The Problem With “Problem Drinking”

Over the past year, I’ve periodically planned “dry months,” wherein I stop drinking alcohol. Usually this comes after a period of increased alcohol intake, which triggers a desire to scale it back. The increased alcohol intake is when I’m having one drink a day so regularly that it becomes a default part of my routine.

I openly questioned whether this meant I had a problem with alcohol.

99% of the people I shared this responded with something like, “One drink a day isn’t bad!” or, “Lots of people have a drink every night. It’s no big deal.” I understood these reactions, and partially accepted them as true. But also still felt… uncertain.

Alcohol consumption is a normalized- and often pressured- part of the American culture. Especially, these days, American mom culture. I recently saw an article with a headline including reference to “boozy mom culture,” and was compelled to read it. I’ve found myself so frequently annoyed and bored with all the drinking memes and themes amongst the women in my Facebook feed.

The article cited some concerns about that trend, but also introduced me to more conversations about alcohol use, including lots of analyses of “grey area drinking” or “almost alcoholics.”

Suddenly, my concern over my need to institute “dry months” was validated. I had wrestled with the question of why I would give up alcohol if I didn’t have a “problem,” and something about these articles and conversations triggered a light bulb moment for me.

This needn’t be said by any anyone but yourself, but in case you are questioning your alcohol use or having any concerns, I’ll just go ahead and say it anyway:

You are allowed to stop drinking just because you want to stop.

You are allowed to abstain. Say “no.” Choose not to drink. You are allowed to cut alcohol out of your life just because it disrupts your sleep sometimes, makes your breath smell, gives you puffy eyes, is out of your budget, triggers junk food cravings, or messes up your bowel function. You might feel like it doesn’t quite “agree” with your system. You may feel slightly hazy, but still fully functioning, the day after having a drink or two, and you might just really want to feel energized and clear-headed instead.

It is okay if alcohol is not okay for you.

You don’t have to be dependent on it to give it up. You don’t have to be at the point where you’re missing work, or acting impulsively or yelling at your kids to decide that alcohol doesn’t work in your life.

Alcohol doesn’t necessarily have to be a “problem” for you to choose to give it up.

It is hard to take this stance in our world. Like giving up meat or giving up sugar, giving up alcohol will trigger a lot of reactions in the people around you. The “boozy mom” culture, and other alcohol-steeped references might trigger a lot of doubt in you. It will help if you can identify one or two people who will accept this choice and support you in it. If you have a therapist, bring up this issue so you can get help in maintaining this new boundary you’ve created for your health.

And iff you take this leap, feel free to come back here and post questions or comments for support. I’d love to hear how you’re doing.

Best wishes!

 

 

Six Ways to Bolster Your Daughter’s Body Confidence

Adolescence is a time of impressive growth, both physically and psychologically, and your teen daughter is facing a lot. Her brain continues to develop, and her prefrontal cortex may not be fully formed until age 25. She is tackling challenging interpersonal conflicts- many of which we as adults prefer to avoid- and in that process, learning social skills and social hierarchy. Academic success often becomes the priority of the adults in her life, citing the importance of post-high school planning and building a foundation for the right college to lead to the right job. Interestingly, even academically-oriented girls tend to retreat in the classroom by age 13, and may lose sight of their academic goals in favor of social standing.

Throughout this entire process, she is experiencing vast physical changes, some of which aren’t even observable. In the midst of all this physical change, she is confronted daily with images and messages that suggest her body should be different. Her breasts should be bigger, her tummy flatter, her rear plumper, her lips fuller, her eyes wider, her hair shinier, her feet tinier… the messages are relentless and no one is exempt. The body starts to become social currency, as a simple way for teens to identify who might be higher in the social pecking order. Parents feel baffled and helpless when their beautiful daughter begins to criticize her own appearance or starts to take drastic measures to alter her look.

While the social and media messages provide a barrage of influence, parents have a role in shaping their daughters’ body confidence. The impact of parent-child relationship becomes critical in adolescence, as your daughter seeks a regular oasis from the storm of her life. The following tips can help parents foster body confidence in their teen daughter. Integrate one or two into your routine and stay consistent. Your daughter will thank you (one day).

