Intermittent Fasting: Week 1 Update and New Outlook

I promised this update on Sunday, and here it is, Tuesday, and I’m just now sitting down to write it. Apparently I still have a lot to learn about keeping my word. But mostly I think I was ashamed to write this, because here’s the painful truth: I fell flat on my face more than once in the last week.

For the first day or so, everything was fine. I felt pretty hungry in the morning, but I’m tough, I could handle it. I thought if I could just make it through the first few days, maybe a couple of weeks, I’d adjust and it would become easier. Unfortunately, we never got to find out. The hunger became more and more intense, especially at night, for some reason. I’m having trouble remembering which, but on either Tuesday or Wednesday night of this last week, I was almost out of my mind with desire for food. I just wanted to gobble everything in sight.

Let me tell you, this was kind of scary for me. This is my binge mode. This is what I used to do almost every day, and was a large part of how I became obese. I felt like I was losing my grip. I didn’t completely let myself go (I ended up eating at maintenance calories or slightly above, instead of in the deficit I was aiming for), but I was pretty surprised and disoriented by the experience.

The next day I decided I would just pick myself back up and start again. No big deal. It was just one day. The show must go on. And things were fine for a day or so, but on Friday, the same thing happened again. Crazy nighttime urges to eat. And again, I gave in, albeit moderately. I felt guilty for doing so, and was reminded of all the times I have given in before, losing control completely. I felt suddenly vulnerable, no longer the master of myself, prone to being swept along by whatever urges come my way. And I realized I couldn’t do this right now. I’m not strong enough.

So Friday night was the end of my “30-day” IF trial. I wish I could say I was a super-disciplined, unassailable fortress of will, but I’m not. I’m a frail, fearful human being. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about why this happened, about where my mind was when I started this experiment, about my mental and physical health and what this whole project of weight loss, physique development and health is really about.

And I realized a lot of it is about how much I hated being obese. How I allowed it to limit me, scare me, shame me, hurt me, and nearly kill me. It’s about how much I despised my body and how desperately I wanted it to change. And how all of this grew into an unhealthy obsessive relationship with diet and exercise. There’s a constant push in me towards perfection, many times with a myopic disregard for the long-term health consequences for either my psyche or my body.

So I say all of that to say this. I’m taking a step back. I’m taking several large, deliberate steps back toward self-compassion. I’m lightening up on myself. No more calorie deficits for a while. I’ve even stopped counting calories. I want to love my body and treat it with the respect it deserves. Trying to force my body to change by sheer will and effort reaches a point where it is counter-productive. For me, having been in a caloric deficit for the better part of a year and a half, that point has been reached. It’s time for love and acceptance now. It’s time for rest and recuperation. It’s time to celebrate life and the progress I’ve made. It’s time to de-stress and live a little. It’s time to sigh a deep, long sigh of relief from the overwhelming stress I have created.

And what a sweet relief it is.

Intermittent Fasting: Day 1

This morning I was up at six and quickly out the door to hit the gym before work. Mondays are my back and shoulder days, featuring chin-ups, shoulder press, rows and lateral raises. I switched from evening to morning workouts recently, thinking it would be better for my social life. It has given me my evenings back, so in that way it has worked out well. However, it is sometimes challenging to wake up and go straight to heavy lifting. Today, as usual, I worked out fasted. Sometimes I’ll have a small pre-workout snack, trying to get in some carbs and protein, but I’m not sure it makes that much difference, and obviously today I was preparing to fast until noon.

My workout was decent, but I wasn’t able to bring quite the intensity I wanted to. I’ve seen coffee or caffeine pills recommended to help with fasted morning workouts, but I have abstained from caffeine for maybe a year or two now, and I haven’t yet decided if I want to risk re-introducing it or not. So I guess maybe I’m at a bit of a disadvantage compared to some intermittent fasters. Most of them seem to use the coffee to get through the morning. All I had was water.

I felt pretty good most of the morning. There was definitely a substantial amount of rumbling in my stomach, bringing a feeling of mild discomfort, but no big deal. The first four hours I really didn’t miss food much. I was focused on trying to get something accomplished at work. But the last couple of hours were a bit harder. I kept my eye on the clock, biding my time until I could chow down on some Chipotle. I did feel quite focused and productive, and not spending time thinking about food (because I knew I wasn’t getting any) was actually kind of a relief in a way.

