Friday, January 28, 2011

Willpower is overrated

A lot of times when a person begins a weight loss program (whether it's through a company like Weight Watchers, or one of their own devising), their first thought is about how to handle difficult situations.  The answer?  Usually "willpower."

When people compliment me on my progress, one of the most common comments I hear is, "You have such amazing willpower!"  The truth is, my willpower isn't any better than it was before I started the MNP program.  The trick hasn't been using brute force to compel myself to do (or not do) certain actions.  My success has been much more due to recognizing how my drives come about, where they come from, and addressing them in a way that doesn't involve food.

One of the things they spent a lot of time on in the beginning of the MNP program is instilling two ideas:  1)   understanding behavior chains, and 2) "It's not about saying no to food, it's about saying yes to yourself in non-caloric ways."  The two ideas work together like two highly skilled dancers improvising a tango.

Behavior chains are exactly what they sound like: a series of behaviors that has the potential to lead to a place I don't want to go.  Becoming aware of those behavior chains is the first step in preventing myself from doing something I don't really want to.  Recognizing those behavior chains in action is the next step - after all, I can't stop something if I don't notice it while it's happening.  The third step in dealing with a behavior chain is choosing alternative actions that lead to a different result than the path I might ordinarily take.

Here's an example: If I don't get enough sleep, I tend to get hungry pretty early and pretty consistently throughout the day. Then if you add on something crappy on top of it (like if I were to get in a fight with my hubby, or get a speeding ticket or something), I'm more likely to want to eat. If you take those two things and then put me in the kitchen, it's difficult to say no to food but still possible. If you take those two things, with me in the kitchen holding open the fridge door and staring inside, it becomes even harder. If there's something tempting in the fridge that's staring back at me, it becomes harder still.  If that tempting thing is in my hand, it's near impossible. If that tempting thing is on a fork and on its way to my mouth, I'm done for. It's like trying to stop a freight train going 200 miles an hour in 2 seconds. It just doesn't happen without a miracle.

See how the chain works?  The further the chain is from the beginning, the harder it is to stop.  Each step creates inertia to move towards the next step in the habit.  Stop myself at the beginning, however, and it's much easier to make a different choice than I might otherwise.  And if I can match the choice with the actual need at the moment, the new choices are even more effective in keeping me from eating.

So how could my example scenario be different?

  • If I don't get enough sleep, I'm pretty hungry and tired.  The best solution at this point would be to recognize that I'm tired (and probably hungry because I'm tired) and to take a nap.  Remember my "patience" post?  If I took a nap, that would most likely put me in a better mindset to deal with whatever else the day would bring.
  • But let's say for some reason I can't take a nap.  If I then get into a fight with my hubby or a speeding ticket, I need to check in with myself and see how I'm feeling.  Am I angry? Frustrated? Upset? Do I need to talk to a friend about how I'm feeling?  Do I need a hug from someone?  Do I need to take a walk or do something physical to work out the aggression?  Or maybe writing in my journal would help with giving me a place to dump all of my unhappy emotions.  If I did even one of these things to take care of my needs, I would again be in a better mindset to handle the rest of the day.
  • For the sake of argument, though, let's say that I couldn't take a nap, and I didn't deal with my unhappiness from the negative event.  Now I'm pretty vulnerable, and I'm starting to move into willpower territory.  You'll notice it doesn't take a lot to get to that point.  If I'm aware that I'm vulnerable and I'm in the kitchen, walking into another room would probably be the best solution, just to keep me from doing something I didn't want to do.  The best thing at this point (after walking out of the kitchen) would be to check in with myself and backtrack to address the needs I ignored earlier.
The closer I get to the food in my mouth, the more willpower is required to stop myself because there's part of me that's already decided that the best way to take care of myself is to eat.  My intellectual, intelligent, compassionate self understands that's not what I want or need to do in the long run, but the upset, unhappy, unattended to screaming kid inside of me is now throwing a fit, telling the rest of me that the only way to fix the problem is to eat whatever it is I had my sights set on.

So when you see me moving away from the room with the food at a party, or taking a step outside to get a breath of fresh air in the middle of a food-related event, you'll know - I'm not using my willpower, I'm paying attention to my behavior chains and giving myself what I need.  Of course, you're welcome to give me a compliment on my willpower if you'd like!  Just don't forget that there's a lot more to it than simply willpower.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Patience, grasshopper.

This phase of my weight loss program, heck, of my life, is one where I need some serious patience.  Patience with myself, mostly.  At a time when I'm feeling better and better about what I can do with my increasingly fit and slimmer body (I felt my hip bones today!  How cool is that?), I've also run up against some unexpected limitations.

Back in September, I started experiencing an odd symptom; namely, my right arm began to tingle sporadically and with no discernible pattern.  It was uncomfortable and disturbing, and after it went on for a couple of weeks, I went to see my doctor.  She encouraged me to try anti-inflammatories and referred me to a neurologist if the symptoms didn't resolve within a week.  Well, they didn't resolve, so I made the appointment to see the neurologist and waited anxiously.

