Diet and exercise – the anxiety connection

The relationship between body weight and diet is physically simple yet psychologically complex.

What I mean by “physically simple” is that when we overeat regularly our bodies store excess energy as fat, and if we stop overeating our weight returns to normal.

But this simple relationship becomes complex because many of us eat for the rich and varied pleasures and distractions eating brings. What typically drives this search for pleasure and distraction is our underlying negative emotion.

So although we might wish we could lose weight, our actions are driven by a deeper desire to avoid and escape unpleasant feelings and the thoughts that prompt them.

When we try to modify our eating habits without acknowledging our underlying motivation to keep overeating, we experience inner conflict and struggle.

Where does exercise fit into this?

Once again it is physically simple – at least on paper. Exercise uses energy and the more energy we use the sooner we return to a normal weight (assuming we also stop overeating).

Parallel to weight loss is an improved physique. Most of us wanting to lose weight also want improvements in how we look and feel, and in our health and fitness. Weight loss through diet alone doesn’t necessarily improve these other facets of health and aesthetics.

So we are encouraged to hit the gym, go running or cycling, “get moving” to enhance our weight loss and also build our health and improve our appearance.

Physically simple. Psychologically, not so much. And here, at least for me, is the reason why:

Exercise is supposed to feel good. Moving your body is supposed to feel good.

But for as long as I can remember that hasn’t been the case for me.

Over the decades it’s gradually become clear that I am chronically tense as a result of anxiety and related problems. This tension causes fatigue as I attempt to go about my daily life while exerting unnecessary effort and internal resistance.

Tension arises from anxiety as part of the fight-or-flight response. Our muscles activate to prepare us to run away, or to stiffen up in response to physical attack.

Another layer of tension comes into play as we try to function normally despite this unpleasant fight-or-flight state. For example, anxiety may pull your body into a defensive, hunched posture. But feeling so defensive when there is no objective threat can make you self-conscious. And yet attempting to force a more “natural” posture only adds to the tension in your body.

Now imagine going for a walk or a run in that state. Imagine trying to lift weights in a crowded gym. Imagine trying to relax in a yoga class.

It’s not just about feeling tense and tired. It’s also about form. Good form is vital to effective exercise and physical activity that is sustainable and injury free.

But it can be very difficult to find and maintain correct form when various muscles in your body are activating in response to a state of anxiety and fear.

So what’s the answer?

As with dieting, the first step is to really accept that your mind and body are being pulled in different directions.

My ideal has been to find ways of achieving my goals without inner conflict. Inner conflict is inefficient, unpleasant, a waste of time and energy.

In my approach to dieting I essentially made peace with my conflicting desires and came to terms with the “hidden” motivations that turned dieting into a struggle.

I called my book “The Weight-Loss Paradox” because at the time making peace with my inner conflict meant that I stopped pushing against being overweight. I stopped trying. I stopped struggling.

But I did that with the deeper belief that there was a natural ideal that my body would align with, once I removed the sources of struggle and conflict.

When it comes to exercise the same dynamic is coming into focus. The fact that I don’t do “enough” exercise is not a problem to be solved or a failing to be overcome. Physical activity is meant to be enjoyable and natural. Pushing myself to exercise more doesn’t really make sense when, in an ideal world, I would naturally want to be active and I would find excuses to be more active.

And when we take into account my anxiety and physical tension it makes perfect sense why I do not spontaneously exercise more, or make good-feeling plans to be more physically active.

My body’s current state of being reflects a fight-or-flight response that overrides the natural enjoyment of physical activity. It’s an undiagnosed complaint of which physical inactivity is just a symptom. I’ve been told for years that my problem was not doing enough exercise; but that’s just a symptom or side-effect of the actual problem.

At rest I can actually feel the tension in my body, pulling me into a closed, defensive posture. Getting up to do exercise has no appeal because my body is preoccupied with this stressful and burdensome physical response.

I can’t immediately turn it off. I can’t simply relax right now. But I can at least stop adding to the pain and struggle by demanding I be physically active. I can stop beating myself up for not imitating other people’s lifestyles and exercise regimens and relaxed way of being.

And this is the path to de-escalating the fight-or-flight response and anxiety itself. Being okay with what’s going on in my body takes a whole lot of unnecessary stress out of the equation. Analogous to not beating yourself up for being overweight or for overeating…because whatever is going on within you did not happen overnight and is obviously not under your immediate conscious control.

Anxious to please

People who are anxious to please others are by definition insecure.

