Can yoga help transform your relationship with food?

I found myself thinking a lot recently about the journey that brought me to my current relationship.  No, not with my significant other, but with food!  I have to admit, in the past, I turned to food for comfort and as a reward.  When people meet me today and I talk about what and how I used to eat, they cannot believe that I once would “super size” a Big Mac meal at McDonald’s or order a large pizza ‘just for me’ and proceed to eat the whole thing in one sitting.  I remember trying to control my food intake by not eating breakfast or lunch and then allowing myself to eat after working a long, stressful day, often seeking traditional comfort foods, such as a box of macaroni and cheese or a bowl of fettuccine alfredo.  I would eat so quickly and so much that I would feel uncomfortably full and disgusted with myself afterwards as I realized I had no self-control, and then finding myself repeating the same pattern the next day.  It wasn’t until I discovered yoga that I was able to change my relationship with food.

So what was it about yoga that helped me transform my view of food from one of comfort to one of simply fuel for the body, like learning is fuel for the mind?  Turning to the research literature for some answers begins to shed some light on what I personally experienced.  It is a critically important subject to explore due to the millions of people who suffer from eating disorders in the United States.  In fact, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), “In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or EDNOS (Wade, Keski-Rahkonen, & Hudson, 2011).  (EDNOS is now recognized as OSFED, other specified feeding or eating disorder, per the DSM-5).”

Recent research is focusing on how someone’s ability to tolerate distress is related to self-destructive behaviors and exploring yoga as a way to increase an individual’s level of distress tolerance to change those behaviors.  What the research suggests is that yoga does support an increase in distress tolerance and subsequent reduction in emotional eating behaviors.  One particular study had women that struggled with, as I did, emotional eating, participate in a yoga practice twice a week for 8 weeks with amazing results.

When I first started taking yoga classes, I found myself on my mat in as many classes as I could attend, sometimes 5-6 times per week.  What I learned from those early classes is that yoga encouraged me to stay present on my mat and simply breathe.  By focusing on my breath as I stretched and challenged my body, I was able to step back from reacting to any dis-ease I might have been experiencing in the moment and simply observe how it moved and changed.  I also learned that it was within my control to move my body and breath in a way that made me feel more comfortable in my own skin.  From those early experiences on my mat, I quickly internalized that simply breathing consciously in moments of distress creates space between a trigger and my resulting behavior, opening up the opportunity for me to ‘respond’ instead of ‘react’, which I began to experience as extremely empowering!

As I became more conscious of how my body felt and learned to pay attention to sensations and feelings that arose on my mat, I learned how to choose between backing off or deepening into a pose based upon the messages my body would send to my mind.  I began to value and honor the wisdom of my body, which allowed me to begin to understand why I developed the ‘reaction’ of emotional eating to self-soothe in times of distress.  I had basically used the normal, naturally adaptive human response of dissociation to tolerate distress, separating my body from my mind and ignoring the body and its innate intelligence.  Once I understood that my eating behaviors were not ‘abnormal’ and, in fact, were quite adaptive, I could then begin to have compassion for myself.

As I created opportunities to pay attention to my body’s messages, my mind-body connection got fired up and rewired.  I began to notice when I felt hungry.  I could then make a more mindful decision of what to eat and how much I ate.  I then began to observe how my body would respond to the foods I ate, guiding me and supporting healthier choices.  My cravings for fat, sugar, salt and carbs shrunk and new cravings for salad and hummus grew.  I no longer skipped breakfast and gave up McDonald’s altogether. I no longer felt the need to deprive my body of fuel, forcing it to run on empty until it ‘deserved’ to be rewarded with food after the mind had accomplished a very long daily ‘to do’ list.  And as my distress tolerance increased and my eating behaviors changed, my body thanked me by releasing the excess weight I gained over the years.

My personal “case study” of how yoga transformed my relationship with food would be considered only anecdotal evidence by the research community and not valid to recommend yoga as an alternative healing modality for eating disorders.  So, it is encouraging to see that research is beginning to emerge to validate my personal experience and the research community beginning to support yoga as an effective way to improve the overall health of individuals that have experienced a significant amount of distress in their lives.  If you are interested in reading the research study mentioned above for more details, click on the link below.

