One of the things I've come up against is something which I know many other people with weight problems have dealt with and that is an increased loss of control as the day wears on. That is, night-time binging (or, as is often the case for me, "mini binging" - enough to sabotage losses, but not enough to bring on much in the way of gains). I've become frustrated at the holding pattern I'm in and with how it makes me feel when I succumb to this sense. For me, as is so often the case, it is as much or more about the behaviors and what they mean in a larger sense than how they impact my body.
My study lead me to look into the topic of what is referred to in psychology as "depletion". This links directly to the concept of "willpower" and the erroneous idea that you can do anything if you "try" hard enough. Depletion (or more properly, ego-depletion) has been studied extensively and the bottom line is that we all have a finite capacity to exercise self-control on a daily basis. Those who live lives with significant stress will become depleted and be unable to control themselves as the day wears on and those with less stress will have a better time of it. In particular, those who have to exercise constant conscious control (called "vigilance"), like resisting food, will deplete their resolve reserves more rapidly than those who only occasionally need to resist throughout the day. This is why it is so common for dieters to have problems resisting eating at night.
Studies have shown that those who are on a diet and are placed in a room with appealing food and resist it are far more likely to indulge afterwards. The act of resisting now depletes the ability to resist later. This, unfortunately, indicates something to me which I have not wanted to embrace for other reasons. That is, that it is important to resist temptation and not keep such food in your presence if you are trying to improve your eating habits. That being said, I have found that keeping such food around doesn't tend to "tempt" me, but rather does give me a focal point when I want to mini binge for emotional soothing purposes. The cookies in the cabinet do not call my name. I am actually pretty indifferent to them, but I think that's due to how I've carried on with my eating (as outlined in this blog). As is always the case, "YMMV" (your mileage may vary). The results of the studies in this case are something to keep in mind if you find that tasty food tempts you. If you don't feel its siren song, then it may not be a problem.
While researching depletion, I was disappointed in the lack of information on how to avoid it or to manage it. As is so often the case with psychological research, there has been much more done into why and how it occurs than how to deal with it. The only research that seemed to address overcoming it was conducted with cash bribes to keep working once one had been depleted. It showed that someone who was relatively tapped out could work at the same level if you paid them to keep trying. This is, unfortunately, a pretty impractical solution. No one is going to pay you to avoid eating.
As has often been the case, I had to explore the possible solutions on my own. I am at the beginning of this process and it may yet be refined, but I have found that I have a tendency to tap myself out repeatedly throughout the day. Things like thinking a lot about serious topics, processing emotional issues, doing tasks you don't enjoy, etc. are a part of what depletes one. After reading the causes of depletion in a wide variety of studies, I was actually relieved because I could see that I have been inundated with nearly every factor that they list over the last few years. Frankly, I'm proud that, after two years of constant adjustment and upheaval and being depressed for much of that time, I haven't put on a 100 lbs. by now. The fact that I'm holding relatively steady is a miracle, but I do want to work on this issue and move ahead.
I came up with a behavioral plan to manage depletion. I have to say that it is not the least bit easy. Coping with a moment of weakness and overcoming the desires it brought on took a full 40 minutes the first time I dealt with it. The second wave (about 4 hours later) was much easier. It is often said, and I strongly believe it is true, that psychological strength is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. I do believe that this is so with depletion as well as everything else that I've worked on. My main focus from this time forward is to manage my time better and insert more breaks into my day in order to reduce the state of depletion later in the day. I am using some of the techniques in the list to follow, but it really comes down to take a moment to notice my fatigue and sit down, close my eyes, and do nothing mentally or physically engaging for a few minutes in order to step out of the pattern I'm in. My mind is always running fast and furious and I need to force myself to disengage. I'm hoping that will improve my situation. Only time will tell.
I also realize, rather sadly, that one of the reasons that I had to set this blog aside was that I was so badly depleted that I just couldn't reflect on such things anymore. I am not actually "gone" as I don't intend to abandon this blog, but I am also not actually "back". If I have something new to say, I will say it, but I won't be pushing to add content.
My apologies to all of the kind people who have wished me well by leaving kind comments and inquiring after my well-being. It is so appreciated that you care enough to drop in on me and think about me. These are things that matter in the world. The energy you put out is important and graciously accepted by me. Thank you so much for your warm and beautiful hearts and sharing them with me.
1. Depletion is real.
Many people believe that they are “weak” and lacking in “willpower” but the inner resources of an individual are neither infinite nor equal. As our inner resources are consumed by stress – both physical and mental – our capacity to make difficult choices is reduced. Resistance to temptation goes down as the amount of stress and effort one expends goes up. The first step in improving the capacity to make better choices is understanding the the difficulty is absolutely real not just for the individual facing what feels like a failure in “willpower”, but for every person on this planet.
2. Depletion is temporary.
Once you accept that the temptation you are nearly succumbing to is based on a real lack of inner resources (and not personal failing), then you can find a way to manage more productively in that moment. Knowing that depletion exists means you can face it. The first step in facing it is to know that it is temporary. That means that there are techniques for avoiding the choice you don't want to make (eating, drinking, taking drugs, etc.) long enough for the temporary state of depletion to pass. These are meant to give your resolve a chance to re-establish itself.
1. Talk to someone/engage in social contact.
One of the reasons that alcoholics in AA will call a sponsor in a moment of temptation is that it allows him or her to not act at a moment in which inner resources are depleted. The social contact as well as the disruption of the moment allow inner resources to refill both by allowing time to pass and providing contact with an empathic and sympathetic person. Even if you don't have someone who you can call in a moment of weakness, you can improve your chances of succumbing to temptation by having a social experience such as calling a friend, family member, etc - even chatting online may be helpful.
2. Sidetrack/distract yourself long enough to allow resolve to improve.
Look at the clock at the moment that you want to succumb. Tell yourself that you will not act on your impulse for at least five minutes. When that time has passed, ask yourself if you can wait another five minutes. If you cannot, allow yourself to give in a little (one sip of a drink, one bite of a treat, etc.) and wait five more minutes before partaking again. Ask if you can wait longer to give in a second time.
Many addictions are tried and true forms of making yourself feel better when you are worn out. It is an unfortunate fact of life that few addicts can find as much comfort in other activities as they find in their addiction. They are quick and easy and generally quite satisfying compared to any other choice you can make. However, those other soothing activities don't have to be "as good" as the addictive behavior, they only have to be helpful to the extent that they allow you to build up your resolve and avoid the choice you don't want to make.
While such choices are highly individual, some possibilities include: taking a walk, meditation, watching video that you enjoy (YouTube is good for temporary diversion/refreshment), eating a hard candy that is very flavorful while fully attending to the experience (close your eyes and really savor it), taking a bath/shower, hugging or stroking a stuffed toy, looking at pictures that you love/enjoy from the past, listening to music, daydreaming, tapping your feet or fingers, rocking in a rocking chair, lighting and enjoying the aroma of a scented candle, playing a game (including computer games that can be played alone), breathing exercises/progressive relaxation, drinking coffee or tea*, etc.
3. Depletion can be reduced if you are aware.
Understand and reduce factors that contribute to depletion.
A great many factors can cause depletion including:
- exercising emotional control (e.g., not showing temper, sadness, frustration)
- physical exertion
- thinking about difficult or complex tasks (concentrating, studying, etc.)
- dealing with difficult people
- contemplating an uncertain future or reflecting on past difficulties
- resisting temptation
- engaging in positive but tiring behaviors vocationally over an extended time (e.g., exercising, cleaning, preparing healthy meals, etc.)
- being around people, noise, lights
- social isolation
- low blood sugar (being hungry)
- lack of sleep
- uncomfortable weather (too hot/too cold/too humid)
- health problems
- random stressors (noise, unpredictable relationship problems, etc.)
Beyond reducing exposure to known factors which cause depletion, it is also important to attend to your body's internal state and gain further awareness of what is causing you tension and tiring you. Many people furrow their brows, tense their muscles, and clench their jaws in situations, but don't realize they are having stress responses. Bodily awareness increases your ability to identify and manage depleting factors.
4. The act of attempting to reduce depletion will itself be depleting!
Changing habits and establishing new patterns of behavior will tire you out and consume inner resources. This means that, until you have a well-established pattern of inner resource replenishment, your ability to manage depletion and resist temptation will be spotty. You may find that your are hit and miss with your success. This is to be expected as part of the process. This is not failure. It is simply part of adaptation. The point it to build to a state in which you can resist and cope better more often than not, not to be “perfect” and never succumb. Everyone succumbs to temptation on occasion. No one is a paragon of self-control or possessing of infinite willpower and those who present themselves in such a fashion are likely lying. “Better” is the goal, not “perfect”.
5. The carrot and the stick play a role in the ability to overcome depletion.
Studies have shown that punishment and reward improve motivation to endure a depleted state and push past an urge. Avoiding depletion by succumbing to an easy self-soothing temptation is seen as a form of survival as it allows enough inner resources to remain for a person to function in a true emergency. When a strong incentive is provided, most people in a depleted state will do better than they do without that incentive. If you offer yourself a suitable reward or punishment, you may be able to transcend your sense of being unable to resist and use some of your minimal inner resources to make the preferred choice. For example, “If I don't eat that piece of chocolate cake, I will put a quarter in a jar and when the jar is full, I will go out and buy something special for myself with the money.” Placing the quarter in the jar is an immediate reward (as it is a record of successful efforts to resist temptation) and the long-term reward is buying some desired item. The choice of reward is very individual, but it must be a significant motivator to be successful. If you choose a reward or punishment and find it isn't helping you when depleted, it is not motivating enough. For many people, there is no sufficiently strong reward or punishment to stop them from making the preferred choice in a depleted state. This is not a failure.
*Drinking coffee or tea is to be used as a self-soothing or replenishing mechanism with caution. It can be fortifying in various ways, but it is also a form of “biological energy borrowing”. It is often followed by a subsequent caffeine crash depending on ones tolerance levels. However, the act of drinking coffee or tea is often associated with relaxation and slowing down to drink either of these beverages can allow for an replenishing of ones resolve.