Dieting Tips

Trying to reinvigorate my diet after letting it slide for a few months, I’m slowly remembering the key points.

Firstly, normal diets attempt to “cheat” in some way. They control quantities, but allow you to eat whatever type of food you like. Or they control the type of food, but let you eat as much as you like of those types. These diets avoid the pain of refusing to indulge your appetite.

Secondly, we like to indulge our appetite because it allows us to escape from painful, dull, or otherwise unpleasant experiences of reality. Escaping from such experiences means we do not address the underlying disquiet or suffering or lack of enthusiasm in our lives. It is important to recognise that flavours, mouthfeel, texture, temperature, rituals and even the physical activity of eating can all be used as a distraction from reality.

Thirdly, food is not intrinsically enjoyable. The experience of eating is something we create actively with our own minds. Enjoyment requires attention, energy, and a degree of complicity as we actively savour and relish the eating experience.

This approach to dieting is painful and powerful because it goes right to the heart of the problem: identifying eating as a means of escaping from unpleasant aspects of reality.

For most of us, being overweight is an expression of our escapism.

Yet such escapism is self-defeating. The physical and psychological suffering will come back to haunt us in the form of illness, shame, and more unpleasant experiences. Escapism simply defers the pain, and deferring the pain is painful in its own right.

The thought of never again escaping into food and eating can be terrifying, and raises the prospect of a life empty of the significant enjoyment provided by food. But as the third point identified, this enjoyment is actually provided by our own minds, not by the food itself. Food merely provides us with an opportunity to focus on something that is safely detached from the unpleasant and complex problems and feelings we are trying to escape from in the first place.

The truly painful thing is that we cannot imagine living without the constant escape provided by food.  The actual amount of food required for us to continue living is very small, relative to what we typically consume. And yet the thought of giving up eating-for-enjoyment terrifies us.

Most of us feel bad when we see our own overweight bodies in mirrors or photographs. And there’s a push in society to stop feeling “ashamed” of our bodies, and to reject the unrealistic ideals provided by media and marketing. We’re told to love ourselves as we are.

This is good advice, but if we are eating to escape then we are not loving ourselves as we are. I used to feel bad when I saw how overweight I was, but when I think about dieting and escapism, I begin to see the fat as representative of how frequently I am escaping into food. I start to see it not as some horrible imperfection or source of shame, but as letting myself down by avoiding the unpleasant realities or thoughts or feelings that motivate the escapism in the first place.

Dieting seems extraordinarily hard because we imagine ourselves having to endure the painful realities of life without our favoured escape. But those realities remain painful precisely because we keep trying to escape them. It’s less painful to eat than to acknowledge that we feel life is going nowhere. But it’s far, far healthier and more empowering to acknowledge such fears and feelings than to escape into the temporary distraction of food.

What do we wish to become: someone good at escaping, or someone able to face our fears? This diet is, after all, not really about dieting. It’s about facing the fears, the stagnation, the difficult thoughts, feelings, and memories* we’ve been trying to escape.

*Some people’s realities are more painful than others’, and I’m obviously not a doctor, not even in philosophy, so don’t be afraid to seek professional help when dealing with painful, traumatic, or otherwise difficult experiences.

 

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Melancholic with Type A Personality

I’d heard of Type A and Type B personalities before, but I didn’t seem to fit into either category. Type A are supposedly harder-working, competitive, ambitious, organised, intense, hostile, and stressful. Type B are laid-back, relaxed, disorganised, friendly, and so on.

The problem with a lot of these descriptions is that they seem to be dealing with Type A personalities of a Choleric temperament. But in the pursuit of a cure for my auto-immune condition, I’ve come across more general descriptions of Type A which suggest that a person could be Type A regardless of their temperament.

I don’t think I’d ever be mistaken for being an over-achiever, but that’s because most people think of specific, socially esteemed and easily recognisable achievements like winning sporting competitions, getting promotions at work, hosting big parties, winning awards, and so on.

What about someone who feels bad if they aren’t working toward some kind of goal, however humble or eccentric? Or what about someone who pushes themselves towards goals that they find more difficult than others because of their temperament? Or what about the temperament type that ruminates and analyses everything in exhaustive detail, and treats those silent efforts as a kind of progress to be made?

As I understand it, a Type A personality is about being driven, and it doesn’t matter where you happen to be driving to. I have a med-student friend who is also melancholic and Type A, and  all the study she has to do in addition to family, work, music, and other commitments makes me feel sick just thinking about it. I’m not achieving anything so exalted as a medical degree (or so I tell myself in false humility) yet I greet each moment of potential rest with the question “what could I be getting done instead?”

