Monthly Archives: September 2017

Distracting Yourself Into a Better Mood

“My head is full of stuff I am worried about today,” a fellow gym member told me as we were about to start a yoga class. “So if I am standing up when everyone else is sitting down, it is probably because I am not paying attention to the instructor. “

She was right: She was so self-absorbed in her worries that she was always about two yoga positions behind everyone else. About halfway through the class, I noticed her keeping up with the instructor’s moves, and no longer looking so worried.

When the class was over, she said, “I feel so much better! Once I started to focus entirely on whether I was in the correct yoga position, I was distracted from the laundry list of problems that had been bothering me.“

Yoga is one of many distractions that work to relieve, or at least subdue, a variety of emotions from boredom (e.g. “HOW long do I have to wait on the telephone to speak to a representative?!?”) to depression, anxiety, anger, and worry. Think of the scene in a movie or television where people are waiting to hear news about an operation. Someone always says, “Let’s go to the cafeteria and get some coffee.” The coffee is not what is desired; it is the distraction of moving to another place and engaging in another activity (buying and drinking coffee) that may somewhat help relieve the tension.

Sometimes the lack of distraction makes a situation unbearable. Imagine sitting in a waiting area awaiting your own operation. You are awake and alone and there is nothing to distract you from your anxiety and worry. A friend of mine who recently had his cataracts removed told me that, while he was waiting to be operated on, all he could think was “What if something goes wrong and I became blind?” He said. But, “if someone had been there to talk to me, or even if I could have watched television, I might not have worked myself into a panic.”

So-called Retail Therapy has long been recognized as an effective, albeit short-lived, therapy for anxiety and depression. It works, but has its limitations and unfortunate financial consequences if shopping leads to buying items neither needed nor affordable. The distraction of finding something desired and buying it lasts very briefly, and it is a costly way of keeping away unwanted thoughts. But certain shopping venues like gigantic flea markets, or bargain warehouses that require lots of walking and poking through piles of stuff that ultimately are rejected for purchase? They effectively focus the mind and move it away from unpleasant emotions.

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Distracting Yourself Into a Better Mood

Redirecting your focus is a very healthy coping strategy.
Posted Sep 14, 2017
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“My head is full of stuff I am worried about today,” a fellow gym member told me as we were about to start a yoga class. “So if I am standing up when everyone else is sitting down, it is probably because I am not paying attention to the instructor. “

She was right: She was so self-absorbed in her worries that she was always about two yoga positions behind everyone else. About halfway through the class, I noticed her keeping up with the instructor’s moves, and no longer looking so worried.

When the class was over, she said, “I feel so much better! Once I started to focus entirely on whether I was in the correct yoga position, I was distracted from the laundry list of problems that had been bothering me.“

Yoga is one of many distractions that work to relieve, or at least subdue, a variety of emotions from boredom (e.g. “HOW long do I have to wait on the telephone to speak to a representative?!?”) to depression, anxiety, anger, and worry. Think of the scene in a movie or television where people are waiting to hear news about an operation. Someone always says, “Let’s go to the cafeteria and get some coffee.” The coffee is not what is desired; it is the distraction of moving to another place and engaging in another activity (buying and drinking coffee) that may somewhat help relieve the tension.

Sometimes the lack of distraction makes a situation unbearable. Imagine sitting in a waiting area awaiting your own operation. You are awake and alone and there is nothing to distract you from your anxiety and worry. A friend of mine who recently had his cataracts removed told me that, while he was waiting to be operated on, all he could think was “What if something goes wrong and I became blind?” He said. But, “if someone had been there to talk to me, or even if I could have watched television, I might not have worked myself into a panic.”

So-called Retail Therapy has long been recognized as an effective, albeit short-lived, therapy for anxiety and depression. It works, but has its limitations and unfortunate financial consequences if shopping leads to buying items neither needed nor affordable. The distraction of finding something desired and buying it lasts very briefly, and it is a costly way of keeping away unwanted thoughts. But certain shopping venues like gigantic flea markets, or bargain warehouses that require lots of walking and poking through piles of stuff that ultimately are rejected for purchase? They effectively focus the mind and move it away from unpleasant emotions.

Years ago, Boston had a two-story bargain store, Filene’s Basement, where the merchandise was marked down according to how long it had been on the racks. Shoppers hunted for a drastically marked-down piece of clothing or shoes; they rarely found one but considered the hunt itself to be a lot of fun. In order to deal with the death of both parents within a short period of time, one of my mother’s friends told me that she would go to the Basement every weekday during her lunch hour.

“I never bought anything, but searching for the ultimate bargain distracted me temporarily from my grief.”

In order for distraction to work; in other words, doing X to take your mind off of thinking about issue Y, it should absorb all of one’s attention. Moreover, the distraction must be easy to initiate, not necessarily require the participation of someone else, and be convenient. Skill-driven physical activities such as indoor rock climbing or paddle boarding, where loss of concentration means falling off the rock wall or the paddleboard, are effective distractions. Still, simpler and more accessible activities like going to a driving range or playing Ping-Pong also work. Games such as bridge or chess or even group activities such as singing in a choir, or joining a conversation group in a language you are learning? They require total concentration and thus, for a while, are a total distraction. Crossword and other word puzzles work, unless they add a level of frustration to an already difficult situation, like waiting for a long-delayed plane. And sometimes a conversation that forces you to concentrate on what the other person is saying is a distraction from an inner voice that talks too much about your concerns.