Previously in the mornings, I would allow myself anywhere from 300-700 calories worth of breakfast. I would try to minimize it, knowing that anything I ate now meant taking away from later in the day, but oftentimes I found it hard to resist the call of food. With the idea that I wasn’t going to eat until noon this morning, I actually almost found it easier to resist. Having a rule that says “no eating until noon” freed up my mental resources to focus on making the most of my morning without food. No using food to make a dull morning a little more lively, no distracting myself with it, no worrying about how much I’m going to eat, what I’m going to eat, etc.

Along with the feeling of focus came a slight headache and the sense that maybe my body wasn’t getting all the energy it was used to. All in all, though, it was a good morning, and by the time I actually did get to eat my first meal, I was more than ready for it. I broke my fast with a bowl from Chipotle, which came out to just over 800 calories. I ordered double chicken, as usual, so the meal had a high protein content, and I really didn’t feel hungry until it was almost time to go home, around five.

It was almost like I was playing a game to see how long I could go without eating, and to go without snacking in the afternoon, knowing that as I racked up points, I was going to get to spend them all on a glorious feast. And that’s exactly what I did. For dinner, I had 0.7 lb. of chicken breast, about 350g of zucchini, and over 700g of Russet potatoes, about 1,300 calories all told. That meal kinda made it all seem worth it. And the amazing thing was, after all that food, I still had over 400 calories left to spend before the night was over.

And spend I did. I scooped myself out a half pint of Talenti Double Dark Chocolate gelato. Boy was that ever delicious. Full fat, full sugar, full goodness. I ended the day with 15 calories to spare, feeling pretty stuffed, to be honest. It has been almost two hours since the gelato now, and I still feel completely satisfied.

gelato

So all in all, I’m calling this first day a smashing success. If I can adapt to this way of eating, and continue to enjoy it, this really could make dieting much more manageable. It can be hard to feel satisfied with several small meals scattered throughout the day, but when you get to feast in the evening, it starts to feel less like a diet and more like fun. Stay tuned for my week one update, coming on Sunday.

30-Day Trial: Intermittent Fasting

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In my recent Nutrition post I mentioned LeanGains and Intermittent Fasting (IF). For some time now I’ve been noticing people all over the fitness industry talking about how IF has helped them lean down with more ease than traditional three square meals (or more) a day approaches. As I said in my post, I’ve adopted an IF-inspired approach where I simply try to push my first meal as late into the day as I can, consuming the bulk of my calories in the evening.

For a long time, this seemed to work well for me. Sure, eating in a calorie deficit always comes with its challenges, but I was able to keep my hunger in check, no sweat. Recently, however, I have been having more trouble. I find myself feeling hungrier and less satisfied with my meals, large though they may be. I’ve been finding it very tempting to consume a good deal of calories early in the day, leaving me with too little cushion in the evening, especially if a night out is involved.

I think this increased difficulty with maintaining a calorie deficit is likely due to two factors: 1) I’ve been dieting off and on (mostly on) now for more than a year, leaving me both physiologically and psychologically depleted, and 2) I am getting pretty lean, and thus more sensitive to deficits in terms of hunger, making it more challenging to keep losing fat.

Given my new situation, I’ve decided a new tactic is called for. I’m going to try IF for 30 days to see if I can adapt to it and if it has the benefits for me that it seems to have for almost everyone else. Men, especially, seem to have success with it. Some women do too, but among the guys it seems almost universally loved, especially for purposes of leaning down to low body fat levels.

Some of the benefits I have heard about and hope to experience are:

  • Increased alertness and morning productivity
  • Little to no hunger in the morning after an adjustment period
  • The ability to eat larger, more satisfying meals
  • Positive hormonal shifts promoting fat loss and muscle retention
  • More enjoyable dieting due to all of the above

I will start this 30-day challenge tomorrow morning. I normally rise at six, so I will be eating my first meal around noon. For this experiment, the goal will be to eat the first meal of the day anywhere from four to seven hours after rising, trying to hit six hours if it feels comfortable.

If Intermittent Fasting works as well for me as it has worked for so many others, this could be an extremely helpful tool to have in my toolbox as I continue working on my long-term fitness goals. Doing this challenge also gives me an opportunity to exercise some self-discipline, to do something difficult but potentially very rewarding, to overcome the hurdles faced in any new endeavor, and to reap the benefits of having done so.

Tomorrow I will talk a little about what my first day was like, and from there I will post weekly progress updates. I’ve never heard people speak much about what it’s like to go through the adjustment process and start IF regularly, so maybe by sharing my experiences I can help someone else make the transition. Or not. We’ll have to see what tomorrow holds.

How I Lost 130 Pounds and Counting: Training

Nutrition and training are the keys to fat loss, no matter if you need to lose 5 lbs. or 200. The exercise I started with and the one I still enjoy and partake in more than any other is simply walking.

I was several months into what I called my hardcore period in the last post before I had enough free mental energy to switch my focus from nutrition to starting an exercise program. When you’re obese, there aren’t a whole lot of reasonable exercise options open to you. Walking is easy on the body, but can be made challenging and intense. On my walks I always made an effort to be quite brisk. I used an app on my phone called Walkmeter to monitor my pace, calories burned, and distance. I quickly settled into a pattern of trying to burn about 500 calories per session, the equivalent of about 3 miles of brisk walking for me (obviously for a smaller person less calories would be burned).

As I got started, I was walking maybe every other day. It took me a while to ramp up to that, or rather, to become that consistent, but after starting in May, by October I was burning 1,500 to 2,000 calories a week, just from walking. This is a big help because although when you have a lot of weight to lose, it comes off fast in the beginning, over time things slow down and you have to start adding in activity or reducing calories to lose at the same pace you originally were. So by exercising, I was able to keep shedding fat, even though day by day my energy needs were slightly decreasing as I lost weight.

When walking, I would sometimes try to run briefly, to test my ability to even do so. In the beginning, I could barely run for one minute. But as I lost weight, it got easier. By the time January of 2014 rolled around, I had started a 5k training program, again using Walkmeter. Signing up for a 5k race is a great way to set a goal and help motivate yourself to get fit. The program I used to prepare for my race was the 10-week training program built into Walkmeter, and it starts off with running intervals. So you walk a minute, run a minute, walk three minutes, run two minutes, etc. By the end of the program you’re all set to run 5k’s as often as you want.

Something I haven’t mentioned so far is the role of resistance training in my program. Early on in this journey I was very influenced by a book called The Happy Body. In that book, Jerzy and Aniela, two competitive Olympic weightlifters who happen to be married, teach that building and maintaining strength and flexibility are key to aging well and having a lean, fit and yes, happy, body. I realized I didn’t want to go into old age (or even my 30s, hah), when bone density and muscle mass tend to decrease, without fighting against those forces, without having built a great physical platform from which to move. I have seen so many people’s bodies crumble when they reach their 60s, 70s and 80s. They become bent over, hunched, have trouble even walking, become physically inactive and just generally allow themselves to be overcome by gravity. I am determined not to allow that to happen to me, and for the most part I think it’s entirely preventable. Just as most Americans are overweight or obese, an entirely preventable condition, most Americans lose their mobility and strength through disuse.

Resistance training can also be a powerful ally for those who are trying to lose body fat, since one of the problems with running a calorie deficit is that while you do lose fat, you also lose Lean Body Mass (LBM) at the same time. You want to be losing as much fat as you can while losing a little muscle as you can. Resistance training can help you actually build strength while losing fat. With severe calorie deficit and no resistance training, you can wind up losing all the weight, but becoming skinny and weak in the process.

Looking back, I wish I had been seriously hitting the weights way back at the beginning of this weight loss process. If I had, I would have made so much more progress by now. Instead, I think I got weaker and I know from body fat percentage tests I had done that I actually lost muscle at certain points in my dieting. Trying to lose weight too fast (another mistake I made) can also cause an unnecessary loss in strength and muscle mass.

I’ve learned my lesson now, and I am committed to losing the last 10-20 lbs. (or whatever it ends up being, I’m not worried about numbers on the scale, only how I look in the mirror) slowly and without any decrease in strength. To that end, I am following the Warrior Shredding program from Greg O’Gallagher at Kinobody.com, which is a strength-focused program that focuses on doing just a few key movements with greater and greater resistance to take your physique to the next level. So far I’m extremely happy with it, and would highly recommend it to anyone else trying to get lean. If you’re more interested in building muscle, Greg also has a Greek God Muscle Building program, which I haven’t delved into yet, but plan on using in the future after stabilizing my weight.

There’s a lot more I could say about the mindset, nutrition and exercise that got me from 330+ lbs. to 201 lbs. as of this morning, and I’m sure I will be writing more about all this in future. For now, I hope sharing my story was helpful to someone out there, and if you have any questions or suggestions for topics to write about, I’d love to hear them.

How I Lost 130 Pounds and Counting: Nutrition

In September of 2012 I weighed over 330 pounds. I even have the evidence to prove it. September was when I bought my Fitbit Aria Wi-Fi scale, which logs my weight each time I step onto it. See?

weight change graph

What this graph doesn’t show you is that days before that first measurement was taken, I had stepped on my old scale with a 330 lb. maximum capacity and watched it error out between my toes. That was a defining moment. When you’re so heavy you break the scale, you know there’s a problem. So I ordered the Aria to find out my actual weight, and to help me track my progress as I made an effort to get myself out of a real pickle.

Obesity was about the worst thing that ever happened to me. And yes, at this weight, I was clinically, even morbidly, obese, with a BMI over 40. I was depressed, had social anxiety, felt fatigued all the time, withdrew from friends and activities, and was just generally miserable. When I started this journey, there were a lot of things wrong in my life, a lot of gaps between the reality I wanted and the reality I had. But I knew that more than anything, the biggest problem was that I was flushing my health down the drain with every brownie bite, pizza and cheeseburger.

So I became strategic. I focused all my resources on this one problem. And I got help. I had been seeing a psychotherapist to help me sort through the depressed fog state I had been in for years, and I found a Registered Dietician to help me figure out how to eat. I had spent so many hours reading about all kinds of strict diets, but what ended up working for me were a few simple modifications to the way I’ve always eaten. I consider this a key lesson. Extreme changes are simply too difficult to stick with, and moreover, they’re inefficient when a small change can have a dramatic impact. The thing is, our minds don’t seem to like small changes. We think they’ll be ineffective. They aren’t as inspiring as massive overhauls. But when we have the courage to actually do something small, we can reap rewards that are a lot bigger than we thought.

So what did I actually change in my life? Well, I had a major binging problem. I was completely out of touch with what it meant to be hungry. I would come home from work and stuff myself with chocolate pie and Chick-fil-A sandwiches until I could barely move, but I knew from previous experience, science and common sense that losing weight is really about energy balance: how much you take in vs. how much you use. I knew I had to find a way to reduce my intake.

Somewhere along the way I settled on the idea that 2,000 calories a day was a good round number I should shoot for to lose weight. There are various online calculators for this sort of thing, using different equations and activity factors to determine your maintenance calorie level. Those are great tools to use, and I have had need of them many times to recalibrate things as I lost pounds.

I knew if I was going to get serious about losing weight I’d have to know how much I was taking in, so I learned to count calories. This is an essential skill, to my mind. I have been counting calories almost every day (I didn’t on my two-week vacation to Europe) since May of 2013 (yes, it took me from September of 2012 until May of 2013 to get any real traction on all this). Coincidentally (heh) May was when I first started seeing a nutritionist and it was also around the time I first discovered Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and the idea of willingness.

My nutritionist seemed to be OK with the 2,000 calories per day plan, since I had been following it a couple of weeks and it seemed to be working for me. We calculated I should be losing two or so lbs. a week on this program, and since I had so much to lose, that kinda made sense. But I had been following the program eating the same kinds of foods I had always eaten, including quarter pounders and popcorn shrimp. I was just tracking the calories from those foods and making sure I didn’t go over. The problem with this was that it becomes very difficult to stick to long-term, not to mention the fact that it’s not very nutritious. When you’re eating in a calorie deficit, you want to stick to whole, minimally processed, nutrient dense foods as much as possible. That way you’ll feel fuller and meet your vitamin and mineral needs.

So once my nutritionist got me on a program containing more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean meats, I was on the way to success. I would also allow myself a small treat each day. I chose 100-calorie packs of frozen dark chocolate covered banana bites. When I let them thaw out a little, they were delicious and a satisfyingly sweet ending to my day. I think it’s important to work this stuff in, otherwise things just get too restrictive and you will run off the rails.

It’s not easy eating in such a huge calorie deficit. I was hungry a good bit of the time. What I think allowed me to make it through that hunger and not go off the program was reminding myself of why I was doing this in the first place (to be healthy, to not die at 30, to live free again, to thrive) and willingly accepting that in any moment I might feel physical or emotional discomfort as I went through this process. Whenever I had thoughts like “I’m hungry” I would say to myself “Look, there’s one way out of this mess, and that’s through this uncomfortable place. I’m OK with that. It’s only hunger. Hunger can’t hurt me. What can hurt me is a lifetime where I only do the comfortable thing. That is a living hell.”

