Friday, July 2, 2010

The Walls

Imagine that you live your life in a room which is poorly built. At irregular, but somewhat frequent intervals, the walls lurch inward toward you and you have to reach up and stop them from crashing down as well as push them back into their upright position. The walls are heavy and you must exert a lot of effort to get them to keep from hitting the floor. Your strength is often not up to the task so you let them crash down and decide that you'll deal with the consequences later. You know it's going to be far harder to get the fallen walls up off the floor and back in place than to have kept them from falling down in the first place, but you simply did not have the strength to keep them up all of the time.

Since you have no option but to live in this room, you have two choices. The first is to simply keep allowing them to crash to the ground and stop fighting the inevitable. The second is to keep trying to keep the walls up and hope that you get stronger and it gets easier. Of course, you may have already tried the latter many, many times before and found that the walls never get lighter. They never fall less frequently, and you don't feel like you're getting any stronger. Trying makes you exhausted, so a lot of the time, you just keep letting them fall.

This analogy occurred to me today because I have been thinking about my transition in terms of how I deal with hunger. When I first started trying to deal with my weight, my hunger was crushing like the walls in my story. I can't even begin to describe the physical difficulty I initially experienced when I started eating less than I used to. It was incredibly hard and I can tell you that all I wanted to do was allow those walls to fall and just go ahead and eat. My body was not strong when it came to energy deprivation and it was a psychological and biological war not to eat. It consumed my thoughts and was physically and emotionally exhausting.

As time has gone by, my body has gotten “stronger” against the idea of less energy. It's adjusted as has my emotional tolerance of the discomfort. The manner in which this strength was built was multi-fold. First, I slowly ate less little by little to mitigate the difficulty as much as possible. Second, I gritted my teeth and watched the clock a lot to see when I could give in and eat again. Third, I planned to eat as often as possible in an attempt to fool my body into thinking it wasn't slowly starving to death. Fourth, I practiced hunger conditioning (in the later stages) to mitigate the emotional response to the gnawing emptiness in my stomach. Fifth, I talked honestly to myself a lot during these times about the value of food when I wanted to eat. Sixth, sometimes I gave in and "failed" to resist and ate more than I'd planned.

When I say that “I talked honestly to myself”, that means I didn't try to placate myself with pointless platitudes like “food is fuel” or offer myself trivial rewards for continued denial. I also didn't berate myself as being “weak” or not having “willpower” for what I wanted when I wanted to eat more than I should if I want to lose weight. My honesty was more along the lines of, “It's natural to be hungry when you're eating fewer calories than your body requires, but you have to just hold out a little longer to force it to consume energy stores.” It also included things like, “your body is panicking because it thinks it is starving, but you know you are not starving and you need to try and calm your body so that it can accept the idea that it's okay to consume the energy in your fat cells.”

My feeling for quite some time has been that the mind and body are fully connected in a manner most of us don't tend to readily accept except under the most extreme conditions, and even then only in special people. A yogi may be able to slow his heart rate at will, but that seems to be an aberration or a manifestation of an extreme ability that we believe we lack. We find it hard to accept that we can coax the cells in our body to act in accord with mental processes on a deeper level because we tend to focus on direct relationships, but the mind body connection can work indirectly.

Perhaps I can't directly by force of will convince my body to consume fat in fat cells, but I can calm myself down which will reduce the stress and anxiety I feel at hunger pangs which will in turn stop the desire to eat from becoming exacerbated by increased insulin levels. Also, relaxation can cause the slow release of endorphins which will make me feel better which will make it easier to cope with hunger pangs. If hunger is pain, endorphins will ease that pain.

Essentially, my thinking processes can have an effect on how my body responds. Even if I'm not crossing my arms and nodding my head (a la “I Dream of Jeannie”) and having my wish become my command, I can influence my body with my thinking like the first step in some sort of Rube Goldberg mechanism. I start a ball rolling in my mind, and it goes through processes I don't know or understand, and the end result is what I hope for. At worst, I'm fooling myself and wasting a few thoughts. At best, I'm helping my body accomplish what I want it to.

I can, of course, also create new thinking processes in myself which tamp down the urgency with which I feel I need to eat. Rather than panic that I'm hungry so soon after breakfast, I can slowly learn to tolerate that hunger better, longer, and with less preoccupation. This is a form of desensitization to the sense of urgency and panic caused by hunger pangs.

In terms of the walls analogy I started with, I realized today that the walls aren't falling in on me as often as they used to and I have a lot easier time pushing them back up into place than I did a year ago. This is both because my body has adjusted (walls fall down less often = less intense hunger) and I have grown stronger (push them back more easily = more mental strength to deal with food). I realize that this is not going to be a static situation or one that improves in a linear fashion. I am prepared for the fact that there will be days when all of the walls come crashing heavily down and I will struggle a lot, and there will be days when I can put them back in place with the equivalent of a light tap. It's all about how often they come tumbling down and with what force.

If I keep working at the mental processes, the physical ones will follow and the frequencies and intensity with which I am overwhelmed will reduce. However, I am ever mindful that this is never going to be "finished" or cease to be a struggle on some level, and I'm okay with that. The struggle helps me grow as a person, and is as much, or more, about self-actualization as it is about weight. I will continue to extract value from the process, regardless of whether or not I actually lose any pounds as a result.

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