  1. Stop Talking About Bodies– Adolescent girls are extremely in tune with others’ comments, and are still functioning in adolescent egocentrism, where their perceptions of the world can be greatly skewed to their own biases. If you comment- favorably or unfavorably- on a celebrity’s body, a friend’s weight gain or your own flat butt, she is very likely to take this to heart and internalize the message that her body could potentially be “wrong.” Be very mindful of your own comments and reactions to her body, your own body, and others’ bodies. Practice eliminating these comments, much as you learned to eliminate swear words when she was a toddler.
  2.  Address Media Message and Social Media Use- The images and messages are relentless, and in addition to implying that her body might be “wrong,” social media and mass media also imply that she’s too smart or she’s not smart enough, she’s too opinionated or she doesn’t speak up enough, she is too conventional or she is a freak… Advertisements are made to make people feel they lack something, and social media becomes a peacock’s mating display as her peers (and complete strangers!) attempt to make themselves feel better. Studies show that increased social media use is correlated with increased amounts of depression, though some social media use has positive benefits. A two-fold approach may help. 1) Educate yourself and your daughter on media literacy. Understanding the intention of each post, the motivation behind it, and maintaining a critical eye toward what she is seeing may help temper any kneejerk reactions of self-judgment. 2) A periodic hiatus from social media and mass media can eliminate these messages temporarily and allow your daughter time to be herself without constant judgment. Because so many youth feel like social media is a “lifeline,” it will probably help to get your daughter’s buy-in for this one, and help her set the terms for a periodic break.
  3. Encourage Physical Self Care- Set an expectation in your home- modeled by adults’ behavior- that your family takes care of your bodies and does not punish them. Stock and prepare nutritious foods. Enjoy treats when you have them. Stretch while watching television. Keep bath products on hand for a relaxing soak. Get enough sleep. Your daughter is watching and your cues about body care go a long way in teaching her how to respect and care for her own body.
  4. Get Physical as a Family- Physical activity as a family has so many benefits, including fostering a sense of physical capability, allowing time for open-ended conversation, creating a bonding experience, and demonstrating physical self-care. Find things to do regularly as a family- a walk around the neighborhood, a visit to the trampoline park, a hike, a kayak excursion, a dance class or a bike ride. In addition to the benefits listed above, these sort of physical activities can help your daughter focus on her body’s abilities, which increases body confidence.
  5. Check in with the Coach- Organized sports can be a double-edged sword of body confidence. Many young women feel stronger and capable in sports, and the physical outlet and social connection can enhance her self-esteem. But some sports- and some coaches- can present harmful messages about her body, and it can be hard for parents to know if that’s the case. Ask your daughter, talk with her teammates, and observe some practices to see what sort of messages are being relayed. If you believe that there are body-shaming tactics within the team, plan to talk with the coach or the head of athletics to address it. If it can’t be resolved, it may not be the best place for your daughter.
  6. Reinforce Her Strengths– Overall confidence translates to body confidence. Provide her with plenty of opportunities for success, but allow her to use her own resources to solve problems. Acknowledge her successes and point out ways in which she is growing and learning socially, emotionally, and academically. It also helps to encourage the relationships in her life where there is unconditional love and respect: trusted friends, extended family, and parents’ friends who accept and embrace your daughter will increase her safety net and give her a strong frame of reference for how to treat herself lovingly.

How Is Your Diet Going?

I only ask because, well, you know: Diets don’t work.

It’s not exactly news.

If you’re on a diet right now (“Diet” being defined in this case as an intentional restriction of eating in order to reduce weight), you’ve probably been on a diet before. Many studies have reported that upwards of 80% of dieters regain the weight they lost (or more) within five years, likely caused by decreased metabolism and increased appetite resulting from dieting. Many people then try to lose again. And then they gain. And then lose.

It’s really not fun.