So I had an open mindset towards the discomfort. I accepted it as part of the journey. I also tried to do anything I could to make things easier on myself. As I said, eating nutrient-dense foods made a big difference in my ability to stick to the program. Another thing that helped was strategically spreading my calories throughout the day. This may be an individual thing, but I found that eating a small breakfast, a medium size lunch, and a large dinner was the best way to ensure that I could handle any hunger and that I didn’t go to bed feeling deprived. I still use this strategy today as I work on leaning down even more. I almost make it a game to see how late in the day I can go without eating much. If I can hold off on breakfast, I do. If I can eat a smaller lunch, I will. Forego the afternoon snack? Sure. But all that waiting is in service of feasting on a massive supper, with some kind of sweet treat at the end.

This approach is actually inspired by Intermittent Fasting (IF), particularly the LeanGains style. There are many different approaches to IF, but all of them involve some period of fasting followed by a period of eating. Sometimes it’s 16 hours of fasting and 8 hours during which you eat, sometimes a full 24 hours of fasting, etc. I haven’t used these approaches myself (although I am considering trying), but from what other people say about them, they can be very helpful when in a calorie deficit.

One last thing about nutrition, calorie counting and eating in a deficit. This stuff is hard to do unless you’re preparing your own food. To count calories, I weigh and measure everything. I have a digital food scale and use it multiple times per day. You definitely can go out to eat and still keep to your program, it’s just not as easy. And that’s why for the 10 months when I was dieting hardcore (and by dieting I simply mean being in a calorie deficit), I ate out very little. Mostly I cooked my own food at home, and when I did go out, it was usually to Chipotle or Panera or some restaurant that has their nutrition information available online. When you don’t have nutrition info, you just do your best to estimate, and add in a little padding, assuming your estimate is low.

This weight loss project started in September of 2012 and is still ongoing. These days I’m around 200 lbs., feel fantastic, am so much more confident socially and have the mental and emotional strength that comes from overcoming an enormous obstacle like obesity. This fight is totally winnable. It just takes dedication, focus, being practical and solving the small problems that come up, and most of all, willingness to accept that there will be uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that arise. Whenever we do something important in life, our mind is there trying to be helpful, trying to scare us into homeostasis. The solution is to let it chatter on while we go about the business of being awesome.

I hope maybe some of this has been helpful for anyone out there struggling with their health and fitness. In my next post, I will talk about the exercise side of the game: what’s effective, what’s too much, and how not to run yourself into the ground. Stay tuned.

Keeping Your Word

For most of my life, I was an undisciplined wreck. I guess there was a time in my pre- and early teen years when I got up at the same time each morning, made my bed and tidied my room, but probably only because Mom made me. The last couple of years of high school were a mess. College was a complete train wreck up until at least halfway through my junior year.

I remember so many days when I had failed to read the assignment or do my homework. I would show up to class knowing I would flunk the test or quiz (“That thou doest, do quickly.”), then I would walk back to my dorm room wanting to cry. Many days, I did. There was an incredible sense of depression, self-hatred, failure and doom upon my life. I was avoiding my problems with all the energy I could muster, just hoping somehow by some miracle things would work out and the pain would finally stop.

It didn’t. The bleeding only continued until, three years after college graduation, I reached an all-time low. I was a quivering bundle of anxiety, self-loathing, shame and depression. I had no friends, weighed in at an obese 335 lbs., and was going straight to a hell of my own making.

Yet here I am to tell the tale. Having struggled so long to overcome the tremendous obstacles I placed in my own way, I have reached a point where I have my self-respect back. I’ve lost 130+ lbs., overcome my depression and started working towards a better future. I’ve let go of my past shame and frustration. Now I know it doesn’t have to rule my life. The door to my cage is unlocked. I’m free to go.

There are many important lessons I’ve learned over the last few years, but one of the most important to my sense of self-respect is the idea of keeping my word, especially to myself. You see, back in college when I was failing classes (some more than once), I would make little promises to myself. “I’ll do the reading tonight after dinner.” “Tomorrow, I’ll make a homework plan for the semester.” “I’ll get up early and study for my Accounting quiz, but tonight I’m going to play Super Mario Kart.”

