Are Cravings Sabotaging Your New Year’s Resolution?

It’s the new year, and a quick survey of the resolutions Americans make every year shows that losing weight is one of — if not the — most popular. Maybe it’s because, by New Year’s Day, the stress of the holiday season, family get-togethers, and trying to meet everyone’s expectations has led to too many trips to the cookie jar. Unfortunately, as most people know, losing weight is one of — if not the — most difficult resolution to keep.

I started working with a client to get rid of her cravings for sweets so she can lose the weight that crept up on her over the holidays. One of the first things I told her to do is to stop beating herself up for not sticking to a diet. This tip is counter-intuitive for most people. They think “if I make myself miserable over that bag of Lays Potato Chips I just ate, won’t that stop me from wanting to eat junk food the next time?”. Unfortunately, the answer is no. In fact, not only will yelling at yourself for giving in to a craving not help you eat less, it will very likely lead you to eat more!

Think about it. Most people break their diets when they are stressed or down. How do you feel when you get mad at yourself and say things like “I’m such a loser” or “I have no will power”? If you’re like most people, saying anything like that makes you feel more stressed and more down. Then that ice cream looks like just what you need to feel better. And on and on goes the cycle.

For some ideas on what to do to get out of this cycle, check out my post on Cravings. (Hint: relaxation exercises are much better than food to bring down your stress, but you have to remember to do them before the craving hits. Tapping can help to get to the base of what’s driving the craving.) But whatever you do, the first step is to stop hitting yourself over the head and neck (metaphorically speaking) when you give in to a craving. Instead, tell yourself you’ll do better next time. Then go do something relaxing, like exercising.

Get started.

Please e-mail me at to set up a get-acquainted session by phone or Skype to talk about what might be blocking you.

No Batteries — or Electronics of Any Sort — Required

It turns out there is an iPhone app to help people deal with their fear of flying. This app is based on Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Without Fear course. The app has a video of what to expect on a flight, answers common questions, teaches relaxation exercises, and sends daily reminders to practice those exercises. You can also use it on the flight itself for reassuring tips and breathing exercises, although you can’t use it on takeoff or landing since all mobile devices must be turned off when a plane is below 10,000 feet. The idea is that you learn over time to contain your panic. These are all good things to do to help prepare yourself for a flight.

Virgin Atlantic’s Fear of Flying course is a significant resource for people who are afraid of flying, and it carries the endorsement of celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg. One might think that the iPhone app would be equally effective. But more than 1/3 of the reviewers on the iPhone app store gave it only 1 or 2 out of a possible 5 stars, mostly because of problems they had using the app while on board the plane. Worse yet, breathing relaxation exercises such as those which appear to be one focus of this program have not been found to be particularly effective in treating fear of flying. (More’s the pity; I love breathing exercises for dealing with stress.)

With less than a week to go before Christmas, it is probably too late to get much help from this app before you get on the plane to Grandma’s anyway, even if it’s more effective than it appears to be. Relaxation exercises like this are meant to be done over time to retrain your brain not to panic in flight.

If you’re dreading your flight, check out my Quick Start Guide to tapping. It details one of the fastest and most effective relaxation exercises I’ve found. While some people need some more detailed work to get over their fear, a lot of people just tap for a few minutes on the aspect or aspects of a flight that bother them most (like turbulence), or a particular fear (like the engines all stopping at once), or a memory of a bad flight and find that their fear is either greatly reduced or gone completely.

If you try the tapping now and still find yourself with white knuckles on your flight, you can do the tapping right there on the plane. It tends to be the most effective at getting rid of a fear for good when used while you are actually doing the thing that you fear, like flying.

Get started.

Please e-mail me at to set up a get-acquainted session to see if I might help you with your own fear of flying. Yes, I work over the phone and Skype.

Exercise and the Stressed Brain

I’ve been recommending exercise to stressed out clients (and depressed clients, for that matter) for years. Those in the know suggest that you get aerobic exercise — i.e., exercise that raises your heart rate enough that it is a little difficult to talk, like running or dancing — for half an hour, three times a week at a minimum. If you can’t get a full half-hour in at a time, or you only have two days to exercise, do what you can. My clients have reported that even ten minutes of working out can help them feel more relaxed and happier. (Of course, if your doctor doesn’t think you should exercise, listen to your doctor.), doctors and scientists have known for a long time that exercise helps with stress. Now scientists have run experiments which show exercise actually changes the brain so it handles stressful situations better, at least in rats. A New York Times blog post from last month reviews three recent studies showing how the brains of rats who exercised handled stress better than those of couch potato rats — expressing fewer specific genes, showing less serotonin levels, and dampening the effects of oxidative stress in response to stress.

So the proof is in: exercise really does make a difference. Don’t skip it this season because you have too much shopping to do, or the in-laws are coming to visit, or you have a five-hour drive to Christmas dinner. Those are the very stressful situations that exercise will help you handle calmly.