I’ve done my share of dieting and “it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle”-ing. I’m a Lifetime Member of Weight Watchers, which works for me- as an emotional eater- to set parameters around my eating habits and to opt for healthier choices. Weight Watchers has changed a lot since my first go-’round in the ’80s, and incorporates all aspects of health including activity, social life, mindfulness and more. I don’t even consider it a diet. It doesn’t feel restrictive, and no one would even know I follow the plan if I didn’t tell them, because I eat plenty and enjoy all the things I love (pizza and beer, I’m talking to YOU).

But, to be real, it’s still a “diet.” I still think about what I will eat and cautiously plan around “high-point” foods, so that I don’t overeat and gain weight. I’m not having dry tuna and lettuce for lunch, ever. But I’m also not eating foods or quantities based solely on my desires; I definitely track and plan and limit portions. I rationalize this by saying that my body’s cues are haywire; that years of endocrine issues, yo-yo dieting and emotional eating have made it hard for me to truly tune in to what my body needs at a given point. Weight Watchers gives me training wheels.

While this is working for me currently, I am having doubts about the long-term viability of following any “eating plan” or diet. Even the “it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle” approaches.

Do I have to track and plan for the rest of my life?

As a certified Holistic Health Coach and a former eating disorder professional, I am theoretically opposed to diets. Theoretically, I have always believed that diets fuel self-loathing and can be self-injurious in nature. As a women’s issues leader, in theory I believe that diets can be a pervasive form of our culture’s misogyny, body-shaming women into smallness and self-doubt.

Until I gain weight.

And then I just believe that I feel uncomfortable in my own skin and have abandoned my self-care efforts and need to prioritize my health. My endocrinologist recommends my current weight range because the symptoms of my PCOS and hypothyroidism are both exacerbated by excess weight. My health markers- cholesterol, blood pressure, and so on- are all fine at a higher weight, but I want to feel good, too.

Which is fair, right? We want to take care of ourselves and we want to feel comfortable in our bodies. We want ease of movement, we want to keep up with the kids, we want to freely try new activities and feel energetic. We want to be healthy!

Here’s the rub:

Research now suggests that being overweight doesn’t have the negative health consequences we once thought it did, but that perhaps some lifestyle habits that are inversely correlated with obesity may describe the link.

More and more research is finding that weight, in and of itself, is not correlated with risk of premature mortality. Weight, in and of itself, may not cause the health concerns we all fear. When comparing groups of normal weight, overweight, and obese people, these findings from Methson, King and Everett, report that those who incorporated four healthy lifestyle habits consistently (eating fruits and vegetables, exercising three times per week, not smoking and moderate consumption of alcohol), had the same risk of death regardless of weight. In each weight group, those who incorporated all four healthy habits had lower risk of death than normal weight people who practiced three of those healthy habits! In other words, an obese individual practicing all 4 healthy habits has a lower risk of death than a normal weight person who practices 3.

Reducing risk of premature death sounds good and all, but in and of itself is not exactly a motivator to “ditch the diet.”

This might be, though:

The attempt at losing weight itself seems to create a neurological backfire that triggers future binges and weight restoration. You may have heard about “starvation mode,” where the body holds onto weight in the face of caloric deprivation. But neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt has synthesized a body of research that indicates that your brain actually begins to counteract weight loss measures from the moment you set the intention to lose weight. This primal mechanism is a function of the hypothalamus, and is a biological imperative to promote survival. Your body is hard-wired to retain weight. What’s more, we each have a “set point” weight range that our brain accepts as viable for survival. Attempts to dip below that set point range will be met with resistance. Metabolism slows down. Appetite rages. Cortisol production spikes.

And when you re-gain the lost weight, you’re inclined to gain beyond your original starting point. If this has been your process for years, your set point range is creeping higher with each gain.

So… what’s a plump person to do?

I have a few thoughts.