With every small self-slight, every commitment broken, I would become more hopeless, more avoidant. I may not have even been aware of how my behavior was impacting me, but I hated myself for not being the kind of person I could depend on. If you can’t trust yourself, if you don’t respect yourself, you’re going to remain in a constant state of inner conflict.

With my whole life in shambles, I felt utterly overwhelmed, but I had to start somewhere. At the center of all my problems, I thought, was my issue with binging and obesity. If I could just start to get a grip on that one thing, I could regain some sense of control. I felt as if there were a wild man inside me that I just didn’t have the strength to handle. He would come into my house and trash things up, then leave me to pick up the shattered vases and furniture stuffing.

Over and over again, I tried diets (vegan, raw food, South Beach), calorie counting and exercise. I couldn’t seem to make anything stick. I remember vividly doing a three-week stint on a 2,000 calorie diet plan and then at the end of that third week, binging and falling completely off the wagon. When I talked to my dad about my failure the next day, I was aggressive and combative. The disappointment, frustration, fear and pain that come with a lack of control over your own behavior can be devastating.

When you’re trying to achieve any major goal, there are always practical hurdles to be overcome. For me, there was a need to find a diet and exercise program that allowed me some flexibility in what I ate, that wasn’t too restrictive, and that I could actually follow. It took me a while to find something that clicked, and seeking the help of a Registered Dietician helped tremendously. But there was something else that I think really made the difference to my long-term success.

It wasn’t until I discovered Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, pronounced as the word, not spelled out) through the self-help workbook Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life that things really clicked for me. There were a lot of aha! moments reading the book, but the concepts that were most helpful to me were acceptance and willingness.

Acceptance is about seeing your emotions and thoughts for what they are, fleeting and changeable states that are important to pay attention to, but that can be helpful or unhelpful in the service of pursuing what really matters. Accepting our thoughts and feelings as they are instead of trying to change them or avoid them can free us to take positive action.

Willingness is fully accepting the thoughts and feelings that come your way when you move in the direction of something you value. Willingness says yes, I realize that some negative stuff will likely come up when I try to make this change. I may feel frustrated, anxious, feel physical pain, etc. I realize that all this may happen to me and I am still willing to take this action. I fully accept whatever presents itself as a result of taking this step, no matter what it is. And why? Because this step is valuable to me. Taking this step aligns with my values, those principles on which I freely choose to base my life choices. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and look back on it regretting having not followed this value. I am surrendering myself, I am embracing this path, good, bad and ugly.

When I became fully willing to engage with diet and exercise, valuing them, pursuing them no matter how I felt or what negative thoughts turned up, I had success. Before I would let thoughts like “I don’t feel like taking a walk today” or “I’m hungry” stop me from taking action towards my goals. With an accepting, willing mindset, I would say no, I don’t feel like taking a walk today, but I’m not doing this because it feels good in the moment, I’m doing this because this is a valued life direction. Following this direction will lead to a richer life, while not following it will keep me stuck and in pain. A lot more pain than I am about to experience by taking a walk anyway.

So willingness accepts that there may be pain involved in an action, but it says hey, I’m OK with that. I’m not going to die. This may be uncomfortable, but it’s OK to feel uncomfortable. Feeling uncomfortable is part of being human. The way I see it, life comes with a lot of pain. There are no two ways around it. The only important question is whether we choose to avoid the pain of the moment, of taking action towards our values, and reap the consequences of long-term pain and the devitalization of our lives, or we choose to follow our values, accepting the short-term pain and reaping the long-term rewards of a rich, vital life.

Willingness and acceptance allowed me to start keeping my word to myself again. I began to regain control, seeing that even if I didn’t feel like doing something, if it was a valued activity, I could still engage in that. And what happened as I did so is that the activities actually became more and more pleasant to engage in. They become linked with your values in an inextricable way so that even though they may be hard in some sense, they are so richly rewarding that the difficulty itself becomes part of the pleasure of the experience.

If you’re struggling with keeping your word to yourself in some aspect of your life (and really, aren’t we all?) I encourage you to try to use these concepts. Maybe even get yourself a copy of the ACT book I mentioned. It could open the door to new ways of thinking, more workable attitudes and ways of dealing with troubling thoughts and emotions. And remember to keep cultivating willingness for the journey.

