A Mindful Approach To Emotional Pain

Every one of us nurses some sort of emotional trauma. It could be disappointment related failure, grief at the loss of a loved one, perhaps the agony of a broken relationship or even the numbing melancholy of loneliness. Such pain takes long to disappear, if ever, and often comes right back, triggered by the faintest memory.

Mindfulness, derived from Buddhist meditation practices, is a system that teaches practitioners to focus on sensations and emotions as they occur in the present moment, purely as what they are, by suspending judgment and self-criticism. In the book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide To Finding Peace In A Frantic World, Mark Williams suggests that emotions and sensations are like seasons that pass, and that enduring sorrow and unease is a result of self-criticism and a preoccupation with what is long gone.

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to meet a European psychiatrist who claimed to have worked widely with PTSD sufferers. Drawn in by the prospect of obtaining free medical advice, I began to talk to him about some of the unpleasant incidents that I had experienced in my past – that I felt controlled my life, even at that point. Moving our conversation to a more private location, he asked me to get specific, to recall events and emotions.

The exercise was extremely painful, and left me in tears. While I was composing myself, he called for a dozen notepads. When these arrived, he told me to write down my account in as much detail as possible. When I was done, he laid it face-down on a coffee table and asked me to do so again. I did this perhaps ten times while he proceeded to drain the hotel room’s rather varied mini-bar. This took around six hours.

When the coffee table was covered with notepads (or more likely, the bar was empty), he asked me to pick up and read aloud the first account that I had written. When I was done, he asked me to pick up the last one and read it aloud too. It was incredible. In the course of that one evening my recollection of the emotions surrounding those events had changed substantially. I realized that perhaps my mind superimposed emotion on those memories each time I recalled them.

Williams discusses this in his book. He talks about how we exist on two planes – thinking, and doing – and how, while these are states that are essential to human existence and individual growth, their overuse or unnecessary application yields negative results. Williams goes on to describe a third state – being – when one exists in a state of acute awareness of sensations and emotions that one is experiencing at that present moment. This is the state that Mindfulness meditation strives for.

Nowadays, whenever a negative emotion strikes, I look at it objectively, and try to establish if the pain is just because I am being judgmental of myself. While it is normal to experience sadness, anger, and despair in the course of life, a vicious cycle of self-loathing is perhaps at the root of chronic unhappiness and myriad addictions.

Mindfulness has been a useful tool for me to find balance. Never being a meditating person myself, I found it extremely hard when I first began. Now, I long for those fifteen minutes of quiet each day. It has changed the way I think and react.

References: Mindfulness: A Practical Guide To Finding Peace In A Frantic World

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Why People Fail At Weight Loss

I started my weight loss journey in March 2011, and achieved my goal by Feb 2012. Since then, my gains have increased, and I’m in the best shape ever. In the past few months, many people who have seen the changes in me over this period of time have asked me for advice, and in many cases, have started on a regimen similar to mine. Most of these people have failed to get remarkable results.

A search on Amazon for ‘weight loss’ yields over 123,000 results. Over 70,000 of these are books. A Google search for the same yields 320 million results! With that much of information around, why are so many people still overweight? Barring the very small percentage of people with hormonal imbalances or other pathological causes, the majority of overweight people are victims of a pattern of behaviour that they need to change to lose weight and keep it off.

Why do people fail?

1) Slothfulness

Weight loss is hard work. In its initial stages, it requires a commitment of time, energy, and money to get started, and break old patterns. With people hoping to get there with minimal effort, an entire industry selling magic machines, portions, and lotions has sprung up to relieve them of their cash. The only cure for this is information, and the willingness to do the hard work.

2) Misinformation

Lots of healthy foods aren’t. The food, pharmaceutical and medical industries are very aggressive in passing on information that is outdated, incomplete, or in some cases, false. In 2008, a physician told me that I would be taking antihypertensive medication for the rest of my life. I’m not taking it anymore, and have normal blood pressure. In 2009, another physician told me that my heart was at risk of damage if I exerted myself by running or other strenuous activity. I can today run several kilometres non-stop, and do interval or Tabata sprint training twice a week. Nutritionists and physicians who enquire about my diet are horrified by the fact that I avoid all grains. My point is simple – it worked for me! I am fit, have high energy levels, and have seen my performance skyrocket in all areas of my life! Even the results that I have achieved have been after years of digging through mountains of advice and information and sticking with what worked.