  1. Get Real About Your Weight- Is your weight truly a problem? Is it causing physical symptoms or medical concerns? Does it have a regular impact on your social/emotional life? And by this I mean, are you unable to participate in routine activities because of your weight? If your daily life isn’t negatively impacted by extra weight, you might want to reconsider your weight loss goal. Discuss it with your physician and your therapist before making any decisions (author Anne Lamott posts a perennial Facebook message that relays a story of the time she told her therapist she was going to start a diet, to which her therapist replied, “Oh, that’s great, honey. How much are you hoping to gain?” Wise woman).
  2. Take a Look at Your Primary Food– As a student at The Institute for Integrative Nutrition in 2006, I learned about the concept of “Primary Food.”  Primary Food is the non-edible sustenance we need to thrive in life- relationships, spiritual practice, creativity, work, nature, physical activity and so on. By enhancing your primary food, you become more satisfied in life, you increase your body awareness, and you reduce the inclination to eat outside of your body’s natural hunger cues. IIN’s 12 Steps to Better Health depicts the nutrition and non-edible components of holistic health. For those eat out of boredom, stress or other emotional triggers, focusing on improving your primary food can reduce some of those triggers and minimize overeating without dieting.
  3. Focus on the Four Habits– Eat fruits and vegetables daily. Don’t smoke. Exercise 3 times a week. Drink in moderation. If you do, your health markers will improve and your risk of premature death will be lower, regardless of weight.
  4. Practice Mindful EatingAccording to The Center for Mindful Eating, “Mindful Eating is allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food selection and preparation by respecting your own inner wisdom.” Through this process, you will learn to pay attention to your experience of each food in the moment, and become more aware of your body’s reaction, with less interference from your mind’s judgment. That might mean enjoying rice and beans for three meals in a row, and then eating half a steak for breakfast the next day. Experiencing your enjoyment of the food, noticing your hunger and fullness cues, and attending to your body’s reaction to those foods can help you nourish your body in a natural way without rules or judgment. This practice automatically removes that “diet” trigger from your brain, as you eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full and don’t take in any foods that you have an aversion to simply because they are “healthy.” Good news, right? No more dry tuna on lettuce.

 

I can’t possibly even begin to touch on the importance of media literacy and monitoring your reactions to and internalization of the myriad messages and images we get daily that tell us our bodies aren’t right. Perhaps in another post.

If you’ve commenced a New Year’s diet, please consider shifting gears so that you enhance and include the above recommendations rather than restrict and eliminate foods from your life.

There is so much more to discuss here, and I’d enjoy a dialogue in the comments.

Dissenting views welcome; please use respectful language.

 

An Overlooked Symptom of Depression

When thinking of depression, most people conjure images of hopeless tears and sadness. While crying spells and profound sadness can be a symptom of depression, they aren’t always present, and in fact many sufferers experience an absence of intense emotion.  We tend to expect that people suffering from depression will be sad or have a “flat affect,” displaying little emotional fluctuation. So it’s not really a surprise that one potential symptom often goes overlooked:

Irritability.

Commonly acknowledged as a potential symptom of depression in youth, irritability can also manifest in adult depression sufferers (though is not itself a diagnostic criteria), and may confound proper diagnosis.

You growl at the malfunctioning printer.

You snap at your dog for whining.

You stomp out of the store when service isn’t fast enough.

Your default response to any requests from loved ones is blunt or harsh, and you constantly feel “put upon.”

People close to you may comment that you’ve been, “touchy” or “moody,” or you might notice more conflicts with coworkers or neighbors who you previously got along with easily.

There are certainly individuals who maintain this level of irritability as part of their every day personality, but for those who are generally more patient and tolerant, an increase in agitation can signal that depression is setting in.  This irritability, of course, has to present with the symptoms of depression to meet diagnostic criteria.

You may chalk it up to “work stress” or “lots going on,” and that could be the reason. If this level of irritability is a change in your typical response to stress, however, it may warrant exploration. Depression left untreated can be debilitating. There is no need to suffer, though: Most people are quite responsive to treatment for depression, which may involve counseling, medication, lifestyle changes, or a combination. A therapist is a great place to start, and if you don’t have one, consider bringing your concerns to your primary care physician.

Wishing you a healthy 2018,

-Angela

 

SMART with a Twist

Specific

Measurable

Attainable

Realistic Relevant

Time-Bound

 

If you live in the U.S., you’ve likely seen this acronym, used to outline to components of successful goal-setting. Goals that meet the most success are Specific (name the desired outcome in detail), Measurable (quantify the amount, frequency, duration), Attainable (based on the constructs of our world as we know it) and Time-Bound (set to be completed, in whole or in increments, within a certain time frame).

