Tag Archives: mental health

The Pursuit of Thinness: A History of Oppression and the Harms of Diet Culture

There is a deconstruction process that happens when people suddenly realize the ways their body image and self-talk are informed by harmful societal pressures and cultural norms. The process involves recognizing issues of sexualization, the interconnectedness of thinness and elitism, the roots and realities of racism on body image, and so much more. I went through my own body image deconstruction journey years ago when I started working full-time in the fitness industry.

At the time, I felt that I was happy with my body, proud of its strength, and accepting of its curves. I was proven wrong when prospective clients and gym-goers complaining about their own insecurities quickly pulled down the thin veil masking my own. Female clients would talk about their “ideal weight” and then quickly point out the most thin-framed or outwardly fit woman on the gym floor. I couldn’t help but wonder – Why aren’t any of these women happy with their bodies? And why aren’t they pointing at my balanced health and average body size as a nice ideal?   

 

 

For my entire adolescent and adult life I’ve refused to join in the disparaging and self-deprecating conversations women tend to have about their bodies’ “flaws.” I always thought that because I didn’t chime in that I was somehow floating mystically above the damaging forces of our culture’s beauty ideals. Not only did this façade begin to unravel as I sat across from dissatisfied gym goers ready to fork over large sums of money to work with me, but the whole thing officially shattered to pieces after a bike accident rendered me unable to exercise and seeking comfort foods in my distress.

In that year after college, I gained the classic “freshman 15” that I had managed to keep off while in school. My self-worth deflated within a few short months and I found myself having an unhealthy relationship with both exercise and food, restricting calories only to overeat later, and feeling shame if I didn’t try to work out almost every day of the week.

I managed to preach balance and wisdom to my clients but struggled in my inner world, feeling that my identity had taken an intense blow – all because of what the scale told me I weighed.

Unraveling my worth from my weight took years of slow effort and movement towards intuitive eating and joyful movement. It took patience, self-care, spiritual growth, and discarding so much of what was being preached around me in the fitness realm. In order to find true wellness I had to pull myself out of the diet industry’s powerful, greedy jaws and had to recognize with humility that I was doing inadvertent harm to so many women by conforming to the racist, elitist notion that thinness was somehow superior.

As we dive deeper into the origins and harmful realities of the diet industry, body weight connotating to superiority, and the damaging health effects of yo-yo weight fluctuations, I ask that you keep your mind open and avoid judgment of yourself or others. This is hard for all of us to unpack but it’s important work for collective wellness.

 

The Origins of the Diet Industry

The ancient Greeks were the first to use the word diet (diaitabut it didn’t apply exclusively to a certain way of eating. Rather, it connoted an overall healthy lifestyle of food, exercise, drink, and more. Although they were far from perfect, the Greeks consumed nutrient-dense Mediterranean foods and celebrated athletics. Unfortunately, much of the emphasis on body ideals revolved around a narrow definition of male prowess, muscle and beauty.

Louise Foxcroft, author of Calories & Corsets, says “Women can’t live up to that—or weren’t thought to be able to live up to that. So the onus on diet and on having an ideal body—it’s always been a much more difficult concept for women, and that’s reflected in our modern diet culture as well.”

Journeying forward through history brings us to the Victorian era when plumpness, curves and round figures were considered dignified, allowing women a wider spectrum of body sizes deemed socially acceptable and beautiful. That all changed in the 1860s when William Banting published a pamphlet titled “Letter on Corpulence” addressed to the public about a doctor-led experiment he put himself through to lose weight.

The letter highlighted his diet and weight loss, and resulted in “penny scales” popping up in both public and retail spaces galore, allowing people to check their body weight practically anywhere they went. This led to a rise in self-consciousness and an end to the era of larger body sizes being deemed socially desirable. Add this to the change in the 1800s from clothes being custom made to fit a person’s unique body size and shape to clothing being mass produced and you suddenly have a society that is both more aware of body weight and struggling to adapt to clothing sizes that don’t perfectly fit every person’s unique physique.

 

The History of How Body Weight Got Tied up in Morality and Superiority

At the end of the 20th century, as immigration increased and white Americans felt that their job security was being threatened, thinness became a means of retaining social status and superiority. The white middle class noted that immigrants tended to be larger in body size and thus, an oppressive social hierarchy was normalized.

A few decades later, during World War I, Americans were confronted with yet another shift in body size awareness and valuation. International food shortages resulted in food conservation reminders across the country, with the spreading slogan “Victory Over Ourselves.” In other words, conserving food was seen as an act of patriotism, morality and survival. To be larger and perceived as hoarding food was suddenly considered an inability to control one’s own urges and thus a moral failure.

Between 1920-1950 people started trying all sorts of creative things to lose weight – smoking, diet pills, and bariatric surgery, to name a few. Come the early 1960s, Weight Watchers was founded and the modern era of formulaic diets began, resulting in more and more people experiencing large swings in weight loss and weight regain, not to mention experiencing feelings of failure and shame. In 1992, the National Institutes of Health concluded that diets are ineffective and most people who lost weight following a diet regained the same amount of weight or more within 5 years.