I’m acutely aware, for example, of not having made any cheese since my blue brie finished over a week ago! Not only that, but my beer reserves are getting perilously low, and I’ll have to make time for another brew soon.

I jumped at the chance to turn this reflection into a blog post, because I haven’t written any for a while and I’m feeling genuinely bad about it, because I’m measuring my self-worth in large part by how productive I am. It doesn’t matter that my idea of productivity isn’t typical: those sardines aren’t going to salt-cure themselves! (Actually, they pretty much do once they get going).

Several months ago, in the midst of severe back pain I tried something a little unusual at the behest of an acquaintance with an interest in hypnotism: I asked my subconscious mind to tell me what the real cause of my pain was.

The answer I received was a mental image of myself lying face down in the driveway of our home, pinned by the front wheel of my car which happened to be driven by another me.  Apparently my subconscious mind loves puns and metaphors as much as I do. The message was clear: I am crushing myself with my own drive.

Still, it’s taken months and additional resources from people with expertise in this field for me to recognise the greater extent of this “drive” that is making me sick, stressed, and sad, when really I have so much to be grateful for in my life.

I’m so accustomed to it, I’ve embraced it so wholeheartedly that this drive feels like “me”. The thought of not accomplishing anything today, or this hour, or this minute makes me feel anxious and nauseated. On some level I’ve decided that I’m running out of time, I need to get things done at any cost. I’ve come to believe in the inherent goodness of purposive activity, and I feel empty and inept without it.

Something is terribly wrong when you feel like you can’t go to the park with your wife and son because it’s too good an opportunity to “get things done”. Something is terribly wrong when the act of getting out of bed to “get things done” is hampered by severe pain despite feeling inwardly fine.  There’s something wrong when the high of analysing, pursuing, and seeking to solve problems and understand mysteries drowns out love, happiness, and the experience of peace.

Part of me enjoys the pressure, the power, the sense of control. But like any addiction, it’s a mask, a distraction and a false sense of self.

A painful attitude

Last week I mentioned Dr Sarno’s work in the context of my auto-immune disease and the intermittent flare-ups of pain and stiffness it brings.

My experience matches others’ accounts of the link between their pain and their broader psychological state: my pain seems to be associated with a self-imposed pressure to perform, to go faster, to get more done, or to be more responsible, more in control.

Sarno’s theory is that such expectations enrage us on a subconscious level, and we create the pain to distract us from what we consider to be inappropriate emotional responses. I’m not sure if this mechanism applies fully to my circumstances, but the expectations definitely play a role.

For example, when I lost my job a year ago I decided to see how far I could push my freelance writing. Things were going well for a few weeks, I felt confident and had dramatically increased my output. Then the pain set in. I ignored it for as long as I could, and in hindsight it’s remarkable that I managed – or wanted to – ignore it at all.

Eventually I realised what the problem was: at some point I had quietly decided that the solution to my employment problems was to write prodigiously and without ceasing. “Decided” is perhaps a bit of an understatement; it’s more like I subconsciously committed myself to that path, with a determined disregard for the consequences. It felt like a gut-level conviction that “This is what I have to do.”

Altogether it took a few weeks from the onset of the flare-up for me to stop ignoring the pain, remember the general psychological theory, work out the specific cause, and reverse it.  In this instance, fully reversing it meant recognising that the amount of work I was doing was not sustainable in the long-term, that the amount of money we needed to survive was much less than I had expected, and that imposing such pressure on myself was simply counter-productive.

I’ve found that this method neutralises the acute lateral pain of a flare-up so long as I genuinely reverse the underlying attitude. However, the long-term medial stiffness and occasional pain has not been responsive to these efforts. I’m working on a resolution for these chronic symptoms, but will have to save it for a later post.

Auto-Immunity: stop hitting thyself?

An auto-immune disease is, as far as I can tell, the disease equivalent of accidentally biting off a chunk of your own tongue.

My particular auto-immune disease causes inflammation in various key joints, resulting in mild-to-excruciating levels of pain that erupt seemingly at random throughout the course of the year.

Each doctor I’ve spoken to has been more or less firm about the association between stress or negative affect and flare-ups of the disease; firmly against any such association, I mean. There is no evidence to suggest that the progression of diseases like mine is in any way linked to psychological factors, though there is good evidence that the experience of pain can be moderated by psychological factors.

Needless to say, I’m not content with this and rest somewhat assuredly on the dictum “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, taking some confidence in what I know to be the limitations of evidential standards and processes, such that if I find a personal or subjective association, I’m not going to dismiss it on the basis of insufficient peer-reviewed studies.

At the same time, it’s somewhat dismaying to see people dismiss actual studies from a position of willful ignorance and wishful thinking. I’ve seen plenty of people embrace conspiracy theories or other combative attitudes towards established medical and scientific practices and institutions. It’s not a pretty sight. Ideally we should know and understand the things we criticise, and be aware of the limitations of our own knowledge, n’est-ce pa?

As such, I’m not going to tell people that their auto-immune condition is the result of stress and negative affect. What I can tell them is that I’ve noticed in myself that my bouts of inflammation seem to correspond with periods of self-imposed stress or pressure.

It seems I am of a temperament which is inclined to say to itself: “Now you know what you ought to be doing, so do it; do it without ceasing. Do nothing else. Nothing matters but that you do this, and do it diligently forever and ever, Amen.”

For example, I had a flare-up some time after deciding that I ought to pursue my writing more seriously. ‘More seriously’ as in, unceasingly and compulsively without any concept of an end point. On the positive side, that helped me produce an unprecedented number of articles – if I remember correctly: 12 published articles in a one month period.

But as my productivity began to decrease, the conviction that “I must write” slowly devolved from a genuine motivation into a mere sense of grinding necessity. Grinding is perhaps the operative word, as my joints inflamed and it became painful to move.

I’ve noticed since that the pain seems to coincide with these bouts of grueling yet unproductive urgency, the sense that I must get something done without excursion or delay.

Yesterday I noticed a growing sense of urgency relating to ‘getting things done’ with respect to domestic production. I’ve been meaning to make some cheese, but have struggled to find a good local source of necessary ingredients. The delay and the awful heat (42 degrees C yesterday) left me feeling unproductive, and this morning I woke up with the telltale stiffness and pain in my lower back.

As tentative as I am to try to dictate the cause of my illness to others, I’m equally cautious in extolling a particular treatment. I’m not trying to sell anything.

However, I have found it personally beneficial to treat the pain as a symptom of the underlying urgency, and therefore to treat the urgency directly. I do this by making a conscious effort to defuse this compulsive state of mind. I reflect on the fact that it doesn’t actually matter if I make a cheese today/write an article tomorrow, or if I do these things next month, or in all honesty if I never do them ever again.

By ‘reflect’ I mean it’s not enough to simply tell myself that it doesn’t matter. I have to really feel that it doesn’t matter, because feeling it means I can let go of the stress, tension, and urgency. Feeling that it doesn’t matter reveals how truly tense and stressed I have become – winding myself up into a state of impossible and unnecessary tension. I can feel the tension now through my whole body, yet I was oblivious to it until I started to focus on ‘letting go’.

Does ‘letting go’ fix the problem? Objective analysis would be nearly impossible. The factors at play are highly subjective, and would be very difficult to study or isolate under experimental conditions. But like Pascal’s wager, if I’m wrong about the connexion I’ve nonetheless benefited from becoming aware of my stress and tension and reducing them to more salubrious levels.

Feeling more relaxed, happier, and healthier is a pretty benign form of treatment. There’s not really anything to lose.

Does the pain go away? As strange as it might sound: I hadn’t really noticed. In hindsight, it must go away because I notice its subsequent return. But I’m usually so caught up in the great sense of relief and relaxation, the sheer pleasure of ‘letting go’ all the stress, strain, and slowly mounting pressures of life, that the pain, the stiffness and the sense of disease seem to just dissolve away.

Tonti-Filippini’s intellectual quest undaunted by physical pain

Eureka Street asked me to write a brief obituary for the late Professor Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, the prominent and distinguished Australian Bioethicist.  I met the Professor a few times while I was working in bioethics.  He was an exemplary intellectual, and I never knew until later that he was suffering all the while with severe illness and debilitating pain.  According to a 2011 report, he was at that stage undergoing dialysis four nights per week.

Having quoted Sertillanges in the published obituary, I’ll leave you with another quotation that seemed fitting for a man who was, in addition to his intellectual virtues, a devout and faithful Catholic:

“when the thinker thinks rightly, he follows God step by step; he does not follow his own vain fancy. When he gropes and struggles in the effort of research, he is Jacob wrestling with the angel and ‘strong against God’.”

http://eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=42292#.VGK09cm0QWk