Overeating is unfortunately often used as a distraction but, like retail therapy, the distraction is short and the cost, in calories, considerable. Indeed, overeaters are advised to redirect to new distraction activities such as: take a bath, take a walk, make a phone call, see a friend, or read a magazine to decrease the eating. These activities, however, are weak distractions and often are accompanied by the eating they are supposed to halt.

Sometimes thinking outside the box is the only way to identify a distraction that will work. Years ago, a weight-loss client complained that he was eating at night to deal with problems from work he was bringing home with him. “You should find something to distract you,” I told him, listing the obvious contenders.

Nothing seemed to appeal to him. Throwing up my hands in frustration I said, “Well, what about learning to play the bagpipes? That will keep you from eating.”

“What a good idea,” he said. “I have bagpipes in my closet. I haven’t played them in years. I am going to l start playing them tonight.”

I really hope he had soundproof walls.

Moods for Overeating: Good, Bad and Bored

“I am in the mood for  . . .(fill in the blank.)“

How many times have we said this to ourselves or others as we plan lunch or dinner? (Very few people are in the mood for anything except more sleep in the morning.) Sometimes the “mood” for a particular type of ethnic cooking or a prime piece of beef is heightened because the meal is celebratory, or a respite between bouts of unrelenting work or home meal preparation.  But this type of mood-influenced eating rarely lasts beyond a meal or two, and rarely leads to sustained overeating and weight gain. Too many calories may be consumed at a dinner celebrating the completion of a difficult project or an anniversary, but this type of eating rarely results in continued excessive calorie intake.

Not so the type of eating generated by moods we would rather not have. Boredom, and its frequent companion loneliness, may lead to an overly important focus on what to eat as a distraction from a long weekend or evenings alone with little to do. Rainy vacation days with few places to go inside to escape the dreary weather often brings tourists into restaurants for meals for which they may not even be hungry. It is something to do.  Long distance flights generate an appetite for foods that if served on the ground would be rejected immediately. Yet flyers that are not hungry will eat them because, again, it is something to do.

Bad moods are different. Anxiety, depression, premenstrual syndrome, and posttraumatic stress disorder are among negative or dysphoric moods that can provoke overeating, sometimes for days every month (PMS) or years (like PTSD when undiagnosed or untreated). Anxiety seems to trigger the excessive eating of binge eating disorder.  (“Emotional eating, alexithymia and binge-eating disorder in obese women,” Pinaquy, S., Chabrol, H., Louvet, J., Barbe, P., Obes, Re., 2003 11:195-201.)  But anxiety may also cause chronic overeating without the dramatic bouts of excessive food intake seen in binge disorder. In that case, the overeating may be enough to hinder successful weight loss and /or cause small but continuous weight gain. (“The association between obesity and anxiety disorders in the population: a systematic review and meta-analysis,” Gariepy, G., Nitka, D., and Schmitz, N., International J of Obesity 21;2010 34: 407-419).

Sometimes the obesity, which results from “bad mood” overeating, does not appear until years after the mood disorder appears. Researchers who examine the results of longitudinal health surveys have identified participants who have mood disorders at a young age and then become obese many years later. Data from the Nurses’ Health Study that began in l989 was used to see whether women who were diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder during the early years of the survey were more likely to be obese in later years than women without this disorder.  They found that having PTSD was a risk factor for obesity; women with this disorder gained more weight than women who experienced trauma but not PTSD and much more than women with neither.  (“The weight of traumatic stress: a prospective study of posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms and weight status in women,” Kubzansky, L., Bordelois, P., Jun, H., Roberrts, A., et al, AMA Psychiatry 2014; 71: 44-51.)

Depression is also a predictor of obesity and, like PTSD, the obesity may not appear for years after the depressive episodes.  Several research groups have used health surveys following male and female participants over many years to look at the weight status of people who were clinically depressed when they entered the study as older adolescents or young adults.  A significant number of them became obese a few or several years after they no longer were depressed. (“Trajectories of Change in Obesity and Symptoms of Depression: The CARDIA study,” Needham, B., Epel, E., Adler, N., Kiefe, C., Am J Public Health 2010; 100: 1040-106. “Overweight, Obesity, and Depression,” Luppino, F., deWit, L., Bouvy, P., et al, Arch Gen Psychiatry 2010; 67: 220-229.) Because the obesity appeared much later than the depression, the weight gain is probably not due to treatment with antidepressants although the studies did not look at this specifically.

 

We know that obesity and emotional overeating are strongly linked; certainly eating in response to anxiety and stress is evidence of this. Sometimes an immediate response to a stress is to grab something to eat. A friend who was renovating an old house told me that the first thing she did after she found that the closets were too narrow to accept a normal-size hanger (after the renovation) was to go to a convenience store and buy candy.  But what explains the development of obesity years after women develop PTSD or among depressed individuals years after the depression is gone?

The problem with looking at survey data as opposed to being able to talk to the people who provided the data is that these questions can’t be answered.  Were levels of physical activity low because of stress-associated fatigue? Did the people who were depressed and then years later became obese suffer in the years in between from chronic “blue mood”? Might they too have been too tired to exercise?  Was food a solution for their moods?  Did they eat to feel better, heedless of the calories they were consuming? Did they eat what they wanted because they had had enough deprivation in their lives and did not want to add the deprivation of a diet to everything else?

More research is needed to know the answers. But what we do know is that when people overeat, the reasons are as likely to be due to their mood as to what is tempting them.