But did this stop the diet industry?

If you’ve heard of people going ga-ga over bulking and leaning, the gluten-free diet, whole 30, or the keto diet (all fads with their time in the spotlight over the last 10-15 years), then you know the answer.

The weight loss and weight management diet market is a massive beast projected to reach $295.3 billion by 2027. Its hunger knows no satisfaction as it tells the masses to get out of touch with their own. Its financial power and cultural influence continue to grow because of weight being inappropriately made to be the “most important” aspect of a person’s health even though we now understand that looking at one’s size tells us nothing about their underlying health.

The diet industry’s expansion efforts also continue based on the inaccurate notion that modern society’s sedentary nature and high calorie consumption are the most harmful aspects of the rise in disposable income. As you will see, there’s much more to the story of why our world is struggling so desperately with health, and much of it is tied up in our harmful, oppressive obsession with the numbers on the scale…

 

 

BMI, Yo-Yo Dieting, and Poor Health Outcomes

Adolphe Quetelet was the inventor of the body mass index (BMI) over 200 years ago. Quetelet was a mathematician, astronomer and statistician, not a doctor. He pursued finding the means of populations in his work and based the modern BMI system exclusively on French and Scottish people. Quetelet made it clear that BMI wasn’t supposed to be a measure of individual body fat, build or health. It was a statistical tool on a population level, not a measure of individual health. And yet, we have seen firsthand how the use of BMI morphed over the years, becoming a central measurement of health.

Beginning about 100 years ago, BMI was used as a justification for eugenics and scientific racism due to broad-sweeping and biased assumptions that the initial population studied (French and Scottish) was representative of all people regardless of race and ethnicity. This put black people specifically at a disadvantage. They became subject to racist and unfair assumptions about their underlying health.

A reporter on Medium, self-named “Your Fat Friend” explains that BMI was publicly recognized through the years as a poor assessment that puts certain groups of people at a disadvantage:

“According to studies published by the Endocrine Society, the BMI overestimates fatness and health risks for Black people. Meanwhile, according to the World Health Organization, the BMI underestimates health risks for Asian communities, which may contribute to underdiagnosis of certain conditions. And, despite the purported universality of the BMI, it papers over significant sex-based differences in the relationship between body fat and the BMI. That is, because so much of the research behind the BMI was conducted on those assigned male at birth, those assigned female may be at greater health risk if their diagnosis hinges on a measurement that was never designed for them.”

The obsession with weight and BMI infiltrate every aspect of modern culture, influencing medical settings, doctor’s offices, insurance, schools, and even churches. In an episode titled “Diet Culture and the Church” on the Faith and Feminism podcast, a dietician named Leslie Schilling says:

“The outside of a person’s body doesn’t tell us anything except about our own prejudice.”

Schilling goes on to talk about how damaging our culture’s focus on weight is and how she’s a non-diet dietician, bringing her clients back to intuitive eating and acceptance that all food is good food. She makes the point that the fixation on weight as the most important indicator of health has actually robbed many people of both physical and mental health as they engage in harmful yo-yo dieting.

There are many well-researched harms of yo-yo dieting and yet diet fads continue to cycle in and out of the limelight. Yo-yo dieting doesn’t even really mean what many people think. It’s not just about jumping from one diet trend to the next. Yo-yo dieting is really about yo-yo weight loss and gain, which can happen with a single diet or disordered eating.

According to research explored on HealthLine, “one in three dieters ends up heavier than before they dieted” due to increases in appetite as the body tries to replenish depleted energy stores and a loss of muscle mass during the dieting process. Not only do diets tend to lead to higher body fat percentage upon weight regain but cycles of weight gain and loss can cause fatty liver, an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease, elevated blood pressure, and a stronger sense of dissatisfaction with one’s life and health. Ironically, these health complications are exactly what diets tout they improve…and yet, evidence suggests otherwise.

 

 

A Healthier Way Forward For All Sizes

This information can be overwhelming and may leave some readers feeling at a loss over what “healthy” even looks like – Is it large or small? What can a person use to track health changes if the scale is in fact unreliable? How do you move away from diets and achieve better health with food?

The answers aren’t simple and they won’t be neatly wrapped up for you like a day-by-day planned out diet program. And in truth, to make matters more complicated, the big picture will look quite different from one person to the next. Unfortunately, modern medicine is not designed to properly address healthy lifestyle and eating behaviors on an individual basis. The revolving door of care doesn’t allow for that amount of time and conversation. Even dieticians and fitness professionals are limited. Many dieticians and nutritionists were “classically trained” to keep a close eye on calories and macros while few fitness professionals are educated beyond the scope of programming workouts for the general population. Which leaves people in the conundrum again:

Where do you turn for answers?

