August 15, 2011

Rain Check

Earlier this summer, I took a six-week workshop about dealing with emotions using (among other things) mindfulness and CBT strategies. Of the things I learned in the workshop, my favourite was that the word emotion comes from a Latin root that means to move through or to move out.

I love this! It reminds me that emotions are transient in nature, and that the way out is through (that is, that experiencing tough emotions makes them dissipate much more quickly than does avoiding them). But what's the best way to move through (and therefore, beyond) painful feelings?

There's an acronym that can be used to deal mindfully with uncomfortable emotions: RAIN. It's often taught in Buddhist meditation circles, but you definitely don't have to be Buddhist or even into Buddhism to use it. All you need is to be willing to try it, even when it's hard.

R is for Recognition, the first step to mindfulness in the midst of powerful or painful emotion. Recognition means that you take a second to acknowledge and label the emotion, asking yourself what exactly you're feeling and naming it (e.g., fear, guilt, anxiety, shame). Identifying and labeling emotions forces you to step outside the swirly vortex of feelings, at least briefly. It normalizes emotions and reduces their power.

A is for Acceptance, which means deciding that whatever you're feeling is okay. Give yourself permission to experience any emotion under the sun. You don't have to like the emotion or be happy that you feel that way, but you also don't need to judge yourself for it (creating secondary emotions). When you have a feeling that you find hard to accept (e.g., rage at a loved one), it can help to think of the emotion as your own secret. No one can see how you feel inside; you get to decide whether or not to act on it or express it, and if you don't, no one will ever know how you felt. The idea of your emotions as secret can help you accept them, whatever they are.

I is for Investigation. One way to be mindful with your emotions is to stop trying to think about what they might mean or how you can get rid of them and to instead explore how they feel in your body. In the investigation step, you adopt an attitude of curiosity about how the emotion manifests itself physically, what it feels like inside you. Ask yourself how you know you're feeling a particular emotion: what tells you that you're disappointed, anxious, or scared? Is your face cold, are your limbs prickly, or your belly made of lead? All emotions have some kind of physical manifestation and bringing your attention to it forces you out of your head, away from avoidance, and into the present experience.

N is for Non-identification. This means remembering that the definition of emotion involves movement, and adopting a "this too shall pass" attitude. It means creating some space around the emotion, rather than being one with it. Think of it as a visitor who dropped by. You can open the door and let it in, and acknowledge that it's present. You can even sit in in the living room and serve it tea, but you don't have to identify with it or get tangled up in it. The emotion isn't who or what you are.

The next time you feel your emotions taking over, try letting it RAIN!

August 04, 2011

Will Power versus Rules

If you want to make a difficult behaviour change, forget about will power and try making a rule instead.

I just finished reading The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by David A. Kessler, a book about the psychology and physiology of compulsive eating and the role of the food industry. In the 'self-help for overeaters' section, the author recommends that, rather than counting on will power, overeaters should implement strict and absolute rules to eliminate struggle when faced with foods that trigger overeating. According to Dr. Kessler, absolute rules eliminate the need for will power! Here's why: Will power is invoked in the moment. The second you're faced with a desired stimulus (let's say cake, but it could also be a desirable but unnecessary purchase, or reading your favourite news sites and blogs rather than starting to work in the morning), will power pits the force of your desire for the reward (food, purchase, Internet) against the force of your determination to resist, creating discomfort.

In contrast, a rule is a long-term principle created in advance and not in the presence of the desired/rewarding stimulus. A rule (e.g., "No dessert") is based on experience and on a rationale (e.g., that much sugar makes my heart race and gives me a sugar hangover the next day; I want to maintain my weight; I know if I have one piece, I'll end up having seconds and thirds) that allows you to inhibit your normal behaviour (see cake, eat cake), without struggle ("I want it--no, I shouldn't have any--but it's a party and I deserve it--but what about my weight--okay, maybe a small piece"). Having an absolute and completely integrated rule allows you to avoid the impossible task of remembering your rationale at the moment you're faced with the desired stimulus--the rule is so internalized that it's a given.

A budget rule is another example: say you and your partner decide that travel is one of your most important values, and that in order to save money to travel, your rule is to never eat out when you're in town. When you receive an invitation to go out for dinner, you don't debate or agonize or argue over it, because the decision is pre-made: you're not going. No struggle and no will power necessary!

The distinction between rules and will power caught my attention because this year, I stopped eating grains--no pasta, bread, rice, and no most desserts--and have been training (running) harder than ever before. Observing me decline brownies and skip social occasions to go for long training runs, a few people have commented on my will power. This comment makes me feel uncomfortable because it rings untrue: if I have so much will power, why don't I stop eating family-sized bags of Nibs in one sitting, repeatedly interrupting my work to check my email, and scratching mosquito bites until they become scars?

The concept of rules provides an explanation: I am following two completely integrated and internalized rules: 1) No grains; 2) The training schedule is law. These rules are congruent with the definition provided by Dr. Kessler: both were created in advance (in January and years ago, respectively), for rational personal reasons (related to physical and mental health) based on my experience and consistent with my long-term goals, and they allow me to inhibit my default behaviour (i.e., eat any and all available baked goods; sleep in/prioritize social life). So when I turn down a fresh cinnamon bun, it's not because I have will power (which implies that I struggled with the decision), it's that my rule dictates that cinnamon buns aren't even an option. Same with following my training schedule: I don't struggle over getting up early or skipping your party to run; it's not hard and it doesn't involve will power. (Think about vegetarians who used to enjoy meat. I don't think they struggle every time someone offers them a burger; they're just following their very integrated rule.)

I think what might take will power is the initial creation of the rule--making the rule and sticking to it until it becomes entirely integrated. The two rules above are the only ones I've succeeded in internalizing to the point that there's no struggle. Among myriad others, I've tried "11pm is bedtime," and "no email checking until lunchtime" without success.

NB: The use of absolute rules isn't entirely positive, and rules aren't for everyone. I think they may be more helpful for abstainers (people who are successful with a 'cold turkey' or all-or-nothing approach) than for moderators (people who can successfully indulge moderately or occasionally). (Read about this distinction here.) Further, the inherently rigid nature of rules can create problems (e.g., following your training schedule to the letter even when you're injured; following your no-dinners-out rule even when it's your best friend's milestone birthday party).

What are your rules? Do they work?