Food companies lie to you. Period. Physicians are mostly corralled by the narrow confines of the knowledge they received in medical school. The pharmaceutical companies just want you to believe that being unhealthy is alright – if anything happens, they have a pill for you to take to make you better. Look around for information on what has worked for people. You don’t have to fall for the $39.99 e-books that are available with 7 special gifts for a limited period only. Make your body your laboratory – try different stuff and stick to what works.

3) Complacency

Sometimes people are able to gain some success with their weight loss goals, but later get complacent and fall off the wagon. This is slothfulness lite. Like knowledge, fitness is progressive – just like Alice’s Wonderland, it takes all the running that you can do to stay in the same place, and if you need to get anywhere, you need to run twice as fast as that. Weight loss or fitness cannot be a phase – it needs to be a lifestyle that you refine with each passing day.

4) Cheating

A new diet or workout regimen causes sweeping chemical and physiological changes in the body. Diets like the Atkins rely heavily on ketosis that usually takes several days to set in – other low carb diets focus on breaking out of sugar or hormone cycles that drive hunger and satiety. These changes require the elimination of certain foods or food combinations, and the consumption of even a small quantity of these ‘banned foods’ can result in a complete chemical reversal that can destroy days of gains. This causes disillusionment with the diet itself. If you are on a diet, do not pat yourself on the back with a ‘cheat’ that you feel won’t make a difference – it will make you fail.

Once you have reached your goal, it may be possible for you to relax the rules a little bit, but be forever wary of becoming complacent.

5) Haters

This may be one of the biggest reasons that people fail. When you start getting results and your appearance begins to change, there will be people around you who will try very hard to make you fail. They will be trying to prove that your diet is a joke, and that you don’t have the willpower to make the changes that you desire. They will criticise you, ridicule you, and encourage you to cheat. They will say that you have changed, and that you’re making these changes because you think that you’re better than them.
If you have such people in your life, you need to cut them off immediately. These people do not just stand between you and a healthier you, they stand between you and a better life.

Instead, surround yourself with people who have goals like yours and understand the challenges that you’re facing. These new relationships will improve your chances of success.

6) Alcohol

This is probably one of the most common ways to sabotage a diet. Alcohol contains a huge number of empty calories, and is broken down into acetate by the liver. This acetate takes metabolic precedence over carbohydrate and fats, and thus as your body works to deal with the acetate, fat burning stops. Also, the snack foods usually served with alcohol are often unhealthy, and get stored away as fat while the acetate is dealt with.

The Bottomline

Yet, it is possible to drop weight and keep it off. The rewards are tremendous – you look better, you have more energy, and you are able to deal with stress better. In an age where medical care is horrendously expensive and medical insurance is a sham, health is wealth. Five years ago, if someone had told me  that my life would be so awesome if I fixed my habits and stuck to it, I would have done it from that day itself.

What About The Kids?

I have often wondered about the ‘genetic’ link to certain diseases. Could it be that people ‘inherit’ infirmities from their parents, not because of their ‘genes’, but because of inherited patterns of behaviour, including food habits?

A few years ago, I was at a shopping mall with a friend of mine. In those days, I myself was quite overweight, but my friend, a 40+ former military man, was in better shape than most people in their 20s. Suddenly, he stopped  dead in this tracks, turned to me, and said “Nate, when you were in school, didn’t everyone make fun of the fat boys?”

“Yes” I replied, cautiously.

“Well, by the time you have school-age children of your own, it’ll be the fat ones making fun of the thin ones!”

I looked around. He was right. Many of the children around us were overweight, definitely a greater number than were overweight in my class at school. All who were accompanied by parents had at least one chubby parent.

A number of people I know have jumped on the health wagon late in life, making changes to their lives in recent times. Some have modified their diet, some cut back on alcohol and smoking, some have even discovered the demerits of simple carbohydrates and sugar, and have given them up, but what about the kids?

Here are some of the scenarios I have noticed in India.

1) Parents are reasonably health conscious and don’t eat much junk food, but they take their kids to fast food places and load them up with unhealthy foods and HFCS laced drinks.

The most serious problem with this is that since many of these visits are presented as a ‘treat’, the child may form a psychological ‘pleasure connection’ with that kind of fast food, and later, as an earning adult who can afford to eat it three times a day, may turn to it for emotional gratification. Indeed ‘comfort eating’ is a major cause of obesity! Some of them end up messing up their diets because of the kids’ junk food lying around the house.