Here are a few soft suggestions from yours truly:

Mental Health Reminders to Reframe Your Relationship with Weight:

  • Weight alone doesn’t define your health
  • You aren’t your weight
  • Your weight should never be tied up in your worth
  • If you find yourself engaging in on/off dieting then perhaps consider working with a mental health counselor who can help you explore your emotions around food and body size

Becoming Friends with Food for the Rest of Your Life:

  • Intuitive eating will take you farther with both internal and mental health than dieting ever will – this involves learning to trust your body’s intuitive system of self-regulation with regards to hunger and satiety
  • A balance and variety of ALL foods is possible in a healthy diet
  • No food should ever be labeled good vs bad
  • It’s okay to emotionally and/or socially eat at times. For example, it’s your child’s birthday and you’re not hungry for cake but you have a slice anyway (guilt free!).

A Healthy Relationship with Exercise and Movement:

  • Exercise can be used to augment energy, health and performance, but should never be used as a form of self-punishment
  • If you feel guilty for missing a workout and find yourself needing to exercise every day, it might be time to speak with a mental health counselor about feelings of worth and achievement being closely tied to your physical performance and consistency
  • If you find that exercise and gyms are uncomfortable experiences then simply aim for an active lifestyle – walking, doing chores, gardening, playing, dancing for fun, etc.
  • Giving yourself permission to engage in joyful movement is key. Ex: Don’t force yourself to run just because you think you should. If you hate it then don’t force it. Find something you like!

 

Ending Comments

Patience and compassion are key as you learn to untangle your emotions and self-worth from your size. It takes time to deconstruct all of the harmful messages and expectations culture has imposed on us all and find a healthier, sustainable lifestyle. Also, keep in mind that food and exercise are only pieces of the bigger health picture. Good relationships in life have been scientifically proven to be key determinants of health. Joyful movement, quality non-stigmatizing health care, clean air and water are other factors too.

Schilling says it best: “All bodies are good bodies.”

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

 

 

 

Can Positivity Be Toxic and Hurt Our Health?

 

A new buzzword has circulated the web since 2020: Toxic Positivity…

The pairing of these two terms can make some people feel prickly and others like someone finally gets it. It’s my nature to empathize with opposing views. I often find myself somewhere in the middle, chewing on it all. As a wellness and fitness coach, I see both perspectives and have lived both.

Perhaps the balanced discussion of toxic positivity in this post will help inform you about where positive thinking helps health and when/where it may hurt it. And per usual, I write this with one big caveat – every person is unique and will find themselves at a different place on the “positive vibes” spectrum.

Take my experience, for example…

I was the classic American, privileged, white girl with a stable family and home growing up. I saw the world through rosy-colored lens and stood at a comfortable arms length from any real suffering. In middle school I ran around proclaiming “Life is good!” shortly before it was coined on popular t-shirts in the 90s. I was 100% Miss Positive Vibes. I didn’t have any reason not to be.

 

 

As I grew up and got a little more kicked around by life (you can read about some of those experiences here: Hit by a Car and Pregnancy Loss), I came to better understand the people who met my youthful enthusiasm and can-do attitude with quiet irritation or outward eyerolls. This fresh understanding doesn’t mean that I’m not going to do my best to move forward in life with a hopeful disposition, but it certainly changed how I speak to and empathize with people in the jaws of suffering, grief and loss.

I don’t think our culture is obsessed with people being miserable as some other wellness advocates have suggested. By contrast, I think our culture is addicted to numbing. We find ways to avoid pain or offer quick fixes for it rather than addressing its roots. [Enter: “Toxic positivity,” substance abuse, fear avoidance, spiritual bypassing, grief hierarchies, food addictions, and more.]

A positive disposition is not in and of itself a harmful thing until it prevents us from really sitting with other people in their pain. The very definition of compassion is to suffer together and be motivated to help the suffering person. In other words, compassion compels some people to sit with the person who suffers, acknowledging and hearing their pain, and motivates others to “fix” the suffering. This is where some people in a place of hardship may feel frustrated by futile attempts from loved ones to offer solutions for the painful circumstance. [Hello again, toxic positivity phrases such as “at least you still have…things could be much worse…try to see the bright side…I have a book you should read to help with this,” etc.]

 

 

The complaint against positivity is that it’s not okay when it denies acknowledging hard feelings to the exclusion of positive ones. We are whole beings with ALL the feels at one time or another. This is natural. This is life. This is still within the wellness spectrum; to be fully human.

When we only offer up ideas to solve the pain of another, we miss the other, perhaps more genuine, side of compassion: the “suffer together” side. I would personally rephrase this and call it the “I’m here for you and whatever you need” component of compassion. In times of great need, people must feel free to tell you what they need rather than the other way around. We’re all different and thus, our grief and healing needs will be unique too. We can’t slap boilerplate fixes, numbing tools, and “perk up buttercup” messages to all of humanity.

To sum, positivity becomes “toxic” (i.e., not situationally sensitive) when it:

  • Diminishes the feelings of another
  • Puts another’s grief or hardship into a hierarchy to suggest it’s less difficult than “X”
  • Dismisses or minimizes another’s lived experience
  • Addresses a complicated situation with a cliché phrase or one-size-fits-all perspective
  • Suggests that you’re unwilling to listen due to your own personal discomfort around the subject

Negative emotions can actually inform and grow us emotionally, mentally and spiritually when we work through them. Denying emotions – both negative and positive – can result in distress. As evidenced by one study, suppressing emotional reactions of all kinds can lead to increased heart rate and other physiological symptoms of overwhelm and anxiety. In short, we must authentically confront and work through ALL emotions.