The desire to please comes from either an attempt to gain approval, or an effort to avoid disapproval.

In either case we fear how others will respond if we don’t at least try to make a positive impression.

You create your reality

The best antidote I’ve found to these fears and efforts to please others is to assert that we each create our own reality.

This helps in two ways.

First, since I create my reality, the outcomes I fear will only arise if I’m a match to them. No one can assert anything into my reality.

Second, since others create their reality they are not in fact dependent on me for sustaining their mood or the consistency of their experience. I can’t assert (or withhold) anything in their reality either.

What this means in practice is that my fears are unlikely to be realised. The reality I’ve created is one where I fear criticism and attack, but not one where criticism and attack actually happen. I don’t attract criticism and attack, I attract fear of them.

And likewise my efforts to please others…well if others are attracting pleasing circumstances they’ll receive them whether I contribute or not. And if they aren’t pleased by my efforts that’s because they aren’t a match for being pleased anyway!

The simple fact is that most people are emotionally consistent within a range, and they filter and actively engage with their reality in ways that vastly outstrip our efforts to please them – or not please them.

Sudden change of character

The bottom line is that you get back what you are broadcasting. If you stop trying to please people, but feel terrified of the consequences then rest assured you will find some consequences that terrify you.

If you soothe your fears and gently allow yourself to remain centred and content, then you will be able to let go of the urge to please them and you will see only positive and affirming consequences of your own interior change.

From anxiety to eagerness

I had an interesting experience just now as I went for a nice midday walk with my wife:

It was the most relaxed and happy I’ve ever felt on a leisurely stroll, but after half an hour I started to feel unwell, a little like being car sick.

I didn’t know why, but asked for an easy explanation and immediately I knew what was going on.

Dampening the senses

In the past my anxiety levels were much higher, and walking without a purpose or destination would trigger lots of vigilant behaviour that made me tense and uncomfortable.

In an effort to combat the anxiety I would do various things to dampen my sensory acuity and block out or filter the stimulation flowing in.

But anxiety itself would also filter and channel my awareness in strange ways, heightening my attention to movement, sounds, and possible “threats” in a fight-or-flight way.

I won’t bother trying to detail all the little things that contributed to this tunnel vision or active filtering of my sensory experience. Suffice it to say that being more relaxed and appreciative as I walked had an impact on those processes and left me feeling disoriented and then sick.

Rediscovering eagerness

As usual the answer was to “feel better”. And what felt better in those circumstances was to allow myself to once more feel an eagerness, excitement, and active engagement with my environment.

My previous attitude was like putting on blinkers to relieve the stress and anxiety of too much going on. But now that I feel better I actually want to see what is going on, appreciate it, take it all in, and revel in the environment around me.

This change in attitude is the difference between fearfulness and anticipation, a shift from wanting to hide and be invisible to looking out with a sense of eagerness for what my universe has in store for me.

I think the nausea was a direct physiological response to subtle things I was doing to avoid looking at the world clearly. But since I create my reality, I know that looking for things to relish and look forward to will eclipse and outshine anything I would once have sought to avoid.

Life without anxiety

We went to the art gallery today. No stress, no fuss. Just went, found a park, went inside and looked at the art for an hour.

I never longed to do stuff like that, but I did dream of being able to do it with ease. That’s another milestone to appreciate: feeling so good that a modest outing like that is taken in my stride.

And my wife was pleased šŸ˜€

Feeling really good all day

I thought I was feeling good before, and I knew there were levels of good feeling above me.

But the feeling of relief that comes when I let go of my story is just fantastic.

According to the Abraham-Hicks teachings, this good feeling is exactly why I’m here in this life, and embracing it will not only make it more consistent but will also allow my circumstances to change and reflect this feeling.

I’m so glad I finally took the time and swallowed my pride enough to investigate these teachings. Two years in, I’m no longer depressed and I’m doing things that would have once seen me struck down with anxiety.

I’m beginning to feel like a different person, living a different life.

Letting go: tension

I want to use my daily writing discipline to focus on letting go. But is that a contradiction?

Years ago I told my Chinese philosophy teacher that meditation tended to make me more tense.

“Relax harder, dammit!” he laughed.

I’d love to find better ways to let go of the tension I’m used to holding; and I’ve been noticing lately that the tension really is intentional.

Like most long-standing yet unwanted conditions, the thoughts creating tension in me have a lot of momentum to them, from a time when I very intently sought control over my physical body.