The “R” in SMART generally stands for “Realistic,” but I find that redundant. If it is “attainable,” it is realistic.

I think a successful goal needs to be Relevant- to your values, your personal view of success, and your particular life. In research published by Current Direction in Psychological Science (Locke and Latham, 2006), the authors specifically cite the role of “framing” in successful goal achievement. When a goal is framed as useful and the individual tasked with meeting that goal has a clear idea of the benefits of the goal, achievement rates are significantly higher. Conversely, when individuals strive for a goal primarily based on the consequences of not meeting that goal, they are less likely to achieve the goal.

In other words, the “Why” matters. The Why has to be the primary motivator, and in order for it to be motivating, it has to be something that you value above the things you will inevitably have to sacrifice.

For example, a common New Year’s Resolution is weight loss. An individual who can identify health benefits, social benefits and emotional benefits of losing weight has a Relevant goal. An individual who wants to lose weight, but is already healthy, has a satisfying social life, and is generally content in life, has an arbitrary goal, very likely motivated by external factors not directly tied to his or her direct experience or values. This arbitrary goal is very likely to fail, because it does not have enough meaning.

“Relevant” doesn’t have to mean “reverent.” Fun or frivolous goals can be highly relevant and can have huge payoffs. Personal development is not all serious studies and disciplined behaviors. Our playful side needs to be nurtured, too, but people often have a hard time justifying that or finding the “Why.”

Playfulness in a person facilitates better coping skills, and leisure time can enhance mood (Quian and Yarnal, 2010). Setting a goal such as, “See friends more often,” or, “Have more fun,” still needs all five of the SMART components applied in order to be successful. But if you have an understanding of why that goal is important and useful to you, it becomes relevant enough to prioritize it when other obligations or obstacles inevitably pop up.

This is part of how we can prioritize self-care.

As you review 2017 and take note of the things that weren’t quite working for you, list some new goals and take each one through the SMART acronym. See if you get stuck on the “R,” and if so, take a lot of time to clarify your “why” before setting a goal.

You may find that you still haven’t written that novel because…. it just doesn’t actually matter to you.

Take it off your list. Focus on the things that DO matter. And have a great 2018.

 

What Happened at the Table

Last week I hosted a community roundtable to start a discussion on preventing violence against women. While I’ve worked in women’s issues for most of my career, and violence against women has been a reality of my professional and personal life, all my work has felt insufficient in addressing the real problem. Preparing women to avoid rape or to safely leave a violent relationship… counseling, advocating, housing and coaching victims of rape, domestic violence and other aggressions… These interventions are a mere Band-Aid on this societal blight. It’s a day late and a dollar short (though all are still crucial services).

Last month I attended Cabrini University’s Domestic Violence Symposium, hosted by professor Colleen Lelli, Ed.D. At the end of the event, panelist John Jordan made a direct appeal to the men in attendance (by my estimate, less than 10% of the audience):

“This is not a women’s issue; it is a men’s issue. And I challenge you to be the change. Stand up against this. Come back next year, and bring a male friend. The change has to start with you.”

As I left the symposium, enthusiastically nodding my head, I felt compelled to find out more about why this violence exists, and what (if anything) is being done to prevent it. I planned the roundtable discussion and invited friends, colleagues, coaches, scout leaders, counselors, community members, reporters, and anyone I thought might have an interest in contributing to the conversation. And then I dove into the research on violence prevention initiatives.

I found some things that simultaneously disheartened me and gave me hope.

Both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control have published violence prevention toolkits, which feature evidence-based programs that can help to prevent violence. Some programs are preventative in nature, some are rehabilitative in nature.

I also discovered that the United States Department of Justice has an Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), which I somehow never knew existed. They provide grant funding for programs that work to prevent violence against women.

Per their website,

“The Office on Violence Against Women currently administers 25 grant programs authorized by the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 and subsequent legislation. These programs are designed to develop the nation’s capacity to reduce domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking by strengthening services to victims and holding offenders accountable.”