 

 

But if toxic positivity is the harmful denial of negative emotions then doesn’t it stand to reason that “toxic negativity” exists too?

YES.

Negative feelings left unchecked can spiral and wreak havoc on our physical and mental health. That said, it’s entirely natural to oscillate back and forth between positive and negative feelings. So long as we don’t assign labels like “good” and “bad” to the variety of emotions that we humans experience then we’re making at least some small steps of progress.

The wellness industry has been bashed for selling “positive vibes only” for the last decade or two, and heck – even my site’s tagline can be interpreted as toxic positivity. I picked “start believing you can” as the tagline years ago because I saw (and still see) the way that negative self beliefs limit people when it comes to their health and fitness. This does NOT mean positive thoughts will fix all things or that people in a state of suffering can simply adapt an optimistic attitude and “think” themselves better. What it does mean is that faith in ourselves, even in the face of great adversity, is fundamental to persevering the many highs and lows that life doles out.

So, toxic positivity and toxic negativity…meh. They’re just words. Don’t get too hung up on them. Instead, put your energy into embracing authentic living and sincere compassion. These are some of the best tools for wellness.

Start believing you can.

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

 

 

 

Healing Requires Courage

The world is slowly inching towards a new year and possible solutions for moving the pandemic towards its end. Even once a vaccine is proven effective and administered to the masses, there is still global healing that must follow. No doubt many of us have suffered physical, mental and spiritual repercussions from this scary year. Survivors of covid-19 sometimes say that they have lingering and chronic symptoms from the virus. Still others are grieving losing loved ones who they longed to hold tight in their final days but could not. The whole world needs healing…and it may take a very long time for that to happen, even if and when global immunity is established. We must step into 2021 with bravery and hope like never before. 

 

 

At the outset of the pandemic I felt very fortunate to have escaped its nasty jaws (so far). My family’s livelihood was not majorly hampered and most of our professional work was already based out of our home. In fact, the pandemic meant that my husband’s part-time work travel was made obsolete. Suddenly, he was more available to help with the children, errands, dinner prep and chores. The atmosphere around the dinner table was still tense with pandemic-related stress but we felt like we could count our blessings and muscle onwards.

And then…well, then we were dealt a terrible blow. Our perceived invincibility went racing down the gutter. I was left quite literally dumbfounded and broken, brought to my knees by the great and tragic twists of life. I’m currently on my own unique healing journey. One that requires healing from emergency surgery and pregnancy loss.

My body has had to heal physically on many levels (at two months out it’s still ongoing, of course).

My hormones are finding their way back to equilibrium. The layers of tissue under the incision on my stomach are gluing themselves back together. My core strength and stamina is slowly returning. My heart is pumping to replenish from blood loss and recover from anemia. Emotionally…well…grief takes a while, and you can bet I’ve linked up with a mental health counselor to wade through the trauma. Spiritually, I feel like I’ve grown tremendously…but I still have lots of unanswered questions to make peace with.

Healing takes time. It’s complex. And most of all, it requires courage. 

 

 

Before diving into why healing requires courage, let’s explore how healing is defined to better understand it. Who better to ask than Wikipedia, right? According to wiki:

Healing is the process of the restoration of health from an unbalanced, diseased, damaged or unvitalized organism.”

Said in other words, being healed implies ongoing balance, wellness, safety and vitality. From this standpoint, healing is quite different from modern medicine. Prescription medicines are often masking while surgeries are considered curing in many scenarios. Healing isn’t either; it’s a holistic process.

For example, let’s say a woman is “cured” from breast cancer through a lumpectomy or mastectomy. Does this mean that she is also healed? No, not yet. Healing will take place in the post-operative room following surgery and in the weeks ahead as she regains strength and mobility. It will happen as she begins to deal with the emotional impact of being diagnosed with cancer in the first place. Additional mental healing may be necessary as she adapts to a new body image (in the case of mastectomy) and grieves aspects of the diagnosis and/or trauma. Perhaps healing must also occur on a spiritual level for her; she may be angry at God, questioning the existence of a higher power, or seeking to assign spiritual meaning and value to the experience as a whole. 

Nurses are often given credit for facilitating patients’ healing in hospitals. In nursing literature, healing has been explained as “the process of bringing together aspects of one’s self, body-mind-spirit, at deeper levels of inner knowing, leading toward integration and balance with each aspect having equal importance and value.”

Prior to my recent trauma, I learned the aforementioned definition of healing firsthand after being hit by a car. The healing process took over five years in my twenties. Yup, five full years – partially because my body began to dysfunction in response to the acute injuries I sustained. Also, I was going through a spiritual and emotional crisis at the time. You could definitely call that time a “coming of age” experience but it went hand-in-hand with lessons on physical, emotional and spiritual healing, and the complicated web that entangles them all. 

In the seasons that followed the bike accident, my eyes were opened to the powerful role of inflammation in our bodies, the complexity of pain pathways, the nonlinear nature of healing, and the difficulty involved when advocating to partner with the right health professionals, to name just a few lessons. But most of all, I discovered that healing requires courage. A lot of it. 

 

 

There are powerful stories we rehearse in our heads like “I don’t deserve to feel better,” and “No one can fix me,” or even, “I’m too tired, sad, angry (etc.) to find the resources I need to heal.” Other times, the mental narratives relate to the trauma or inciting incident itself: “It was my partner’s fault when he did ____,” or “I feel like I’m drowning when I think about the day ____ died.” Whatever image or phrase repeats in your head and causes a negative physiological and/or emotional response becomes a footpath in your mind.

As you rehearse or relive that negative experience or belief, that footpath expands into a one-lane road. Over more time and left unchecked, the road gets wider and wider, making it much easier to travel down than another path that is still overgrown and untrodden but which contains a positive belief about the experience. Your brain will keep choosing and reinforcing the wider road until there is courage to step away and intentionally choose to trailblaze a new path. Oftentimes this is a process, not an overnight fix, requiring intentionality and professional help.   

It can be very scary to choose to heal. It entails confronting “inner demons” and misbeliefs, working through trauma, and more. All of this can feel extremely daunting and draining. But being brave enough to heal isn’t about waiting for the fear to subside. It’s about stepping into the fear and moving through it. 

“Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.”

-Ambrose Redmoon

Each individual is responsible for being courageous and owning their healing process. Oftentimes, healing feels like a lot of small quiet victories, unannounced to the world but felt profoundly in a person’s daily life. These small “wins” add up and are just as significant as the big ones. Healing requires being brave enough to take action; setting boundaries, self care, and saying no to things that will deplete you too much or that you’re not ready for. Healing will look and feel different for each person.

We can also learn a little something about healing through understanding what it looks like at a cellular level in our bodies:

“With physical damage or disease suffered by an organism, healing involves the repair of living tissue(s), organs and the biological system as a whole and resumption of (normal) functioning. Medicine includes the process by which the cell(s) in the body regenerate and repair to reduce the size of a damaged or necrotic area and replace it with new living tissue. The replacement can happen in two ways: by regeneration in which the necrotic cells are replaced by new cells that form “like” tissue as was originally there; or by repair in which injured tissue is replaced with scar tissue. Most organs will heal using a mixture of both mechanisms.”

 

 

In other words, if we take what cellular repair and regeneration look like and blow this out to the entire organism or person, we might conclude that healing looks in part like an evolution of the self (regeneration) and in part like a return to the original self (repair). Both are paradoxically true: Through healing we return to ourselves just as we become brand new beings. As I’ve said once before, it’s a metamorphosis.  

I would like to leave you with this parting thought:

In what ways have you been healing recently? What parts of you feel steadfast and true, a return to your authentic self, and what parts of you feel transformed? Lastly, is there anything you can do as we head into a brand new year to heal more completely? 

Sending out a little prayer and some good energy in hopes you find the courage you need. And guess what? If you don’t find it right away, that’s okay. Sometimes healing looks much slower and more painful than we would like. It’s important to remember that living in a season that feels stalled does not make you “lesser than” or imply that you aren’t trying. Sometimes the most profound hope can be born in the midst of what feels like an unending dark night…  

Oh, one last thing:

In case you want some ideas for actionable things you can do in the healing process, here are a few from a very, very long list of options: 

  • Prayer
  • Mental health counseling
  • Herbal supplements, teas and tonics
  • Nutrient-dense meals
  • Restorative sleep
  • Meditation
  • Guided visualization and/or progressive relaxation
  • Rejuvenating exercise
  • Engaging with communities for spiritual growth
  • Omkar chanting and/or mantra recitation
  • Yoga and stretching
  • Aromatherapy and/or essential oils
  • Sound therapy
  • Nature therapy and grounding
  • Acupuncture
  • Massage
  • Chiropractic adjustments
  • Journaling
  • Leisure time and hobbies
  • Joyful activities with friends
  • Reading

 

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

 

 

 

Calm Your Body and Mind: A Therapist’s Guide for Nervous System Regulation

Before Mental Health Month concludes, I thought it best to bring on board one of my closest friends for some discussion. Please help me welcome Lauren Goldberg (MSW, LCSW), a mental health professional who owns a therapy practice in Colorado called Secure Base Mental Health LLC. Lauren will guide us through how our nervous systems respond to stress (especially amid a pandemic) and how we can become flexible and responsive to our emotional needs through daily grounding practices. Believe me: You should want to read her advice. I’ve already gained some extra wisdom for my wellness journey thanks to the insights Lauren shares here and I’m confident you will too. And now, passing the torch to Lauren (see below)…

 

 

A Therapist’s Perspective

As a therapist, I am often asked my opinion on major current events involving mental health. It makes sense; people want advice, insight, and maybe even answers. They want to feel better. There’s never been a harder event to weigh in on than the COVID-19 pandemic. Why? Because I’m going through it with you.