An intentional state

That’s the other way tension is intentional: it’s a state of stretching or reaching for something. Longstanding physical tension isn’t arbitrary, it’s informed by an effort that uses the body in a taxing way.

Expecting criticism and attack from others, I intentionally tried to control my gaze, my facial expression and my observable physical reactions.

I had this ideal of always looking implacable and unperturbed.

But the only way to maintain such tight control is to prime those muscles with tension, inhibiting spontaneous and natural responses.

Have you ever tried not to laugh or smile at an inappropriate time? You can do it if you clamp down on your expression, clench your jaw and look away as if concentrating elsewhere.

Or what about trying to hold back anger? Again, clench your jaw, stare straight ahead, set your face like stone and seem impassive.

But the worst is being ridiculed, criticised or mistreated on account of your natural expression. “Wipe that stupid grin off your face”, “watch out, the wind might change”, “what are you looking at?” “Don’t just stand there looking like an idiot” These kinds of comments teach you that you are judged for your expression and body language, fairly or unfairly, and imply that there is something to be gained from monitoring and controlling it.

Letting it go

Self monitoring and control are a recipe for chronic tension not only in your face and head but likely your neck and elsewhere as your body’s natural balance is inhibited.

But as we have seen, such tension is a consequence of anxious, fearful, and negative thoughts about how we are seen and perceived by others.

The antidote to such thoughts are simply thoughts that feel better.

As children we took harsh comments at face value, but as adults we know that people who offer unsolicited criticism like that are typically full of s***.

Looking back, the people who criticised me the most turned out to be the least pleasant people to be around, and their rampant negativity and even harsher self-talk is now obvious.

As an adult I’ve seen so many different faces, some anxious and uptight, many profoundly oblivious and relaxed. There are no rules to how we should look and carry ourselves and be. No one goes around, taking people aside to warn them against being too ugly, too stupid-looking, too arrogant looking, too anything.

If you can retell the story around physical tension in whatever form you inflict it, you will be able to let it go.

Our aim should be to soothe those thoughts in a direction of security, trust, and letting go.

Ultimately, people have all kinds of faces, expressions, and body language. But we know from our own observation that what is inside each of us will shine through. For us that includes tension and resistance and fear at the moment. But it doesn’t have to, and it won’t forever. As we soothe and soften our negative thoughts, we will inevitably find the ease and relief we desire.

Happiness Day 21

Pivot!

One of the basic tools in the Abraham-Hicks arsenal is pivoting.

Pivoting means abruptly changing your emotional direction when you find yourself in an unwanted feeling place.

Are you feeling anxious? Find words that feel like the opposite of anxiety and reach for thoughts and feelings that match it.

Words like calm, ease, peace, tranquility, clarity, certainty, confidence, optimism, belief, trust, knowing, obviousness.

Obviousness? Yeah, you know: when things are just so obvious that you feel relief and comfort and reassurance.

The words themselves are just markers for a feeling. So you can even make up words if that feels good to you.

And picking unexpected words can help us pivot more effectively.

You wouldn’t think “obviousness” was the opposite of anxiety, but if it helps you pivot then it’s perfect. If not, try something else.

Pivoting is a great practice because as soon as you notice yourself feeling bad you can immediately turn it around by finding the opposite feeling.

Before I learned about pivoting I would focus more and more on the bad feeling, asking why I felt that way and trying to get to the bottom of it.

But there is no bottom. Focusing on bad feelings just keeps us feeling bad, while the solution could be just as simple and easy as finding the opposite.

Happiness Day 14

What moves you to worry?

Being open and feeling good, I suddenly start to worry:

What time are we supposed to leave? Do we need to bring drinks? Will any shops be open? Are we swimming? What is the plan?

I want to stop the worry before it arises. But how can I do that?

Motivation – what moves you?

Motivation is literally what moves you – into action, into thought, into focus.

I don’t enjoy the worry, so why am I embracing worried thoughts? What moves me?

It’s always either desire or aversion that makes us move. I’m moved to worry because I desire something or because I’m trying to avoid something.

If I pay attention I can feel a more intense fear behind the worry. A fear of consequences if I don’t start worrying.

Worry gives the illusion of control, a sense of preparedness, but it is still an expression of fear and a focus on the unwanted aspects of life.

Unhappy distractions

This is a big deal. Worries feel bad, but we reach for them to avoid feeling something worse.

We want to be worried, we just aren’t at all happy about it. We don’t like being worried, but we keep unconsciously choosing it.

Knowing that I want to worry helps me understand why worry is so hard to shake. It’s hard to shake off something that you keep picking up!