Because of my symptoms and my family's medical history, my neurologist had me do bloodwork, a cervical spine MRI and a nerve conduction test to figure out what was going on.  Bloodwork, no problem.  I do that all the time, and I have a really great vein for drawing blood (but that's another story).  Cervical spine MRI, also no problem.  It was the second MRI I've ever had, the first one being on my knee, so I knew what to expect. And since I'm not claustrophobic, the small space didn't bother me one bit - especially because I had no trouble fitting into the MRI machine!  (Another benefit of having a smaller body these days.)

That nerve conduction test was a nasty experience though.  Imagine having your arm tasered with increasing levels of electricity in a wide variety of places.  Then, once that was done, the doctor stuck a needle into each of the muscles of my forearm and upper arm, wiggled it around to find the nerve (OUCH!!!) and then made me move my arm with the needle in it (DOUBLE OUCH!!!!).  I'm not a fainter, but I almost passed out at the end of that test.  It sucked.

The followup appointment with my neurologist came, and I was prepared for the worst.  I'd worked myself up into a solid anxiety state in the eight weeks since my first appointment.  The neurologist came into the room, bravely faced me and my husband (whom I'd brought for moral support), and informed me I had... muscle tension.  Or maybe inflammation in the nerve, it was hard to say for sure.  But it wasn't any of the diseases I was half-convinced I had (thank God!).  Later that afternoon, the neurologist called me and let me know that there was one unusual and unrelated finding on the MRI that he thought we ought to check out.  Turns out the radiologist reviewing my MRI noted that my thyroid gland looked enlarged, and recommended further testing in that area.

At this point, I feel the need to point out that about five years ago, I began to wonder if I had thyroid problems.  Anyone who knows me knows that my body temperature runs on the cold side.  I distinctly remember one night when my particularly cold feet elicited a "Jesus, Mary and Joseph!" yelp from my husband who was warmly nestled into bed.  There's the fatigue that I have regularly felt, even after getting 12 really good hours of sleep.  And then, of course, there's the struggles I have had to lose weight even when counting calories very carefully.  But my doctor has always run the basic blood tests in response to my questions, and told me I was within normal range (so shut up).  You can imagine, then, how vindicated I felt to have this unknown radiologist recommend what I had been asking for over the course of years.

To make a long story short (I know... too late, right?), the thyroid ultrasound showed that my thyroid was enlarged as well, and had no signs of cysts or cancer (whew!), and my doctor finally sent me to an endocrinologist to look at my thyroid situation.  Within a few minutes of talking to me and reviewing my test results, he gave me a preliminary diagnosis of Hashimoto's thyroiditis.  In other words, my immune system is attacking my thyroid gland and it's failing.  He did some blood tests to confirm the diagnosis, and when those results came back as expected, he gave me a prescription for a thyroid supplement - which is the standard treatment for this condition.  Incidentally, it's pretty standard for it to take 5-7 years for this condition to be diagnosed, so it's entirely possible my hunch from five years ago was on target.  We'll never really know.

I've been on the medication now for about a week and a half, and it's been an odd transition to say the least.  My body temperature, which has always been cold and has been even colder since being on the diet, now swings between being cold, being normal, and alternating hot and cold.  My energy levels fluctuate pretty significantly; one day I'll be peppy and the next day I'll be dragging my ass from stem to stern, with no particular explanation as to why.  My mental clarity and memory also fluctuates to some degree, though thankfully I haven't had days when I really just can't think or remember what I need to know.  My weight loss, which has slowed down over the past month or two, has picked back up again but still varies pretty dramatically from week to week.  My endocrinologist says it takes about two months for the body to adjust to the new level of thyroid hormone being provided by the supplement.  Until then I'm riding the roller coaster.

Which brings me to having patience with myself.  I'm used to being able to just do what I want to do without consideration for my body's condition, my mental exhaustion, or anything else.  Over the course of the last seven and a half months, I've started giving myself that consideration instead of pushing myself to the extreme and then giving myself food to compensate for the poor treatment.  This new phase, however, is like the advanced placement course in patience with myself.  I literally don't know what to expect from one day to the next, or one moment to the next.  Thankfully, I have a normal level of functioning that I don't ever lose, but there are days when the plans I've made just can't happen because I'm too tired physically or mentally, or I'm feeling too off-kilter.  The good news is that since I've spent the last seven and a half months paying attention to what I need and giving it to myself as best I can, I'm much more OK with acknowledging what I'm capable of in the moment.

On that note, today's a tired and mentally foggy day, especially as the day progressed.  You might have noticed by the rambling above.  So now, I'm headed to sleep.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Pictures of my progress

Just a little visual aide for you to see how I've changed since beginning this weight loss program...

July 2010 - about 3 weeks into my weight loss program, about 20 pounds down
January 2011 - about 7 months into my weight loss program, 100 pounds down

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tis the season of milestones... and a little about running

In the last seven months, I have been on an incredible, and sometimes incredibly difficult journey.  One of the things that makes this journey worth it is the milestones I have been able to reach as I get closer and closer to my goal.  So here are a few milestones that have stood out to me in the last two months, roughly in chronological order, along with some notes about why these particular milestones matter to me.

