According to Robin Rose, a psychologist specializing in brain-based research, we only observe 4% of our environment. What we choose to focus on drives our feelings and actions. The good news is that we can control which 4% we focus on. The mind is very powerful. The mind controls the brain and we control the mind. The actual chemicals produced in our bodies and brain change with different thoughts. So if we can steer our thoughts to observe and focus on the positive we can largely influence our emotions and their outcomes.
How does this affect wellness? If we can control our emotional response to our environment, we can control our stress, which means we control a very large piece of our health.
Stress is such a loaded term. What is stress really? It is an emotion driven by chemicals in the body which are produced based on our reaction to environmental stimuli, both inside and outside our bodies. The main chemicals, or hormones, responsible for stress include epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol. The first two of these are considered acute stress hormones, meaning they are produced in response to short term stressor on our body, such as exercise, or public speaking, or talking with your boss about getting a raise. They will give us that extra boost we need to get through the circumstance in which they were formed, and then they are gone. These are positive stressors. Cortisol is considered a chronic stress hormone, meaning it is long-term and it will linger, for days or months or years if you let it. This is a negative stressor, and the body’s physical response is increased systemic (whole body) inflammation, affecting our immune system, our cardiovascular system, our bone health and our sanity!
Chronic stress often feels unmanageable and our reaction to this ill emotion is to cover it with a positive emotion, one that will instantly, if only temporarily, let us forget about the stressor. These cover-ups of stress are “joy substitutes” and they are typically not healthy and can easily turn into a bad habit. You know what I’m talking about… overeating, comfort foods, smoking, alcohol, gambling, and other physical abuses. This swapping of emotions is human nature. And it has nothing to do with our underlining knowledge of if the substitute behavior is harmful or not. Simply knowing that eating a box of doughnuts in one sitting is not a healthful act does not mean you will not do it because at that moment it will bring you satisfaction.
More times than not, after that box of doughnuts is gone, our cognitive side, the side that knows better, finally shows up. The angel on your shoulder is wagging an angry finger at the devil on the other. But it’s too late; the emotional damage has been done! In rolls guilt. Guilt is another negative emotion that triggers more stress. A downward spiral.
Negative habits that evolve from “emotion swapping”, to feel good under otherwise uncomfortable chemical responses to daily life, can be undone. Not with cognition and rationality, but with focusing our 4% of reality on positive experiences with happy and physically un-harmful outcomes that will reinforce healthy choices.
As Edison said, “I never made a mistake, only found ways not to do things”, a good rule to follow as we mold our 4% into what we want it to be. To practice control of emotions is mindfulness, which is loosely defined as being present and aware of every moment as it comes, without judgment. Mindfulness can be practiced in a variety of ways, each unique to the individual. The key is to focus the mind on the task at hand, what you are currently doing, without any thoughts to what got you there or what you will be doing next.
“Being mindful is an active state of releasing all judgment and worried thoughts, freeing oneself to fully perceive the moment” (Sachi Fujimori)
Like all experiences, emotions are not felt the same by everyone. One person’s reaction to a stressor is going to be completely different from another. When it comes to food, it can be okay for you to eat what is your personal comfort food, guilty pleasure or food craving and not trigger any negative feelings of guilt; this is a prime example of mindfulness. You are aware that the stress cue occurred and you are choosing to react to it with a conscious decision, and you know there are other alternatives that you may choose later if the situation arises again. Complete control. Change your attitude about food. It’s not just about what you eat, but how you eat and react to eating.
It’s not easy, and it takes practice, like anything. Here is an outline of how you may choose to practice the technique of mindfulness with eating. I encourage you to do it once a day to start, get a feel for the practice and how it changes your perception of food, eating, and stress in your life.
- Pause before the meal and give thanks that you have food in front of you to eat. Thank those who produced it, bought it and prepared it.
- What type of food is it? Is it from an animal or a plant? It is whole or processed? Is it a single foods or a mixed dish?
- What colors do you see? What is the texture, consistency, temperature?
- Take a bite and then lay your hands in your lap. Before chewing, let the food sit on your tongue for at least 30 seconds. What do you taste and feel?
- Chew slowly and ask yourself again, what do I taste? What do I feel?
- Chew for at least 20 seconds. Swallow and wait 2 minutes. How do you feel now?
- Repeat with another bite.
- After three bites you may chose to continue the practice or to eat at a regular speed. Either way stay in tune with the tastes and feelings accompanying the food.
- After the meal sit for 2 minutes undisturbed before continuing with your day.
- During the next few hours after the meal, be aware of your hunger and satisfaction.
Other tips for relieving stress, conquering cravings and relieving guilt include:
- Relaxation! Of muscles, mind, and breath. Meditation, visualization, yoga, stretching.
- Talk it out or write it down.
- Move! Get outside and get fresh air.
Not only can these help with stress, but also digestion and improved sleep.
I leave you with this thought:
“If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”
― Dalai Lama XIV
Robin Rose. Training and Consulting. Speech 2012. http://www.robinrose.com/
Fujimori, Sachi, Zen and the Art of Mindful Eating, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Food and Nutrition May/June: 12-13 (2013).
Zied, Elisa, Stress Relief, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Food and Nutrition May/June 2013: 20-21 (2013).
Sund, Erin, Ancient Healing: Ayurveda and diet, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Food and Nutrition May/June: 14-15 (2013).
Davidson, Richard, et al. Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation. Psychosomatic medicine 65:564-570 (2003).
Bishop, Scott. What Do We Really Know About Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction? Psychosomatic Medicine 64:71-84 (2002)
Sheldon Cohen, Denise Janicki-Deverts, William J. Doyle, Gregory E. Miller, Ellen Frank, Bruce S. Rabin, and Ronald B. Turner. Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk. PNAS, April 2, 2012