Facing the fear

Fear of consequences is what motivates me to worry.

I fear what will happen if I’m late, or if I don’t plan the trip well or if I make a social faux pas.

Fear of vague and unspecified consequences is deeply uncomfortable, and it makes sense that I would choose to worry about more specific and tangible things.

There’s not much more to say at this point, but by becoming conscious of worry as a choice I can choose not to worry and experience the fear instead.

Face the fear, see that the consequences never come, and enjoy the relief of letting the worry go.

Happiness Challenge Day 8

This morning I’m feeling uncharacteristically happy, and I love it.

I just got off the computer and found myself feeling like I’d just accomplished something wonderful, but couldn’t remember what it was.

Once upon a time I would have punctured that good mood immediately, worried I was losing my grip on reality.

“You can’t feel good without doing something to deserve it!

But actually I have done something: I’ve spent the last eight days challenging myself to make feeling good the rule, no exceptions.

And on the back of nearly two years of gradual work at feeling better, I’ve well and truly earned this feeling of ease, satisfaction, and accomplishment.

I’ve become so good at finding relief that last night we took the kids to a movie screening at the park, and I looked after them on my own for four hours, including feeding them and getting them to bed, so my wife could go to a local Symphony performance.

That might not sound like a big deal, but not so long ago I would have felt too tired, too stressed, or too anxious.

I would have asked my wife to choose between the movie or the symphony because both was “too much” for me to handle alone.

I’ve learned to actively find relief, knowing that this not only feels better right away, but also makes my future path easier.

So I’m relishing this good feeling right now, making hay while the sun shines, but also knowing the sun will always shine, and I love the rain just as much anyway!

Why explaining myself makes my ankle hurt

I see meaning and significance in many places.

Like an Augur – someone who could read omens in the flight of birds and other seemingly random occurrences.

Recently I went to see a physiotherapist about chronic stiffness and discomfort in my shoulders and neck, and he immediately traced it my right hip having rotated forward.

I saw it as signifying how I’ve been forever trying (unsuccessfully) to put forward a more practical, worldly, and conscientious part of me in an almost defensive posture that asserts the dominant side of my body.

Not long after seeing the physio I had a recurrence of inflammation in my left ankle, an old ache that leaves the joint feeling unstable and sore.

Again, it’s not that I go searching for an interpretation. I just immediately saw it as connected to my timidity about my own personal beliefs.

In fact both the hip and the ankle correspond to an issue I’ve raised before: the pressure for a Melancholic/INFP to conform to objective, shared reasoning and logic.

In MBTI terms it’s the INFP struggle with inferior extroverted Thinking (Te).

The INFP dominant function of introverted Feeling (Fi) is intrinsically subjective and difficult to describe or communicate, let alone explain or justify.

Other people (even other INFPs) tend not to understand our Fi approach and request or demand explanations or justifications for our beliefs and choices.

Taken to an extreme, an INFP can end up utilising inferior Te to try to “translate” nebulous yet powerful Fi judgements into more commonly accepted language and contexts.

This effort to translate is – like an artist or a comedian having to constantly explain their art or jokes – taxing, demoralising, and at odds with our dominant mode of being.

How can you justify yourself?

The pain in my ankle signifies my hesitance at putting forward my own personal beliefs and judgements.Ā  I’m much more comfortable asserting broad generalities and carefully weighed observations.

But I can’t stand upon these measured justifications and explanations because they aren’t really a part of me. Like my hip, I’ve tried to push them further than they are meant to go.

The sad thing is that in conversation with others I’m so preoccupied by the effort to frame and contextualise my own beliefs that I end up losing sight of what those beliefs are.

I know my own thoughts deep down, but they’re unpracticed and wordless after years of trying to explain myself in other people’s terms.

When I talk to others I find myself trying to work out where they stand and what they believe, as if I can then build a bridge from their world to mine.

But what if that isn’t possible? What if people aren’t interested or able to see where I’m coming from, no matter how straightforward and simple I draw the map?

And at the heart of it all is not a genuine desire for others to understand me, but a fear of their judgement if they misunderstand me.

That’s why I have a pain in my ankle, because I’m afraid to put my weight on my own personal, private, unerring belief. I’m afraid to stand on it, because of how others might judge me if I drop the defense of framing and contextualising, justifying and explaining myself.

But there’s a simple remedy to this ailment.

I don’t need to justify or explain my beliefs to anyone. I simply don’t need to justify or explain my beliefs to anyone.

My beliefs do not need to be explicable or justifiable. I do not need to internally audit my thoughts and feelings in preparation for giving account.

After all, most people don’t want justifications or explanations beyond the most basic. No one but bullies demand justifications, and even their demands are more about power than about justification per se.

The genuinely curious ask questions and try to understand.

After all, justification implies permission or approval, and nobody needs permission or approval for their own beliefs.

Other people might criticise you or mock you if they don’t like your beliefs, but that’s not really about beliefs, but about how we interact with others.

If I want my ankle to stop hurting, I need to stop speaking in impersonal, cautious generalities. I am not, after all, an objective and impartial person. I’m not meant to be, and no one is.

What I desire and appreciate is the freedom to not explain myself or justify myself in this way; the freedom to not reach for the most justifiable or relevant aspects of my experience, and stop hiding behind the most plausible words I can conjure.

I don’t want to be at pains to cast myself in a sympathetic light anymore, always translating my thoughts into what IĀ thinkĀ other people will find easier to relate to.

NB: Yes, I realise this reads like an explanation of why I don’t want to explain myself, but…I don’t have to justify this!

A Spiritual Reality

Ours is a spiritual reality.

We are spiritual beings, and though we inhabit bodies our bodies do not describe our limits.

Spirit is obvious, yet so obvious it can be denied if we fixate only on the material aspect of our experience.

Like watching a movie and forgetting there’s a whole film crew just out of view. We suspend disbelief and convince ourselves that the objects of our senses are all that matter.

When he tries to extend his power over objects, those objects gain control of him. He who is controlled by objects loses possession of his inner self.

Zhuangzi

A spiritual reality doesn’t follow the laws we have ascribed to life, the conventions and limitations of “the world”.

Spiritual reality inverts the relationship between inner world and outer: our innermost being is one with the creative power behind all things.

We might spend our days struggling to arrange things to our liking, but the deeper part of us is united with the singular being that created all those things, holds them in existence, and governs them.

There are effectively two “selves” within us: the self who experiences reality as a limited, physical being, and the self who is one with the creator.

Our goal is to reconcile or align the two; bring peace, love, and joy to the smaller “self” who has suffered so long under the illusion of separateness, powerlessness, and mortality in an uncaring world.

Our innermost being feels only love and joy, suffers no fear or anxiety, sees eternity and knows the pure, endless sufficiency of the creative power.

Our spiritual work is to relinquish the falsehoods accrued by our outer self and seek refuge in the abundance of our inner being.

Donā€™t go outside your house to see the flowers.
My friend, donā€™t bother with that excursion.
Inside your body there are flowers.
One flower has a thousand petals.
That will do for a place to sit.
Sitting there you will have a glimpse of beauty
inside the body and out of it,
before gardens and after gardens.

– Kabir

And then what?

This is where I used to get stuck.

Withdraw from the outer self and enjoy the vision of your innermost being…but then what?

Even though I knew the theory, in practice I couldn’t help but return to the limited, constrained, and conventional view of reality.

I clung to a polarised view of spiritual vs physical, contemplation vs action.

I devalued the physical world in order to focus more on the spiritual, and yet that polarisation proved unstable.

And illogical: if the spiritual isĀ all,Ā how can the physical undermine or confound it? If the outer self is so much less than the inner self, why does it dominate?

I might enjoy a wonderful vision of spiritual reality, but then it was time to return to theĀ realĀ world.

And the whole time I thought I was being impractical, but it turned out I wasn’t being radical enough.

When Peter walked on the water, it was his fears that sank him.

In my case, the very question of “what now?” shows I still had fears, and a kind ofĀ faithĀ in the physical world, even though I professed to believe in a spiritual one.

Does happiness come from outside, or from within?

Is this a spiritual world or a material one?

Did God create everything, or did everything create God?

In the end I discovered that my negative expectations about “physical reality” had spiritual ramifications.

I persevered under the mistaken premise that physical reality represented a “problem” for which spiritual insight was the solution.

I kept searching for answers, by unwittingly reiterating the question, over and over again.

And so the true answer is to stop asking the wrong question. Ours is a spiritual reality – it justĀ is.

Not in contrast to how everyone thinks the world works; why should I care (and how would I know?) what everyone thinks?

The point, a spiritual point, is what I think: and embracing a spiritual reality means no longer affirming a physical reality as the problem I have to solve, or the prison I need to escape.

Spiritual reality is not anĀ instead of,Ā orĀ in contrast to. It just is, and is all that is.