Oh, and start exercising right away if you haven’t worked out since the late ’90s. It took the rats between three and six weeks of exercising to see big changes in their brains. The scientists don’t know how long it takes to make a difference in humans. They haven’t done that research yet. But it’s a fair bet that the sooner you start exercising, the sooner you’ll feel more relaxed.

Get started.

Please e-mail me at to set up a get-acquainted session by phone or Skype to talk about how we might work together on what’s blocking you.

Family and Friends — To Keep or Not to Keep

On Thanksgiving, the LA Times ran an article by two professors — one from Harvard Medical School, the other from UC San Diego — touting the importance of keeping everyone in your social network of friends and family, even those who are demanding or get you angry. evidence, the professors point out that, while a study they did in 2007 found that people with overweight friends were more likely to gain weight than those with normal weight friends, they also found that those people who got rid of their fat friends gained more weight than those who kept their heftier friends. They also noted out that those who stay connected are more likely to be happy, pointing to an interesting statistic:

“Each happy friend increases a person’s probability of being happy by about 9%, while each unhappy friend decreases it by only 7%. So the virtue of staying connected lies in playing the averages. It’s true that the best-connected individuals at the center of the social network are more likely to “catch” an unhappy wave spreading through the network, but they are even more likely to catch a happy wave.
As a result, the people who stay connected are significantly happier than people who don’t. In the battle between the happy waves and sad waves, happiness wins.”

Finally, they noted that family and friends share things with each other like gifts, information, and kind gestures. All this leads them to their conclusion that “We need our connections, good and bad. Every one of them.”

Well, yes and no. I’m a big fan of social networks. One of the first things I recommend to anxious and/or depressed therapy clients is that they spend more face-to-face time with family and friends. If they don’t have many connections, maybe because they just moved to a new town, we talk about ways to meet other people with similar interests. If they are really stuck, I’ll get them started by sending them off to a cafe where they can at least see other people and have a little interaction. Social isolation is very stressful. Social interaction can bring stress down and raise a person’s mood.

But there is a caveat: it has to be good, or at least neutral, social interaction. When you have a toxic relationship, you negate the benefits of having the relationship. I’ve had clients for whom a dinner spent with their “best friend” always left them stressed out and miserable for the whole week. Dumping such “friends” opened the door to getting to know people who became real friends, improving my clients’ moods and their lives significantly.

Now I’m not recommending that you disown your brother or ditch a friend the first — or second, or third, or fiftieth — time you have a fight. Disagreements, bad days, annoying habits, they can happen in any relationship. You need to take a big picture view of what goes on between the two of you. If you get along okay with someone generally, keep them in your social network. However, anyone who brings you down regularly or has you questioning your worth whenever you are with them is not someone to spend time with. Avoid them. And if you feel like those are the only people you ever meet or make friends with, consider talking with a therapist about changing your expectations about how others can treat you. You may have been stuck in a pattern that kept attracting the wrong people into your life, but that pattern can be changed.

Here’s the second caveat: you need people in your social network. So if you decide that you really have to to stop getting together with your old high school friend or limit calls and visits to your sister, you need to spend more time with other people in your life. Seek out the ones who make you feel good about yourself, even when they challenge you. Go out for coffee. Schedule a game of squash. Host a dinner party. Do whatever suits you, but make time for it in your busy week. It will help lower your stress overall.

What if all the positive people in your life live in another state, or you have too few people like that around to spend time with, or you don’t have anyone like that in your life at all? Then it’s time to make more friends. Join something, like a sport, or a book club, or an alumni group. Go to a friendly church, mosque, or temple. Volunteer for a good cause where you will be working with other people. Any activity can do the trick so long as you actually spend time meeting and talking to other people over time. That’s the easiest way to start new friendships.

Get started.

Please e-mail me at to set up a get-acquainted session by phone or Skype to talk about how we might work together on what’s blocking you.

Food and Family Stress

I read an article on food and family stress in the New York Times last week. It was full of stories of families fighting over food at the holidays: a mother berating an overweight daughter for eating too much; a grandmother criticizing a grandson for eating too little; a father trying to keep everyone from eating chocolate. I’m willing to bet most people have at least one story like these about family problems around food to tell.

Holidays are big sources of pressure for vast numbers of people. Food issues hound many, many people. And family problems can replay every time a family gets together. Put those three together and you can have big bad stress waiting for almost everyone in the month of December. What to do? Times article recommends that people set up boundaries (that’s therapy talk for rules), like making a “good-natured announcement” that comments about how much or little a person eats won’t be acceptable this year. Then every time someone breaks the rule, call them on it. Oh, and have a sense of humor about it all. Good advice, but I was left wondering how many readers could implement it without more support. Changing ingrained family interactions is notoriously hard, especially if it is your family. That’s why we family therapists get serious training in how to interrupt those old patterns and shift everyone in the family to a new way of acting.

If you aren’t planning to get your parents, in-laws or siblings in to see a family therapist for a few sessions before Christmas or Hanukkah, you can still change the way you react to what your family members do.  Try one or more of these approaches now to get yourself ready:

  1. Practice breathing. I know, you breathe every day. How can that help? I’m talking about the kind of slow, deep breaths that bypass your chest and go all the way down to your navel. They can calm you down and help you think even in the middle of the most stressful times. (I read somewhere they teach this kind of breathing to Marines so they can use it in the middle of battle.) The reason to start practicing this kind of breathing now is that it’s much easier to remember both to do the breathing and how to do it in a stressful moment if you have been doing it every day for a few weeks until it becomes a habit. Then, when your sister says you really don’t need that extra piece of pie, you can take a deep breath and remember to smile as you tell her that comments about how much a person eats are unacceptable this year. For more details on this kind of breathing, see my earlier post. Don’t try this if you have asthma.
  2. Between now and the next family event, practice acting just the way you want to when your relatives misbehave. Here’s how. Sit somewhere quiet without distractions. Close your eyes. Run a movie of your brother sneering when you put your homemade candied yams on the table (or whatever gets you upset). See yourself reacting calmly, saying and doing exactly what you want to in exactly the way you want. If you start to get heated up, stop the movie, rewind it to a point before you got upset, then play it again seeing yourself being the cool, self-possessed person you want to be. Make the movie as vivid and full of details as you can. Do this at least once every day from now until you all sit down to dinner together. The more times you visualize responding to a stress in a certain way, the more likely you are to act that way when the stress really happens.
  3. Get on the phone and start discussing the new boundaries (remember those family rules?) with each of your family members now. You may have to clear the air before the big day. Sometimes people don’t realize what they are doing is hurtful. Calmly talking with them about how you feel now can give them time to think about changing their ways. Then they will be less likely to react defensively — and hurtfully — when you announce the new rule while carving the Christmas goose.
  4. Realize that just telling family members about the new rule may not be enough to change long-standing patterns. You may have to take action beyond just reminding your father at the holiday dinner table that it is not okay for him to call you fat when you take a roll. You may have to get up and leave the table if he continues the rude comments. You may have to leave the house. Decide now what you will do, tell your father what you will do before the day (see Approach #3), then do it if he keeps up the fat jokes after you’ve asked him to stop. Don’t make a scene. Just quietly stand up and go. Dad will be much less likely to joke about your weight at the next family gathering. That sort of dispassionate response to bad behavior is sometimes the only way to establish new boundaries.

Remember, you can’t change what other people do, only how you react to it. Then, if you change how you react, you may be surprised at how they change what they do. But you have to change first.

Of course, some stress and pain goes so deep that these steps will not be enough. You can always try using my Quick Start Guide to tapping to calm yourself down as you think about stressful family scenes from the past that you expect to replay this December. If you need more, think about a visit or two with a family therapist to work on setting those new boundaries.

Get started.

Please e-mail me at to set up a get-acquainted session by phone or Skype to talk about how we might work together on what’s blocking you.

Plan Now to Limit Holiday Stress

Happy Halloween!

The ghosts and goblins (jedi and fairies mostly this year, actually) are parading past my door now, reminding me that the holiday season has arrived! Turkey dinners with all the trimmings, trips to see Santa, office parties, holidays of all persuasions spent with family. For some, November through December is a magical season. For many, many others, it is a stress-filled time to be endured.

If you fall into the latter camp, I have one suggestion: less is more. Make it your mantra.

If hosting Thanksgiving has become a logistical nightmare, give away some of the tasks. Pick up the cranberry sauce and stuffing at the deli counter at your supermarket instead of making it from scratch. Put your kids in charge of decorating. Tell your guests that dinner is potluck this year. Stop planning for it to be perfect and start expecting it to be good enough.

If gifts for Hanukkah or Christmas are completely out of hand, just stop the madness. The recession gives you the perfect excuse to buy fewer gifts. Have them wrapped in the stores or take them all to the table at the mall where a local non-profit is wrapping gifts as a fundraiser — a huge time saver for you. Decorate just one room instead of the whole house. Give up the picture of the ideal Norman Rockwell holiday in favor of one where you actually enjoy yourself.

Which brings me to family. If yours causes you stress, know that you are not alone. It seems that people somehow expect that, this year, family time will be all warm and fuzzy even if it has been filled with shouting, broken dishes and slamming doors for the past twenty years. You will have less stress if you give up the unreal expectations. Assume this year will be like last year. If time with family equals stress to you, then limit your time. Leave the party an hour early. Book a flight for only 3 days instead of 5. Plan some excuses in advance to cut the conversation with Uncle Rex short (“Excuse me, I’ve got to talk to Andy about his new snowblower”). Lowered expectations and less time with difficult people will make for a happier, less stressful time.

I may just have to revisit this topic once or twice in the coming months. In the meantime, start thinking of ways to dump some of your holiday stress this year.

Get started.

Please e-mail me at to set up a get-acquainted session by phone or Skype to talk about how we might work together on what’s blocking you.