Generally, there is some space between me, my family, and the major current event, but I am inundated as much as you are with the newest data, often conflicting information, and evolving requirements. Like everyone, I am constantly (daily, hourly, sometimes minute to minute!) adjusting the way I think about the world and how I interact with those around me. It is exhausting spending extra energy navigating tasks that used to be second nature. Plus, I can’t forget the ever-present message that the world is not a safe place. That’s enough to throw anyone’s nervous system into a tizzy!

When Maggie asked me to be a guest on WellnessWinz, I initially thought “what do I know?!” These are such unprecedented times. There’s no context from which to draw on to provide “magical insight.”

What I quickly realized is I do have insight. It may not be magical, but perhaps it can be useful. After all, the same principles can be applied to navigating a pandemic (wow, that word alone is charging!) as they can be to any stressful situation. There are key concepts that I apply to my work with every client, regardless of their circumstances.

 

 

The Autonomic Nervous System

My approach to therapy is based on the value of safe relationships and developing the capacity for autonomic nervous system regulation. My main goal as a therapist is to help my clients feel safe enough to connect to me and, as a result, connect to their own experiences. Let me break that down…

I’m sure everyone is familiar with the term “nervous system.” When I reference it here, I am referring to the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which responds to cues of safety and danger. It helps us know when it is safe to connect and when we must protect ourselves from a threat. There are three modes (or “neural circuits of regulation” if you want to sound fancy) that our ANS shifts into as it responds to the environment. Two of them are more commonly referenced – mobilization (fight/flight) and immobilization (freeze). Side note: There’s also the “fawn” response if you’re a nerd like me and want to do additional research.

An individual’s nervous system drops into fight, flight or freeze when a threat is perceived in the environment, whether the origin is internal or external. These threats do not have to be acute, life-threatening events but can also be chronic, low-level stressors, such as developmental trauma (i.e. not having basic emotional and/or physical needs met throughout one’s life). Responding to repeated threats of safety without the opportunity to re-regulate can decrease resiliency in one’s nervous system. I’ll explain this more in a bit.

The third circuit that is rarely talked about but just as important is called “safe and social.” This is the mode from which we feel safe enough to connect to ourselves and others. In this regulated state, we have access to logical thinking and can learn, communicate and engage with others.

A healthy ANS is flexible enough to respond to an incoming “threat” and recover quickly. However, many people lack this flexibility and end up spending more time in survival mode than in a safe and social state. Generally, this is a result of upbringing and life circumstances. Our nervous systems are so smart that they can be “trained” to look for threats. This can be advantageous when there are threats, particularly in childhood when we have no choice but to adapt to our circumstances.

 

 

The Disconnect Between Brain & Body

What happens when we logically know our environment is safe but our nervous system is still stuck in survival mode?

This disconnect between our logical brain (i.e. “mind”) and our survival brain (i.e. “body”) causes what we call dysregulation and brings with it some seriously unpleasant symptoms. A person with chronic dysregulation may experience anxiety, depression, fatigue, pain, intensified autoimmune responses, irritable bowel, an inability to problem-solve, difficulty connecting with others, and a myriad of other symptoms.

Amidst the global novel virus pandemic (yikes!), some people are spending more time in survival mode as their nervous systems shift away from connection (safety) and towards protection (danger). The world as we know it no longer exists. Our way of moving through life with relative ease and predictability is now replaced with reminders to protect ourselves, stay vigilant in our interactions with others, and deal with the grave uncertainty of our future, not to mention financial stress, social isolation, and serious illness.

 

 

Mindfully Navigating a New & Stressful World

So what can we do to help ourselves navigate this new world, especially with the number of “danger” cues around us? It is difficult to manage the influx of advice and information and to integrate so many changes without access to critical thinking. Remember, our logical brain goes offline in survival mode. To bring it back online, we must show our nervous system it is safe to come out of protection and get back to connection.

While the concept is simple, it is not easy. It takes practice, but the good news is, the more we practice, the easier it becomes. We can literally show our nervous system a different way to “be,” one small step at a time. Even in the midst of a pandemic, our bodies can be trained to notice safety cues. This does not mean ignoring discomfort in our systems; it means learning how to experience comfort and discomfort at the same time. Mindful practice can help our systems move fluidly between the two. Remember, a healthy nervous system is one that is flexible.

There are certain things we can do to show our system signs of safety and even joy. If we focus on these cues instead of cues of danger, we can build our capacity for regulation. I’ve included some suggestions below. Figure out what works for you. You can do this by paying attention to your body’s response (i.e. “gut reaction”) as you read through them. You may find that you already do many of these things so the key now is to do them mindfully. (Helpful hint: Try them for the first time when you’re relatively calm. The idea is to reinforce and expand any amount of regulation rather than attempt something that feels too hard and end up reinforcing survival mode.)