Thriving in the Funk

So you’re ambling through life, minding your own business. It’s summertime, and the livin’ is easy. Daddy’s rich, Ma’s good lookin’, and you just saved 10% on your car insurance. But then one afternoon you’re at work. You glance up at the clock. Three more hours until you get to go home. You feel tired, annoyed, and gloomy. Frustrated and upset for what feels like no good reason. Or maybe more reasons than you can handle. A cloud of anxiety and depression has been creeping up on your for days, even weeks without your notice. And now you find yourself caught out in the storm.

This place you have landed is what I call the funk, that twilight zone where negative thoughts and swirling emotions threaten to overtake you. Things that used to feel important now lack interest. A job you were appreciative of last month becomes a living hell. You start to feel angry towards those closest to you. It may be summertime, but all you’re conscious of is the stifling heat.

The funny thing is, your circumstances have hardly changed at all. What has changed is the lens through which you view them, your mind’s eye. The funk is a dangerous and vulnerable place to find yourself. In the funk, all is not what it appears. Things are distorted and strange, twisted beyond recognition.

When we wake up in the funk, we might start asking why? What is causing this? Why did I feel fine and now suddenly I don’t? The answers to that are varied and complex. If your moods have been mostly cheerful but are filled with anxiety now, it’s likely some new stressor has been affecting your life. Maybe you haven’t been getting enough sleep, or a shift in your circumstances is surfacing fear and uncertainty. It could be a conversation with a friend has been bugging you, or a relationship has taken a turn for the worse.

Any number of physical or psychological changes can put you in the funk. Trying to find a reason for the funk can be like trying to find a reason for the number two. At some point, it’s actually counterproductive to keep looking for explanations. And even if you find one, that doesn’t necessarily change your down in the mouth outlook. We all want to find a quick fix, a psychological antibiotic that can stop the funk in its tracks. But fighting your thoughts and feelings just leads to staying stuck in them.

So what can you do? How do you survive the full onslaught of your negative thoughts and emotions, threatening to destroy you? The key is to raise your awareness.

Awareness is the ability to step back out of the storm of your thoughts and feelings and see them for what they are: an endless stream of experiences, some helpful, some not so much. It’s important to realize this stream is not you, or at least, not the only you. You exist outside of these internal experiences. You can watch them fly by. You can buy into them or not.

In the midst of the funk, you might look at yourself in the mirror and have the thought that you hate what you see, no matter how hard you’re working to improve your body, no matter how attractive you felt last week. But that thought is just one of an endless stream of judgments your mind is making all the time. You can accept what your mind says without allowing it to control you, without reifying the thought, giving it a life of its own it doesn’t deserve.

It’s important to be especially compassionate towards yourself in the funk. This is a time when the mind can be incredibly critical, can make you feel as if nothing is working, worth doing, or meaningful. The problem is not that these thoughts are untrue. Maybe they are true. Maybe you are struggling to act consistently with your deepest values and your mind is quick to remind you, to guilt you. But what’s really important is whether or not buying into the thoughts is helpful.

Is it helpful to act on the thought that you look disgusting, for instance, regardless of how it appears to (for the moment) align with reality? If you buy into the thought that you hate your body, you are likely to start mistreating yourself, to stop keeping up your physical appearance, to become socially withdrawn, etc. But whether you are the ugliest person on earth or the most beautiful, if you value your physical well-being and appearance, you can live out that value regardless of what your mind tells you about how you look. You can take the committed actions in the present moment to move in the direction of the things you most value.

The real test of the funk is how well we are able to defuse from unhelpful thoughts and feelings, recognizing them not as truths, but looking at them critically with an eye to helpfulness. The things we valued last week are likely the same things we value this week. Just because the mind is chattering away with negative this and doom that doesn’t mean we need to act any differently. At all times (and especially in this present moment) we need to bring our values back to the forefront of our minds so we can take committed action in pursuit of the things we most care about. Who do I want to be in this situation? Is this what I want to stand for? What is meaningful to me here?

At the end of the day, we either are or are not willing to act on our values, to accept our thoughts and feelings while not taking them as gospel, to take small steps right now towards the stuff that matters. Cultivating the willingness to act in alignment with our deepest desires despite the ceaseless yakking of our minds is what thriving in the funk is all about. In the funk or on top of the world, the path towards a rich and fulfilling life is always pointed out to us by our values. In each moment the path is ours to take, if we are only willing.