Can talking to animals help heal our hearts?

My family and friends laugh when I have a conversation with my two dogs.  They tell me that they think it’s funny that I speak for them, putting words in their mouths, in response to what I ask them or tell them.  Yes, it may seem funny to others, but I have always known that talking to my animals makes me feel better.  And now we are learning that it not only helps us but also makes them happy too!

When I look into the eyes of my dogs, I feel my heart open and I can quickly forget what I was doing, where I was going, or what time it is!  I find spending time with my animals, talking to them and petting them makes me happy, even calming and soothing no matter what might be going on in that moment.  I know I am not alone in my experience, as I have heard many stories from other people who describe similar responses.  So it is no wonder that so many of us own pets, whether dogs, cats, birds, turtles, fish, snakes, pigs, horses, goats, guinea pigs, rabbits, sheep, hamsters, rats, lizards, ferrets, or other species.

However, the health benefits of pet ownership have only more recently been scientifically researched and the results have its critics.  The good news is that our laws are not waiting for the research to provide the definitive answer and allow for the designation of ‘emotional support animal’ to be viewed as a ‘reasonable accommodation’ under the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988.  But you can’t simply say your pet is an emotional support animal and bring it with you everywhere.  And, now that animals can be designated as emotional support, I have found that many people are confused between the different names given to animals that provide support or service to us.  So what is an emotional support animal, maybe say compared to a service or therapy animal, and what does the current research suggest as to the underlying mechanism to why animals just plain make us humans feel better?

The American Disability Act (ADA) defines what a service animal is and these animals are limited to dogs that are trained to perform specific tasks for someone with either a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.  Some examples of animals that would fall under this definition include a Guide Dog, Psychiatric Service Dog, and Seizure Response Dog as these dogs have been rigorously trained to perform work directly related to an individual’s disability.

Therapy animals also receive extensive training and are usually found in a clinical setting and are integrated into the plan for treatment to improve a person’s cognitive, emotional, physical, and/or social functioning.  Therapy dogs are trained to socialize in various settings, such as hospitals, nursing homes, and schools, and interact with a variety of people, so it is important that their temperament is stable and friendly in these unpredictable environments.

On the other hand, emotional support animals do not fall under the ADA, are not considered service animals, and are not limited to dogs.  Some other names you might hear used to describe emotional support animals include comfort animals or companion animals and these animals do not have any special training.  I believe it is from the comfort, unconditional affection, and connection that are experienced during the human-animal interaction that has led to the recognition of this designation of animals.  In fact, as a therapist, I have had emotional support animals join me in session with clients and I have seen how such a relationship can benefit treatment.

When I think about the role that animals have played in my own life since I was a child, I remember having different pets throughout my life, including dogs, cats, turtles, and fish, and I can think of many fond times that I had with them.  And I also can recall times when my animals felt like the only connection I had.  When I was stressed out because my parents were fighting again or afraid because I was left alone at night, if I could pet my dog or snuggle with my cat, I was able to tolerate my anxiety and fear better.  Just having them close to me brought me comfort, reminding me I wasn’t alone or unloved.

I have also witnessed firsthand the change that can occur in the present moment when my family and friends encounter animals, literally releasing any anger, frustration, and/or sadness they may be experiencing when asked to hold or pet an animal.  It seems like the animal is an emotional magnet, drawing the powerful emotions out of the human and allowing them to dissolve into thin air.  I even had a friend tell me once that the bonding experience between a human and a pet is the same as the bonding experience between humans and their newborn babies, which got me wondering, could this be true?

I finally looked into the research to see what it might have to say about what exactly it is that draws humans into human-animal encounters and if such a connection has the same potential to help heal broken hearts as the human connection.  What I found out is simple yet fascinating, offering much hope to the current fragmented, disconnected state of the world today and it seems my friend might be right!