 

 

Daily Practices to Regulate & Calm the Nervous System

1) Ground in all five senses. I lead my clients through an exercise in which I cue them to notice what they see, hear, taste, smell and feel. This orients them to time and place and reminds their bodies they are safe in the room with me. You can do this on your own, too. I have my clients use this video outside of therapy to continue their practice of nervous systems regulation. If this feels too challenging or if you find yourself in a very escalated state, try focusing on just one part of your body that feels good or even neutral. This can be anything from one toe to the tip of your nose. All you’re doing is reminding yourself there is a place on your body that’s okay. When you focus on the comfort rather than discomfort, you’ll be surprised by the shift you begin to notice!

 

2) Get moving. Any kind of movement or exercise, including dancing, is a great way to connect to your body and remind it of its power, health and strength. Try to stay connected to your experience. Overriding your body’s needs and doing too much will push you back towards dysregulation.

 

3) Listen to music and better yet, sing along. The reason is complex, but engaging vocal cords can do wonders for discharging emotions.

 

4) Put pen to paper. Journaling, especially the good old-fashioned way, can help you get acquainted with and reflect on your experiences.

 

5) Take a shower or bath. Water is grounding. Take the effects up a notch by noticing the water fall onto and off your body. Try integrating aromatherapy. Figure out what smells good to you by experimenting.

 

6) Breathe mindfully. Breathe in through your nose as you expand your belly and out through the mouth. Focus on the exhale, not the inhale. Contrary to popular belief, the exhale is what slows our heart rate. Focusing on the deep inhale can actually have a dysregulating effect. As you breathe out, trust your body will know when to bring air in again.

 

 

7) Cook or bake. These two nurturing tasks can help you focus on a basic human need, and the completion of them can feel so fulfilling.

 

8) Practice self-compassion by connecting to your emotional experience. Such a therapist thing to say, right?  Well, there’s a reason – letting yourself feel your emotions allows them to discharge, and this can have far-reaching effects on regulation. Think about what you do for a kiddo when they’re upset – you acknowledge what they’re feeling before you try to apply logic. This is called co-regulation and you can do the same thing for yourself.

 

9) Take a nap. Rest may be just what your system needs to regroup. If you’re feeling up to it, see if you can tune into the heaviness of your body on the bed, couch or whatever supportive surface you’re using. This will allow your body to fully let go and lead to even more restorative benefits (you can also add a weighted blanket for more sensory input).

 

10) Restorative yoga poses. I am no expert on yoga but I do suggest using certain poses like laying on your back with your bottom all the way against the wall so your feet rest on the wall. Shivasana, child’s pose, figure eight/infinity pose and others that are “cooling” can help rest the body and elicit a parasympathetic nervous system response.

 

11) Connect to nature. Walk barefoot on the grass or sand, put your feet in a nearby body of water, notice the animals, plants and trees around you – really notice and even name them aloud or in your mind.

 

12) Listen to relaxing sounds. I have a playlist of ambient sound that I use as needed. My favorite is waves crashing onto a beach and rain falling. Soothing noises like this can be helpful when it’s hard to connect to your body. Engaging your auditory system provides a nice anchor.

 

 

13) Sunbathe! Good old vitamin D can most certainly aid in restoring vibrancy and positivity.

 

14) Pursue social interaction. There is no better way to regulate than by connecting with another safe person.

 

15) Do something creative, whether coloring, drawing, painting, molding or crafting. This is a great way to connect to yourself and discharge survival mode energy.

 

16) Hang with your pet. Spending time with them can be incredibly grounding. Intensify the grounding effect by engaging as many senses as you can. Notice how their fur feels on your hands, notice their color, the sound of their breathing, how they smell, how they feel if they are sitting on your lap, etc.

 

17) Do a puzzle or another game that supports problem-solving. Engaging your logical brain will in and of itself create space for more connection.

 

18) Watch comedy or light-hearted, feel-good shows. It’s important to screen out overwhelming and negative news. This is good practice when it comes to social media, too. Unfriend or unfollow people that seem to be stuck in survival mode. They will only serve to remind your system it’s not safe.

 

 

19) Visualization. Imagine being in a place that brings you comfort. For me, it’s sitting on the shore of the beach with my toes in the sand and my family nearby (but not close enough to disrupt my peace). Use ambient noise to intensify the visualization. You can find a lot of these on YouTube! As you begin to settle in, notice how your body feels. Don’t worry if your mind wanders. Just notice it is and gently bring yourself back.

 

20) Eat! You read that right. What’s more nurturing than a delicious meal, especially one that nourishes your body? It’s also okay to indulge. Just try to stay present while doing so. We run into problems when we disconnect and numb ourselves with food. Notice every bite as it goes into your mouth, notice the texture, the taste, and try to notice when you’ve had enough.

 

21) Pursue therapy. Especially if all of these suggestions feel like a challenge or if you know you’re experiencing symptoms of chronic dysregulation. Most therapists are trained to stay regulated so they can act as a regulating source for their clients. If you are interested in my style, seek out a somatic experiencing therapist. They are specifically trained to attune to the autonomic “conversations” in the therapy room, which can help you reconnect to your body and show your nervous system a more regulated way to be.

