing in future change and future successes.  By ignoring the painful emotion through eating, drinking, shopping, facebook, and the like, you are only putting off the inevitable (which, of course, leads to more pain).

I know I'm right about this.
That's all I got.

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