Almost $13,000,000 has been awarded to programs in Pennsylvania alone. And one of the grant categories is specifically for programs that are engaging boys and men as allies against violence toward women.

So there is some funding for this work. There is research behind this work. There is a public acknowledgment of the importance of having boys and men involved in the driving force.

And yet, the programs seem to exist in silos, these standalone interventions that often don’t even intersect. There is no systematic and integrated approach to reducing this violence across the lifespan and across all demographics.

It is an overwhelming point to be at: we all see the crisis in the #metoo and the nightly news. But we feel like our hands are tied.

So I invited about 300 people to attend the roundtable discussion, many with direct appeals for their presence. I really tried for the men, especially those with roles in education, youth work, coaching, and other leadership positions (not to mention, all were fathers of boys). 5 people arrived. All women.

It’s a starting point.

Our discussion explored the myriad “why”s of violence against women. The causes and contributing factors that we had observed and that research has substantiated. Our list of causes was vast and wide, and included family history of violence, mental health issues, and cultural messages about gender, power and control. We also noted genetic/biological causes, substance abuse, lack of empathy, entitlement/privilege, and role modeling.

We talked about the breadth of services for girls’ and women’s liberation, and the culture shift that says girls can do anything they set their mind to… but there is no comparable shift for boys and men. While boys and men have access to resources and opportunities, they are often very limited in authentic self expression by societal norms and gender expectations.

Our roundtable went by quickly, and we started proposing a few places that prevention efforts might be targeted- schools (at all levels and particularly at preschool and college), bystander education, athletic programs, prison rehabilitation programs, and counseling. All have barriers to implementation. Most exist in some places, to some degree, just not in a sweeping way that will impact the majority.

But again, it’s a starting point.

We concluded the event with a plan to do it again- January, date to be determined- and a commitment to recruit a man or two.

For there to be a significant change in the incidence of violence against women, we are going to need all hands on deck. These changes will have to occur across the lifespan, across demographics, within the legal system, within the education system, within the media, within each family, and be geared toward the victims, the potential victims, the perpetrators and potential perpetrators, and the bystanders or interveners.

This will need awareness-raising and advocacy beyond a hashtag campaign.

Will you join us at the table? And will you invite a man?

Please follow this blog, and enlist any friends or colleagues who want to be part of the change.

The next roundtable date and time will be announced soon. Hope to have you at the table.

 

 

 

 

What’s Not Working

It’s late November, and the “holiday season” sparks an introspective period of reflection for many. The end of the year is a natural time to look back and take inventory, and soon enough people will be sharing their New Year’s resolutions or, “My word of the year for 2018!’

I have a love/hate relationship with New Year’s proclamations. While I think it’s really useful to have a focal point, I rarely think that a list of goals sets one up for true development. Particularly when those goals are set arbitrarily or based on notions of “success.”

What is more useful, in my opinion, is an honest inventory of “what’s not working.” This is a fairly simple way of assessing your life and adjusting for integrity.

It requires brutal honesty.

But it takes just a little time and some soul-searching. I suggest you reserve an hour and break out a journal to spend time with the following questions:

  1. Is your current life- and your current way of being in the world- in alignment with your values and priorities? List examples of the way it IS. List examples of the way it is not.
  2. Are you spending your resources (time, money and energy) on the things and relationships that matter most to you? List examples of the way you are. List examples of the ways you are not.
  3. What can you do less of to minimize that which is not in alignment?
  4. What can you do more of to emphasize that which is in alignment?
  5. Commit to start today.

This exercise recently prompted a few changes in my life.

I deactivated my personal Facebook account- I was spending way too much time and energy on it, with little positive return.

I created a birthday calendar of loved ones’ birthdays, and I sent out a small batch of greeting cards to friends. My friendships are important to me, and I’ve not been actively bolstering them.

These were just a few very small adjustments, but I already feel more myself, and I feel more satisfied with how I’m living.

Take a little time to assess what’s not working. Commit to a few (2-3) simple changes. Report back.

Best wishes!