 

There are many more options to show your system signs of safety than what I’ve listed here. Do some experimenting! And I can’t say it enough – this is a practice. It’s not supposed to be easy. If it were, I wouldn’t have a job…

Thanks for reading, reach out with questions or comments, and best of luck on your journey to nervous system regulation. ~Lauren

 

*Feel free to contact Lauren with inquires and mental health needs at Secure Base Mental Health LLC.

 

Thanks for reading everyone! Keep nurturing the mind/body connection through daily grounding practices and self care for your mental health!

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

 

 

 

5 Ways Our Bodies Are Connected to The Earth

Funny thing…an uptick in arguments with my husband every Fall led me to wonder if tension was high just because of football season (sad but true) or if there was more to the story. I did a little digging and learned that our hormones are connected to seasonal changes in surprising ways. I also discovered multiple more ways that our bodies are connected to the earth and how we can improve wellness by forming a relationship with Mother Nature herself.

 

 

Seasonal Hormonal Changes

Apparently, like many mammals, we humans have what some scientists call a “mating season.” August and September hold the highest birth rates of any months in the calendar year, meaning that nine months earlier…people are getting busy. That puts November and December as the months with the highest rates of conception. Some evolutionary theorists believe this is because our bodies are fine-tuned to have babies in months where their survival is best…aka, not in the freezing cold temperatures of our prehistoric cave homes.

This “peak” fertility is thanks to a rise in testosterone in the autumn months. And it’s not just men who experience this (just in time for football season, I add with an eye roll), it’s also a phenomenon in women. While I can’t say that the fertility theory has proven true in my life (both my babies started baking in the spring), I will say that I’ve always wondered how and why my clients always seem to have the most energy for their workouts in the Fall months. I guess now I know why…

 

 

Green Space & Mental Health

There’s a theory in psychology called the hedonic treadmill. The theory assumes that each individual is prone to a certain baseline of happiness, to which they routinely return despite positive and negative changes and life circumstances. This theory has been debunked by one study evaluating people’s overall mental health when relocating to spaces with more nature and green space.

Even after accounting for income, employment, education, and more, the study shows that “people in greener areas showed markedly better mental health scores compared to the two years prior to moving. This is a metric that not only includes stress levels and the ability to concentrate, but also the ability to make good decisions, a person’s level of confidence, overall happiness and other factors.”

I can personally say that I feel more zen with some green around me, for sure. But I don’t think you have to move to the country to accomplish this (if you were born to be a city person). Urban green spaces may have the potential to help combat depression and anxiety.

 

 

The Sun Connection

We’ve long heard of the benefits of sun exposure for our vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is crucial for bone health and appears to play a role in preventing Type 1 & Type 2 Diabetes, hypertension, Multiple Sclerosis (MS), cardiovascular disease, and more (people living at higher latitudes with less sun exposure have greater incidences of these conditions). Many of us have even heard about how sunlight helps us regulate wake/sleep cycles, especially when we get sunlight in the morning and, as a result, our melatonin production kicks in earlier in the evening to help us with sleep. But there are even more benefits of the sun… (!!!)

Sunshine may help autoimmune diseases thanks to immunosuppressive effects following exposure. It also helps limit oxidative DNA damage while increasing gene repair. As if that’s not fascinating enough, get this –  UV Radiation can increase blood levels of natural opiates (aka. endorphins, those feel-good hormones)! Pretty compelling evidence to find a balance between protecting oneself from sun damage and getting enough exposure to it!

 

 

Brain Waves & Nature Sounds

There are many scientists who believe that our brain wave patterns evolved in response to the natural world’s frequencies and electromagnetic fields. In many studies, brain waves respond positively to nature sounds (ex: a babbling brook, ocean waves, rain fall, etc.), demonstrating an increase in waves associated with rest and digestion. In one particular study, researchers found that natural sounds elicited an “outward-directed focus of attention” for people’s brains whereas artificial sounds caused an “inward-directed focus of attention,” similar to a rise of in anxiety/depression or the experience of post-traumatic stress. Perhaps most interesting is that researchers found that people with higher anxiety or depression showed the strongest positive response to nature sounds. In short, if you’re feeling blue, reconnect with the world around you. Pause and listen. Relax and release.

 

 

The Practice of Grounding

Grounding is the practice of letting your body be in touch with nature. This may include sitting on the ground under a tree, walking barefoot through the grass or sand, or sleeping outdoors. There are many examples. Some people even say that walking barefoot on ceramic tile and concrete counts since these are made from natural materials. In short, grounding is connecting ourselves with the earth and its electron flow. Feeling skeptical? Just wait, there’s evidence this helps our health…

People who “ground themselves” often report feelings of well-being, citing that they feel less stressed and more strong. Outside of this subjective feedback, several scientific studies have been conducted to test these “grounding theories.” It has been scientifically proven that grounding can improve circulation, reduce pain, and improve sleep by helping normalize diurnal rhythms of the stress hormone cortisol! Time to ditch the shoes! 

 

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The point is simple: We are bound to this earth in more ways than one. When we embrace these connections we can achieve higher wellness.

 

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie