Thursday, June 24, 2010

Coping with bad days

Everyone has bad days. They are those times when you're so overwhelmed by something that doing all of the stuff it takes to stay on your plan to improve your health and reduce your weight seems like an immense burden. This isn't an illusion or an attempt to make an excuse to abandon your plan in favor of reverting back to what you “really” want to do, eat junk and be inert, as many people often conclude. It's neither your weakness nor a manifestation of barely suppressed desires to indulge when this happens.

When we have “bad days”, we (usually) lose motivation because we are overwhelmed and doing anything that requires the least bit of effort is like contemplating adding that last straw that will break our (figurative) backs. Your nervous system feels stimulation when physical or emotional discomfort are being endured. It's one of the reasons people who are in pain have less patience than people who are not. At these times, making any effort is hard.

Most people define “effort” as movement or activity, but even thinking about something when you're having a bad day is going to require energy. Your brain, after all, requires an immense amount of energy relative to other organs. Incidentally, this is why college students tend to gain weight. It's not the stress so much as the studying. The brain makes them want quick energy, and they often turn to quick and dense delivery systems like candy.

For women, myself included, menstrual cycles and pre-menstrual cycles tend to be the times when it becomes very difficult to stay on plan. It's not only that your bodily systems are disrupted and its energies diverted to monthly regulatory processes, but also that we tend to develop cravings and want to eat more. Again, this is not weakness, but a function of biology. Fighting back against such strong impulses when you're feeling poorly is an order of magnitude harder than on those days when you're doing well.

Today, I'm having a “bad day” because of my period. I feel foggy, impatient, have a headache, and I want to eat rather than resist when I'm hungry or having a craving. I feel like the least little bit of effort including having to think in any way about what or how much I'm eating is too much and I'd like to just put my head down on the desk and withdraw from everything. All of my understanding of the underlying factors doesn't change the fact that I feel like crap and that resisting any urge right now feels like it's going to take a Herculean effort which I cannot muster.

So, how do I cope? I start with acknowledging that this is going to be a hard day, and that I may end up eating a few more calories, and it's going to be okay if I eat up to 2000 instead of sticking to 1500. It's also okay if I decide not to exercise because I feel bad. And I'm not lying to myself. One of the things which I think people on “diets” tend to do is never let themselves off the hook, push themselves every single day and berate themselves when they “fail”, even when they feel like crap. I think that we have to be reasonable with ourselves and our lives. By giving yourself permission to eat a little more and do less when you feel bad, you take the pressure off of yourself for the day. You immediately improve your chances of coping effectively during the short period of time when you are doing poorly. While there is a chance that you will suffer from a “lack of progress” during the days you do this, you at least will know that you will not suffer a serious setback or suffer needlessly for incremental gains.

The result of consciously cutting myself slack early on when I feel terrible is that the sense of being overwhelmed immediately is reduced. Instead of feeling the crushing weight of my physical difficulties coupled with my mental fog and having to deal with my eating and exercise goals, I only feel the first two. I take away some of the stress that I can control so that I can more effectively deal with the ones that I can't. I actually feel relieved just by giving myself this permission. And if I need to act on that latitude, I will, and I will absolutely not feel bad about it. It's important to remember that one day a month, one day a week or whatever is not going to sabotage your progress, especially if you're not pigging out on far more calories than you could burn in two days. This isn't permission to go crazy, but rather to be more flexible. And that is generally “enough” if you're not in the very earliest stages of your plan (when it's harder to stick with it).

When you're trying to lose weight and doing poorly, you tend to focus excessively on the part of your life which is the hardest to stick to, the diet and exercise. It's the first thing you want to jettison and start over again tomorrow, but there is much more to life and making it easier to cope when you're not doing well. Rather than focus on the part which is hardest to follow, focus on the other parts which may tax you on a bad day but are effortless on other days and determine how you can improve your circumstances throughout the entire day by letting any non-essential activity go. Plan to procrastinate and indulge wherever you reasonably can.

For each person, streamlining your day is different, but I'll give some examples:
  • If it is a hot day, give in and use the air conditioner. If it's cold, turn up the heat. Choose the luxury setting just for this day and go back to enduring things for the good of the environment tomorrow when you feel better.
  • If you had plans for cleaning or cooking that are not absolutely essential, abandon them. Laundry can wait.
  • If you have errands to run which can wait, do not do them. This includes things which may seem innocuous like going to the hair salon or shopping.
  • Turn off your cell phone if you can. Turn on your answering machine. Don't risk having to deal with people who may add stress to your day.
  • Don't check your e-mail or social networking sites.
I would also recommend adding in tasks that you enjoy which do not necessarily add qualitatively to your life. Examples of these types of things would include:
  • Laying around in your pajamas all day (if you're not working, obviously).
  • Playing mindless games.
  • Watching stupid television or movies that make you happy.
  • Drink diet soda or tea or coffee with sweetener when you want them as often as you want them. 
  • Don't force yourself to eat things you aren't really interested in eating for health purposes. I know this may be a controversial thing, but if you don't feel like eating a damn vegetable today, don't. It's not the end of the world if you go a day here and there which isn't nutritionally stellar.
My main point is that, when you have a bad day, you want to look at the day and do whatever you can to take pressure of any sort off of you and add in things which relax you and make you feel good. Think outside the box which is labeled "food" and look at your whole life. While this includes cutting yourself some slack on the diet and exercise front (but not to a destructive extent, hopefully), it also includes doing so with your entire day. The very act of doing this will in turn make it easier to follow your food plan. It will also help you start to frame your life in a manner which is "whole" rather than food and body obsessed. You will notice how much of your life does not involve food and how quality of life can be improved without adding in fattening food. Sometimes the stress that makes us go off our plans during days when we feel bad has less to do with the food and exercise, and more to do with the rest of the day.


Florida Food Snob said...

Was this post written just for me to read? You described the day and mind set I had yesterday PERFECTLY – menstruating and all… Sometimes it is so difficult to give ourselves a free pass from in my case working out on a day that you just don’t feel physically or mentally capable. After my challenging work day I went home and started to sink into the dangerous zone. The place where I allow my thoughts to go a direction that I am working to move away from. Thankfully I have the best boyfriend ever and he initiated a mental health night. Once he suggested that I just skipped my exercise for that day I did feel such a relief knowing that is was an option. Then, we cooked dinner together, had a glass of wine and a candle light bath. In the past I would have either hated every minute of that workout and resented it later resulting in a possible bing or have a pity party for myself and eaten a shameful amount of calories. The most significant point you made in my opinion was that if you make an exception sometimes you might not make progress with the weight loss that day but you didn’t take 10 steps backwards. I truly value your posts.

screaming fatgirl said...

Hi, Florida Food Snob. It's funny how sometimes things just time out that way!

Your boyfriend sounds like a real keeper. :-) And the bath was a great idea, as was skipping the workout.

The irony for me is that sometimes just letting myself off the hook is enough to give me what I need to do what I'd do anyway. I ate under 1600 calories anyway, and still got in a little exercise. Go figure. I didn't force any of it, but it just fell into place.

Thanks for commenting!

Lisa said...

I think you wrote this for me too! I have had awful PMS this week and yesterday (and I'm thinking possibly today) is the worst. Thank you for the reminder that I'm not going to blow it all for having one or two bad days.

screaming fatgirl said...

Hi, Lisa, and thanks for reading and commenting.

For some reason, I've noticed the hardest part for most people is abandoning exercise for a day, even when they are quite miserable. I can understand this because I used to have that anxiety about exercise when I lost weight in college. I'm rather relieved not to have it now.

Anonymous said...

This post could be a metaphor for having a rough decade, or even a hard life, instead of just a difficult day. I often remind myself to be gentle and kind to me. And when I forget, well, thank goodness for my loved ones.

The rest of the world (beyond my circle of loved ones) might prefer that I function like a hard working machine but I prefer to remain very human. I tend to resist oppressive conditions and expectations whenever possible. Perhaps that's one reason I've survived.