How many of you reading this won’t have a biscuit in case you eat the whole packet? How many of you know that if you take just one chocolate, half the tray will have passed your lips before you find the strength to shut the lid? Perhaps you have started a New Year’s revolution and hit the gym, or are pounding the pavements, pushing yourself to complete your allocated distance before collapsing in a heap, unable to move.
At my Bexhill practice I see many people who are caught in this “all or nothing”, “boom or bust” cycle. For many people, the word “moderation” is almost a dirty word, while “excess and deprivation” has become an all too familiar friend. Now is the time to change and to cultivate “the art of moderation”.
The problem with all or nothing behaviour is that it can lead to all or nothing thinking. In other words, people either love you or hate you, things either go well or they are a disaster. It is either somebody else’s responsibility or you are entirely to blame; no middle ground, no grey in between, just all or nothing.
We all know that too much junk food and sitting around like the proverbial “couch potato” is not good for us. But neither is too much “healthy” living. How many people take out gym membership and then a month or so later, have to stop due to some injury either from overdoing it on the cross trainer, or pushing the weights to excess (men take note!) just to prove we can do a bit more, or in the mistaken assumption that we can get fitter a bit quicker?
Of course, exercise is good for us, as is eating healthy food. However, excessive exercise is as harmful as excessive dieting and denial. Just a muscle injury and strain will come from too much exercise, likewise too much healthy food can be bad for us. Take cutting out cake and biscuits and substituting it with lots and lots of fruit and vegetables. While fruit and vegetables are rich in vitamins and minerals, they also contain fibre. A little fibre is good for us, as it helps prevent constipation and gastric problems. Yet, too much fibre can cause bloating and abdominal cramps. Eat too many carrots and you will get carotenemia where the palms of your hands and soles of your feet will turn orange. You get the picture?
Eat any food to excess and you are sure to have problems. The key is to achieve a balance between what we want and what we need. In other words, engaging our brains rather than our instinctual drive. If any of you have a cat, you cannot fail to notice the way it gobbles down its food. The cat is programmed to eat food quickly in order to do so before other cats come along and steal it, and more importantly, to do so ensures they have taken on board food as fuel in the event there is no food tomorrow.
By and large, human beings don’t have to worry about others stealing their food, furthermore, they are unlikely to be able to get to the shops tomorrow. Note how the animal instinct comes into play prior to a bank holiday. The supermarket may only be shut for one day but people stockpile bread, milk etc. The primitive hunter gatherer is still such a deeply engrained part of our psyche.
It is important to eat food and not cut things out because we don’ trust ourselves. Follow the maxim – “A little of what you fancy does you good.” Professor Paul Gilbert, author of The Compassionate Mind, tells us to “indulge joyfully without guilt” and not deprive ourselves. Denial is the surest way to create yearnings and is much more likely to lead to binge-eating. A period of denial is often followed by a period of gorging – the “boom and bust” scenario so frequently observed when people are dieting and fall of the wagon. Self-deprivation is much more likely to fuel low self-esteem. It is like self-punishment.
Learning to control our impulses, we need to practise developing a “moderate mindset”.
Here are some helpful tips:
- Stop beating yourself up when you over-indulge. Remember it’s our natural drive to over-indulge. Be realistic and tell yourself that it is ok if you have a slip
- Congratulate yourself when you are able to eat in moderation.
- Eat little and often during the day rather than three large meals with no snacks in-between. Aim to eat more complex carbohydrates such as porridge, wholemeal bread and protein, meat and nuts rather than just simple carbohydrates: cakes, biscuits and soft drinks. However, having a simple carbohydrate food as an “add on” can take away cravings.
- Count to ten (well thirteen actually), This enables the “thinking” part of the brain to engage.
- Avoid looking at things in terms of black/white, good/bad – stop beating yourself up and admonishing yourself, regarding yourself as bad if you have eaten an extra cake.
- Be compassionate towards yourself – instead of telling yourself off – just talk to yourself in a kindly, understanding way as you would a child.
- Be mindful, savour each mouthful, deliberately eating slowly, enjoying the taste, smell and feel.
- “All or nothing” thinking is what we in CBT call a “cognitive distortion. In other words, thoughts that are irrational and exaggerated. Use of terms such as “always”, “never”, “right” and “wrong” are examples of extremes. Try to identify when you are using such words and look for a word that is more moderate, e.g. replace “should”, “must” and “ought” with “could”, “might” and “maybe.”
Until next time, Steve Clifford, Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist