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Your Preholiday Survival Plan

By Allison White, ACSW, LCSW, CCDP-D

I love the change in seasons, but with it comes the busy holidays and the desire to gorge myself with artery-clogging treats. I can feel my body drifting into hibernation mode, enjoying the fire pit, roasted marshmallows and lazy evenings at home. It gets harder and harder to make it to spin class. Interaction with friends and family often involves food, which offers gratification – until I step on the scale the next morning. Succumbed to temptation, yet again! But why?

For many reasons, we disregard rational thought for that heavenly slice of cheesecake. Habits, patterns, cravings and pleasure all play major parts in the cycle that takes us away from our wellness goals. It’s challenging to change old habits, and it seems to take forever to develop new routines. We have cravings, are tempted and seek relief to satisfy our bodies and minds. It’s a vicious cycle. But how satisfying is succumbing to immediate gratification? What do we say to ourselves to justify this behavior? These questions play a part in the creation of habits.

You’ve likely heard that almost anything in moderation is okay, but that’s not true for everyone. Understanding what impacts craving, motivation and behavior – and setting goals – will help you break bad habits and make positive changes in your life. The effort requires making incremental changes, while learning why changing the behaviors is hard, and why it’s important to practice self-compassion during the process. Be as kind to yourself as you would a friend who needs support during a challenging situation. In her book on self-compassion, Kristin Neff, Ph.D., author and associate professor of Human Development at the University of Texas in Austin, states that when we try to “beat ourselves into shape,” we become overly emotional, anxious, depressed and impulsive in our behaviors. We react, rather than respond rationally. She states that self-compassion changes our way of dealing with situations and can counteract the stress.

Many experts discuss motivation, change and habits – it’s important to find the message that resonates for you. Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, offers many YouTube videos on “willpower,” motivation and the neuroscience of change. Deepak Chopra, in his book What Are You Hungry For? discusses how underlying emotions lead to unhealthy eating. This expert in mind-body healing says that understanding why we reach for food helps us deal with the underlying issues directly. Dr. Wayne Scott Andersen, in Discover Your Optimal Health, states that setting primary goals and developing strategies to resist temptation are important. You have a choice to eat that piece of cheesecake, but that decision should be intentional, not impulsive. Keep your eye on your main goal (losing weight, feeling healthy). The question “Why?” will help guide your behavior: Why do you want what you want – be it good for you or bad for you?

Reporter for The New York Times, Charles Duhigg talks in his book, The Power of Habit, about the “habit loop” – consisting of cue, routine and reward. Once you recognize a habit loop, and the reward (pleasure) you seek, you can work backward to identify how it contributes to the unhealthy patterns – you can change the loop. For example, if you crave soda, what pleasure do you derive from it? Is there a substitute for that pleasure? By analyzing the reward (sugar, energy boost, stress reduction) that’s driving the behavior, you can create substitutes that will give you that boost without the undesired consequences. Then, work backward to change your routine to fill that need, which will lead to a different, healthier reward. Duhigg states: “If you identify the cues and rewards, you can change the routine.” It’s actually a very simple concept when broken down and analyzed.

It’s also important to identify what needs changing in your life and the obstacles to that end. How can you support yourself when making the change? For example, if you know that you eat poorly when you are stressed, take a route that avoids your favorite fast-food restaurant after a hard day. Try to identify the stress leading to the craving, and deal with that stress. It doesn’t have to be complicated.

By identifying the underlying trigger (stress) and the familiar behavior (eating fast food for relief), then practicing stress-reduction techniques while supporting yourself (taking a different route to avoid temptation), you will feel a sense of accomplishment. When you succeed even once, you will realize you are stronger than your urges. It’s all about choice in the moment, and identifying your triggers. Then, if you choose to eat that cheesecake knowing it’s not because of negative emotions, you can enjoy it. You regain control by making conscious choices, rather than reacting based on emotion. This power will lead to more positive changes in other areas of your life!

(published in 12/2015 Spirit Seeker Magazine)