2) Health conscious parents who fall for marketing fads.

I know of many adults who are ‘health conscious’, but perpetually get their health information from TV commercials.  Their kitchens are often full of sugar loaded name-brand cereals that claim to have health benefits, added nutrients, etc. In their misguided quest for health, they’re actually feeding their kids’ sugar addiction. I don’t blame them, lots of these companies use cheap shots in advertising. Indian television is full of emotionally abusive commercials usually targeted at mothers that show children losing martial arts tournaments, being growth stunted, or underperforming at school because they don’t use a particular energy drink or breakfast cereal.

3) The indifferent ones.

I’m not implying that these parents care any less for their kids, but because of a lack of information, they fail to prioritise good nutrition.

4) The unhealthy ones.

These are parents that need the most work themselves, because they’re unhealthy themselves and are passing that behaviour on to their kids. Kids copy their behaviour of sedentary life and bad food choices, setting themselves up for a lifetime of battles with weight and poor health.

If there is something that you would like to add to this, please note it in the comments section below.

 

The SixPack Project

After I successfully cut my waist from around 42.5 inches to 35 inches, I wondered if it would make sense to take this a bit further and push it all the way to having a well-defined torso – commonly known as a six-pack.

In the past year, I’ve dropped a fair bit of weight and a pretty serious amount of body fat, and I think that with a little more self-control, I’ll be able to drop the rest too. So here are the mission parameters:

Objective: Six Pack Abs

Deadline: 4 Calendar Months, July 25, 2012

Key Performance Indicators: Visual Data (obviously), body fat percentage <10%.

Metrics: Daily body fat readings and 5-day moving average.

How am I going to accomplish this?

1) Diet:

I have realised that diet is going to be 90% of this. I will be cutting all empty calories like fast food, desserts, alcohol, etc, until I come down to the body-fat levels required for this to happen. I will be sticking to mainly natural and unprocessed foods like fruits and vegetables for calories and nutrients. My protein requirements will come from eggs, fish, and cheese. I have found plain yoghurt to be a very healthy way to feel full without consuming too many calories. I’ll be sticking with my favourite – Nestle A+ available here in India.

2) Exercise:

Not being a fan of the health-club culture, I am going to be using a combination of Kettlebells and bodyweight exercises to get a workout. This gives me the ability to mix and match components of workouts. The only equipment I have is a canvas punching bag, 8Kg and 16Kg kettlebells, and a pull-up rack.

My most important tool here is my Gymboss interval timer. I use it to time intervals on my kettlebell workouts and also the ’rounds’ for my boxing workout.

I’ll soon be sharing my data logs in another post on here.

My diet is loosely based on ‘Turbocharged’ by Dian and Tom Greisel http://turbocharged.us.com/

Gymboss interval timers are an awesome workout tool, and can be bought online from http://www.gymboss.com/. Shipping is very fast, even to a country like India. I have bought several of these without any issues. Because of the loud alarm, they’re great help in the kitchen, and often remind me of something that I’ve left on the fire!

Exercise And Depression

Modern medicine seems to have moved away from a ‘cure’ approach to a ‘disease management’ approach. What else would explain the increasing number of people on perpetual medication for hypertension, heart disease, depression, pain, and a host of other problems.

Especially with emotional and psychological issues, what in the yesteryear was simply called melancholia has now been branched into several forms of ‘depression’, each treated with drugs that have frightening side effects. As tolerance to these drugs builds, more are added on, as are other meds to control the side-effects of the main ones. More worrying now, is the trend in certain countries where drug companies are allowed to market potent prescription medication directly to consumers!

At least for depression, we now have a number of studies that show how moderate exercise and a generally healthy lifestyle can deal with most of its effects. The Duke University study on exercise and depression is one that I love to quote.

http://today.duke.edu/2000/09/exercise922.html

“After demonstrating that 30 minutes of brisk exercise three times a week is just as effective as drug therapy in relieving the symptoms of major depression in the short-term, medical center researchers have now shown that continued exercise greatly reduces the chances of the depression returning.

Last year, the Duke researchers reported on their study of 156 older patients diagnosed with major depression which, to their surprise, found that after 16 weeks, patients who exercised showed statistically significant and comparable improvement relative to those who took anti-depression medication, or those who took the medication and exercised.”

This article dates to 2000. What really concerns me is that in the years since, the number of antidepressants available in the market has exploded, and what’s more, they’re now being prescribed to children!

Could it be, that with increasingly sedentary lifestyles and diminishing face to face contact, our minds are not receiving the kind of social and (natural) chemical stimuli needed for happiness?

Could it be that the guy who spends his time playing video games instead of field/court sports and interacting on Facebook instead of inviting friends for dinner or hosting a cocktail party is actually setting himself up for depression or aggravating his existing loneliness and melancholia?

Coming back to exercise and depression – is it that hard to fit an hour and a half of exercise into a week? Lets see if there are options that can help fitness AND improve social contact.

1) Aerobics Classes: Old School, but works, you get a decent workout and have the opportunity to interact with other people in a class – a good opportunity to make new friends. Also consider the new avatar, Zumba.

2) Dance Classes: Find something vigourous with the potential for social dancing, like  Salsa, Bachata, or the Tango. Many other vigourous dance forms like Jive, and Lindy Hop are enjoying a resurgence too and are a fun way to be active and social. With the emphasis on posture and form in most dances, you will look better and more graceful.

3) Join the neighbourhood soccer game (India): All over the country, young men congregate in open spaces to play soccer or volleyball every now and then. Apart from an intense workout, you’ll also enjoy the camaraderie and will forge new friendships.

4) Martial Arts Classes: Most martial arts are very intense, and apart from strength and stamina, also build balance, reflexes, and co-ordination. They’re also a tremendous way to build self-confidence. Choose something like Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, or Krav Maga. Make sure though, that your instructor is not mean, and lessons don’t involve humiliation and/or brutality. (disclosure: the author is associated with the International Krav Maga Association in India)

5) Join a running/cycling club: These two forms of fitness are really exploding in popularity. Again, this provides a good opportunity for fitness and mingling. Often, the veterans go out of their way to ensure that you’re comfortable and help a lot with equipment and training choices. Running has to be the cheapest fitness activity out there. If you join the barefoot movement, you don’t even need a pair of shoes!

These are just a handful of options that any city-dweller can use to improve their mental health and aim for a healthier lifestyle.

Data Data Data!

I fumbled with my belt for a few seconds before noticing that the buckle had slid about an inch and a half beyond the last hole. WTF? This didn’t seem right. My weight hadn’t changed in several weeks. I turned to the mirror and realised that slim fit jeans that I had bought just a few months ago had become loose at the waist and thighs.

Wow.

With my weight static at 86 Kg for several weeks, I had begun to lose hope in my exercise regimen Waking up at 3.45 AM to work out with kettlebells before going to work at 6 AM didn’t seem to be paying off. This, however, was a surprise. I tried on several pairs of jeans and trousers, and they all told the same tale. I had lost atleast two inches off my waist.

I stripped down to my boxers and stood in front of the mirror – my shoulders looked bigger and arms firmer; my torso definitely looked more defined.

That was it, my workout was working! While I was getting results, the weight scale was misleading. I needed more data!

After that, I started tracking my progress in waist reduction. I got a tape measure and tracked my waist from 42.5 inches in March 2011 to 35.0 in Feb 2012. Over this period, my weight dropped a meagre 6 Kg. When my waist got stuck at 37 inches, I started tracking body-fat percentage, and saw a drop from 27% to 24%, and is now 22% at 35 inches.

I think lots of people who diet and exercise are easily disillusioned because they fail to see progress. To this, I just say data, data data!

If you are embarking on a fitness regimen, take ‘before’ pictures. get a tape measure and take waist and hip measurements to track inch loss. Here are some pointers on measuring.

1) Take all measurements at the same time of the day/week.

I take all my measurements on Friday morning, because it is farthest from any excesses that I may have committed over the weekend.

2) Use the same scale:

Use the same weight scale/tape measure always. Weight scales may have a significant error, and ones in public places may be even more so. Using the same scale will ensure that you can track your progress relative to it.

3) Body Fat Monitors:

If you’re using an electronic Body Fat Monitor, make sure you’re well hydrated before taking your reading. Tim Ferriss, in his book ‘The Four Hour Body’ (http://fourhourbody.com/) lays out a protocol that has worked very well for me so far – I drink a large amount of water, and take my reading soon after I urinate.

4) Review Your Data:

Review your data frequently, and make notes. Keep track of vacations, binges, diet changes, illness, or anything that changes over time. Sometimes, in reviewing this data, you will find patterns that you least expect!