Lately I've been intrigued by connecting the dots between my lifestyle and my overall sense of happiness. Similar to my meditation practice where I (attempt) to observe my thoughts, I've been observing my behaviors and lifestyle choices in an effort to eliminate bad habits that may be impacting my ability to remain centered and content. It's always been easy for me to recognize the pattern of behaviors that manifest into happiness. I know when I eat healthy, take a yoga class or spend time with friends and family that I'm going to feel good, whole and complete, no brainer. What's challenging is exploring the parts of my life that are not making me feel whole and connected or that are actually contributing to my negative emotions or lack of motivation. What are the habits or behaviors that create unpleasant feelings like stress and anxiety?
I've always been enamored by the mind body connection, I've experienced the power of movement and meditation, I've learned to connect with my subtle energies and eventually my intuition, and I've explored the many ways thoughts and emotions can manifest in the physical body. One area I hadn't spent much time evaluating until recently however, is the impact that what we choose we ingest has on the body and mind. This topic has taken on even more complexity since I became a health coach. I knew the basics - eat greens feel good, eat junk feel gross but I had never thought to dive any deeper. I finished a 14 day cleanse recently that forced me to take that deeper dive into the framework of the mind/body connection and the habits that hold us in a cycle of bad habits.
Things I learned:
- My relationship with alcohol needs some work . It's ingrained in us at a relatively young age that drinking is the norm, it's a social activity, it's fun, it's a hobby, it's everything (at least it feels like it when you're trying to re-evaluate your relationship with it). What I've noticed about alcohol though is that for most of us it's an escape, we hold our breath until Friday rolls around and it's time for happy hour, I know I used to. The first sip of that cold beer or crisp wine is a sweet release, liberating you from your 5 day prison sentence. But at the same time are we prisoners to alcohol as well? When you boil it down, alcohol (i.e. ethanol) is poison. We've somehow made it feel good to poison our bodies. What doesn't feel good though is when I spend an entire weekend drinking excessively (and in turn not eating healthy or working out) and then have to start my week in a fog of anxiety and depression because I did nothing productive or fulfilling with my precious free time, I'm actually lucky if I even remember it. Ick.
- Sugar is not my friend. In fact sugar can go fuck itself. I have been gifted with this marvelously intuitive body that works tirelessly day in and day out to allow me to stay balanced and thrive and how do I give thanks? I gorge myself with processed foods (at least I used to) that are loaded with toxic corn syrup, fructose, and dextrose ultimately sending my entire system into overload. My nervous system is forced to use it's precious rest and digest energy to cleanse my liver and store all of this excess "sugar" as fat. Despite all of this extra work I create for my system, that fat is still toxic. It eventually will accumulate and cause obesity, diabetes, hormone imbalance, high cholesterol and cancer. If that isn't enough to get me off the juice, I haven't even addressed the behavior issues that result from excessive sugar intake. The blood sugar roller coaster that processed sugar initiates has a direct impact on mood, the spikes and crashes can manifest into irritability, fatigue, brain fog, and even aggression. It's so challenging to make this connection from food intake to behavior because most of our food choices these days are processed and laden with sugar. Our system never has an opportunity to recover from the influx of sugar to know what it should feel like to be in a state of stabilized blood sugar (i.e to be nice). Sugar is not our friend.
- Stress is everywhere. Literally. I ask clients frequently what their stress level is and most times their response is "not bad" or " I'm not really a stressed out person", well I hate to break it to you but we are all stressed. We need a new definition for stress because we've shamed ourselves into thinking that it's a bad thing but when you break it down, stress is simple and in most cases out of your control. When you're nervous system is perceiving a threat, it releases cortisol which in turn floods the body with glucose preparing it for fight or flight mode. The heart beats faster and all of your blood is forced into the limbs to initiate fast movement. When the threat is resolved, hormone levels return to normal and your nervous system returns to rest and digest mode. The problem is that our nervous system has not evolved with society, so things like loud noises, bright lights (screens), social media, watching sports, mutli tasking, caffeine etc - are all triggers for the nervous system to shift into a state of stress. As a result, our nervous system is in fight or flight mode for most of our waking hours, which means that our blood flow is constantly being redirected from our center into our limbs. When we are in a constant state of fight or flight the digestion system is compromised, the immune system is suppressed, our cardiovascular system is taxed and we can develop insomnia, depression, fertility problems and chronic fatigue. In other words if you aren't managing your stress you will be fat, sick and miserable. So we now have to think about this layer of societal stress in addition to stress from family, friends, finances, health and career. Feeling stressed now?
- What we consume goes beyond just food. Monitoring the media, television and screen time that we expose ourselves to on a daily basis can make a big difference. I'm a very empathetic person, meaning I take on the energy of my surroundings, so when I spend all afternoon watching trashy television, I feel like just as much of a low life as Jax Taylor after a night of creeping at SUR. When I get caught up in the latest antics of our so called POTUS, I take on the frustration and helplessness that goes with it. We all get sucked into the energy of what we choose to surround ourselves with, so why can't we make more intentional decisions with our time? We don't consider the consequences of how subjecting ourselves to these lower frequencies can impact our wellness, but it's so important that we break that habit. I know when I spend my evening cooking, meditating, reading or taking a hot bath I sleep better, I wake up with little to no anxiety and I have a much more productive day. When I spend my evening eating junk and watching junk, I can't fall asleep as fast, feel depressed or inadequate, I'm a restless sleeper and I wake up feeling exhausted or anxious. Just like the right food can cleanse the body, finding activities and shows that are uplifting and mindful can cleanse the mind.
Now by no means am I saying that you should become a nun and exile yourself from all of the temptations of our society. What I've taken away from my cleanse and my reflection on my lifestyle is that it all boils down to balance. If we live in a world of opposites (hot/cold, good/bad, hard/soft) and our minds and bodies are constantly seeking balance, it's inevitable that when we overdo it in one of the above categories that we will crave something to balance it out, thus perpetuating the cycle of bad habits. For example, if we overdo it with Alcohol or Sugar, we've triggered a blood sugar spike which eventually will lead to a blood sugar crash. When we find ourselves in the spaced out, fatigued fog of a sugar crash we crave salty carbs or heavy dairy and meat based foods to balance out the crash. When we spend our whole day being exposed to stress triggers, working long hours, pushing ourselves with extreme workouts, spending countless hours sitting in front of a screen, watching disturbing or depressing content on TV our body and mind are going to crave something uplifting to counter all the stress - so we reach for sugar and alcohol. What I'm proposing is that we break this cycle of extremes. Similar to how a pendulum finds balance in the middle, but when it's pulled to one extreme it gains energy and momentum that pulls it past the state of balance and all the way to the other extreme. So instead of eliminating all of these habits and behaviors, just think about countering them with something healthy and relaxing. If you can take a hot bath after dinner instead of binging on dessert or watching trashy tv, you will give your body and your mind a chance to relax from the stress of your day instead of piling on more stress before bed. When the body and mind have an opportunity to relax, the nervous system can spend more time in rest and digest, which means you sleep better, you have more energy and you wake up feeling focused and clear headed instead of anxious and dreading they day ahead.
I'm not here to judge, we all have our vices and we hold on to them with a very tight grip, it's all we know. I'm asking you to loosen that grip a little, see what happens!