1.  Fitting back into my high school prom dress.  Of course, I don't ever intend to wear it again, but it's one of those things that makes me think back about how far I've come over how much time.  What's interesting is when I wore my prom dress the first time, I weighed something in the neighborhood of 180 lbs.  When I fit back into it a decade ago, after losing 80 lbs with Weight Watchers, I was about 190 lbs.  This time, I fit back into it at 210 lbs.  The major take-away from this difference?  I have a lot more lean body mass now than I used to in high school or when I was 25, because I was physically the same size even though I weighed more.  I've been working with a personal trainer once a week for almost a year now, and I think my smaller size is due to that work.  Hooray!  Truth be told, I don't really care what my final weight is as long as I feel healthy and I'm happy with how I look, and being fit and strong is a big part of that final goal.

2.  Being able to shop at (AND buy clothes from) stores like Gap and Old Navy.  I've always wanted to be able to shop at Old Navy, but I was afraid I wouldn't fit their clothes so I never went in and tried.  As a kid, I used to enjoy clothes from the Gap, but they quickly became too small for me to squeeze into.  It took a lot of courage that first day to walk into those stores, unsure if anything there would fit me, but I was pleasantly surprised.  Not only did they fit me, I was able to find stuff I liked and could afford to purchase! Awesome. :-D

3.  Realizing when clothes from a certain store don't fit me, it's not a problem with ME, it's a difference between the shape of my body and the shape of the clothes... nothing more.  On the same day I tried out Gap and Old Navy, I also went into Banana Republic.  They have cute clothes and stuff that would be very work-appropriate, so why not, right?  I started looking around, and found a pair of size 16 slacks that looked interesting.  Then I did a double-take, looking at the slacks more closely.  Banana Republic's idea of a size 16 is NOWHERE near Gap or Old Navy's idea of a size 16 (it is, of course, much smaller).  Not only that, Banana Republic seems to design their clothes for women who have less difference between their waists and their hips.  That person will never be me.  I will probably end up with a figure approaching Marilyn Monroe's once it's all said and done; no matter how much weight I lose, I will always have an hourglass figure so Banana Republic may never be a store I shop at.  It's nobody's fault, and nobody's bad... it's just not a good fit for me.  What a relief to realize that!

4.  Getting under 200.  When I reached my breaking point with my weight and decided to go on the MNP, I was almost 300 pounds. I weighed 298 lbs, to be precise.  I was desperately afraid of what would happen to me if I allowed it to be OK in my mind to have a "3" be the first number in my weight.  To go from that place of fear and worry to now having a "1"at the beginning of my weight is an incredible relief.  And it helped that it was nearly simultaneous to the next milestone...

5.  Losing 100 lbs.  This is the most weight I have ever lost in my life. In fact, I've lost more than my 10-year-old nephew weighs.  That's pretty darn stunning. It also means I'm about 2/3 of the way to where I think my final goal weight will be.  Woohoo!  To celebrate, I got myself a massage.  :-D

6.  Getting to the point where I can run one mile again.  This is a biggie for me.  When I was growing up, I used to dread "Presidential Fitness Testing" season.  You know, where someone tells you to do a whole bunch of exercises that you've hardly ever done before in your life, and then expects you to do well at them and criticizes you if you don't.  Not a very happy experience for someone with perfectionist tendencies.  In particular, the one mile run was a form of torture I would have happily foregone if there had been any way of doing so.

I remember one particularly bad year, in 6th grade, when we were told to run the mile for Presidential Fitness Testing.  I had just recently developed asthma and didn't have any aerobic exercise as part of my regular routine due to the majority of my time being spent in singing rehearsals. The combination of those two things plus pushing myself to do well and desperately wanting not to be the last person to finish left me exhausted, nauseous, jittery from the overuse of my asthma medication, and humiliated.

This memory has stuck with me my entire life, and you can imagine how I felt about running for many, many years.  Then, in 2006, I had the realization that maybe the reason why I didn't run so well that day was because I had never TRAINED for running, and had never been TAUGHT how to run for longer distances by the school that was supposedly preparing us for these fitness tests (I'll save the rant on physical education in the schools for another day), and I decided to learn how to run one mile by training to run a half-marathon through Team in Training.  That was one of the best experiences of my life, with amazing and supportive coaches who accepted me where I was without hesitation.  Most of all, they taught me that running is about gait, not about speed and that in order to run, I have to find a pace that works for me and go from there.

Unfortunately, I injured myself that year (my overenthusiasm got the better of me and I pushed myself too fast, too far), and spent several years doing physical therapy and walking to strengthen my leg to the point of being able to think about running.  When I had been able to run, though, I absolutely loved it. I loved the way my body felt when I was striding along at my comfortable pace, and I loved how my mind cleared after getting into the groove of the running motion.  Being able to get back to that has been a long-time goal for me.  About two weeks ago, I was able to run my first mile in a long time, a huge, amazing gift, and one that I don't take lightly.  I'm really careful now not to push myself too far or too fast, because I know re-injury is just around that corner, and running is something I don't ever want to have to give up again.