Is there such a thing as mind over fat? Yes. You’ve heard the phrase “set your mind to it.” The attitude part of the LEAN program is about using your mind to help you get a lean body. You can’t just think fat away, but there are fascinating ways your mind can affect your body – for better or for worse.
HOW STRESS CAN MAKE YOU FAT
Stress gets in the way of good health. Your body can’t reap all the benefits of nutrition and exercise if it’s overstressed. And stress can get in the way of eating right and getting enough exercise. Stress hormones stimulate the neurotransmitters that increase your cravings for sugar- rich foods, stimulate your appetite, and foster overeating. Chronic, unresolved stress throws off the biochemical equilibrium of your body, making it difficult for your body to feel good and for you to recognize what makes you feel good.
Exercise is not only nature’s smart drug, it’s also nature’s Prozac. By stimulating the release of endorphins, exercise beefs up the body’s own “feel good” hormones. Endorphins are most stimulated by exercise and laughter. And the good-feeling effects of these hormones last about as long as a pill, four to six hours after exercise, and without the unpleasant medical side effects. Therapists have long prescribed exercise to pull people out of the pits of depression. So, exercise not only burns fat, it burns stress, too.
Stressbuster Rule #1: You can’t control situations, but you can control your reactions to them. This is the basis of all successful stress-management programs. In real life you can’t isolate yourself from stress-producing situations. Stress happens. Traffic lights turn red. Children get sick. And sometimes worse things happen. You lose your job, for example. You can, however, control your reaction. The stress may be involuntary, but your reaction, believe it or not, is voluntary. Here’s an example.
Turn an accident into an opportunity. Like most parents, when your teens begin to drive, you have mixed feelings. On the one hand, you’re glad to be out of the carpool scene and feeling like a family chauffeur. On the other hand, you’re worried for the child’s safety. When our son, Peter, first began to drive, he accidentally stepped on the gas instead of the brake while backing out of the garage, erasing one side of the car and damaging one wall of the garage. This was a stressor to me, and I overreacted. I yelled and complained. My worry and my griping about the inconvenience and the cost of repairs elevated my pulse and blood pressure, and certainly didn’t do my body any good. Two years later, our daughter, Hayden, the next addition to the list of family members with keys to the car, did the same thing, but to the other side of the car and a different wall in the garage. But by this time I had learned the importance of practicing that rule-I can’t control situations that have already happened, but I can control my reaction. Besides, I was getting good mileage out of my auto insurance. So, instead of reacting in anger, I told Hayden, “I’m so glad that you didn’t get hurt. Having your first accident in the garage is probably the best place. Now you’ll be more careful. A car is easy to fix, your body isn’t. Of course, you know you’re more important than the car…” I actually felt peaceful, as did Hayden. I realized that the internal turmoil caused by an overreaction to stress would have been costly to my body – and to my daughter.
Stressbuster #2: Focus on solutions, not problems. This is a variation of the above rule. You can’t change the problem by getting yourself all worked up with the usual “what ifs,” but you can look for solutions. This is especially important in family dynamics. When children have problems, your first reaction may be to point out how their own faults created the situation. Soon everyone is feeling negative and hopeless. If you focus instead on solutions (and preventing the problem from happening again), you can pull up everybody’s mood from negative to positive and teach your children a valuable lesson in life: stress happens, but you quickly fix it before it takes its toll on your mind and body. The child says, “Dad, I messed up…” and the parent responds, “”Okay, let’s fix it.” By offering a mature response, wise parents can lower the stress level of an entire family. It’s a good approach to your own problems, too.
Practice what we call in our family the Caribbean attitude (“No problem, mon!”). Our family hobby is sailing and we often charter a boat in the Caribbean for our family vacation. Part of the “fun” of boating is that something usually goes wrong and needs fixing. One day our engine went out and we limped under sail into a marina on a remote island hoping to find a mechanic to fix our engine. I, as the ship’s captain, was beginning to worry that this accident would ruin our whole family vacation, but we were greeted by a friendly mechanic who said, ” “No problem, mon!” Everyone relaxed, me most of all. We enjoyed the time we spent on that island and learned some lessons about Caribbean life while the locals fixed our boat.
Stressbuster #3: Focus on biggies, downplay smallies. Some stressors don’t merit more than a minute of worry. Unfortunately, most of us learn that lesson too late. For our own survival as parents of eight, we’ve had to concentrate on the biggies and forget the smallies in disciplining our children. Otherwise, the constant annoyances (smallies) of childish behaviors would have driven us bananas long ago. For us, biggies are about respect for one another, values, responsibility, and serious threats to life and limb. Smallies are life’s little annoyances that really don’t hurt anyone. Yet, the importance of concentrating on the biggies and letting go of the smallies didn’t really come home to me until my recovery from cancer. The stress of cancer gave me a more mature outlook on life. After my recovery, one day I came into the office and our office manager greeted me with the news of “a serious problem. The computer crashed.” I thought to myself, “That’s a smallie. Cancer is a biggie.” So I responded, “Well, who do we get to fix it?”
Stressbuster #4: Learn to relax. Chronic, unresolved stress basically exhausts your brain’s neurotransmitters so that you don’t feel good and can’t think clearly. Relaxation allows these neurotransmitters to recuperate from the exhaustion created by stress. An important part of the L.E.A.N. program is not only to learn to relax in response to stressful situations using the stressbusters discussed above, but also to set aside a few minutes each day for relaxation.
In the L.E.A.N. program, we focus on five important kinds of relaxation:
- Daily meditation.Morning meditation is a must, an evening meditation is a second must. The importance of daily meditation was summed up by Ghandi, who stated, “Meditation is the key to the morning and the latch of the evening.” The time spent in meditation allows you to become more aware of your thoughts and how your body and mind are supposed to feel. This is called being mindful. You learn to become more sensitive to your internal workings, which makes you more able to make necessary corrections in your course.
- Relaxation exercises. On the surface, it may seem that the terms “exercise” and “relaxation” don’t go together, yet this association is biochemically correct. Working at relaxation and acquiring disciplined, relaxation techniques stimulates your brain to produce calming neurochemicals, such as endorphins, and encourages the body to shut off production of hormones which upset its functioning. Meditation clears the mind, and the body, of internal stressors and allows the helpful neurochemicals to have their say.
- Imagery. Imagery fills your mind with pleasant thoughts, replays of pleasant scenes and thoughts of happy relationships, before negative thoughts, or unpleasant replays, overtake you. Imagery is an effective way to counteract external and internal stressors.
- Music. Listening to music relaxes the mind, and the body, by stimulating those “feel good” thoughts and hormones. This is known as the Mozart effect.
- Relax before you respond. A similar technique to the stressbuster discussed above, this allows you to quickly fill your mind with positive thoughts before negative ones get a foothold.
Stressbuster #5: Focus on what you have, not on what you don’t have. An important lesson in life – and in staying lean – is that you can control what goes on in your mind. This is an asset that is very important to your well-being. What happens to your body, what happens to your finances, and what happens to your relationships, are things that are often beyond your control. But, like the food you put in your body, the thoughts and the scenes that fill your mind are, for the most part, completely within your control. Filling your mind with rich thoughts is often more satisfying than having external wealth, as exemplified by Thoreau, “A man is richest in proportion to the things he can do without.” A positive mental attitude has always been important in stress management. A truly lean person becomes an optimist (“The bottle is half full”) rather than a pessimist (“The bottle is half empty.”) When you focus on what you have rather than on what you don’t have, you’ll enjoy what you have to a greater degree and waste less energy on unfulfilled wishes.
Stressbuster #6: Eat a stress-relieving diet. See Mood Foods.