It seems that human-animal interactions activate the production of oxytocin, which is the human hormone associated with bonding and the increased felt sense of trust, empathy, and loyalty, not only in the human but the animal.  So as we connect with our animals, we get a shot of oxytocin, which then supports our ability to navigate and endure social stressors.  It has been shown previously that oxytocin is released in humans when we make eye contact with each other and now the research is supporting that the same holds true with our animals.  Current research has also shown that petting or any other pleasant tactile interaction with animals causes oxytocin to be released.  And, apparently, we get a shot of oxytocin even if we only interact with an animal one time; however, longer-term relationships seem to produce more potent and long-lasting effects.

So, with this new found external validation of my own internal experience, I now make sure I look deeply into my dogs’ eyes when I talk to or pet them, knowing I am bringing more happiness into all of our lives.  And I have been telling everyone that will listen to me animals do bring emotional support to our lives, so stop and talk with them to get your daily dose of oxytocin in order to bring a smile to your face and in your heart!

So if you too want to encourage others to talk to animals, click on the link below to read what the research on human-animal interaction has to say!

Yoga helps improve mental health at any age!

For my 40th birthday, I ventured to a spa in the Catskills of NY with a dear friend of mine for a long weekend to relax and celebrate this milestone in my life. Little did I know at the time how much this trip would change my life!

I decided to keep an open mind and try every class they offered along with the ‘vegetarian’ food being served while restricting my intake of salt, sugar, and caffeine. There were no TVs or radios in the rooms and it was before ‘smart phones’ so we were pretty cut off from the rest of the world, yet surrounded by so much of Mother Nature calling us to connect with her beauty.

Now as I reflect back, I find myself smiling because it felt so disorienting yet so comforting at the same time. I was at a point in my life where I spent a great deal of time at work, with very little time for me. I was most familiar with putting everyone else’s needs in front of mine, and believed that I could only ‘be done’ when everyone else was taken care of, which reinforced an unconscious belief that my value or worth came from taking care of others. I was exhausted emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually and didn’t even realize it! Little did my brain know how much my body craved to slow down and nurture it, instead of feeding it a constant diet of stress caused by a deep need to please others.

My mind-body connection was turned off until that weekend in NY. After trying the step-aerobics class (and creating a moat around my step from my own sweat), I found my way to my first ever yoga class. Immediately upon settling onto my mat, something shifted inside of me. I don’t necessarily remember the teacher or the poses, but I do remember FEELING and thinking that what I was experiencing seemed vaguely familiar yet foreign at the same time. When I left that class, I felt a sense of peace and somehow a bit lighter than when I walked into it, although it was NOT a power yoga class and I didn’t even break a sweat.

On the drive home from that weekend away, I was determined to find a local yoga class where I could test out if I could replicate the results of that one yoga class. I found a small one-room yoga studio one town over and when I walked in, I was amazed that it felt like ‘home’ and not any house I had ever lived in. The sense of peace and calm was palpable and irresistible. I found myself called back day after day for over two years. My felt experience in that yoga class in NY was not a one-time event!

Although initially I continued to work long hours, my addiction slowly shifted towards spending more time on my mat in those group yoga classes, where no one knew my name and no one expected anything from me. I could simply be in my own inner world while surrounded by others doing the same thing. The first specific learning I remember is that I was breathing incorrectly. I would hold my stomach in on my inhale and let my belly out on my exhale. No wonder my mind and body were in a constant battle! As I learned to synchronize my breath with the movement of my body, I was able to start to notice sensations in my body, be guided by them to avoid any physical pain, and begin to trust the emotional intelligence of my body.

And that was where I came face-to-face with my anxiety. It was in that safe, sacred space in those group yoga classes where I realized how my mind worked very hard to distract me from the wisdom – and pain – that my body held, encouraging me to keep moving in order to avoid the stillness, because it was in the stillness that the underlying fears would rear their ugly heads. And yet, what I discovered was that by inviting those fears to join me on my mat, sitting with them while I breathed deeply, and asking them how they came to be, I was able to gain a new appreciation for how my fears had been serving me. As my awareness and gratitude grew, my fears began to fade. Don’t get me wrong, my fears still exist, along side of a full palette of other powerful emotions, yet they no longer control me or constrict my world. When my fear greets me now, I remember that they are trying to communicate something to me, so I create time and space for them, honoring their protective nature.

That trip to NY was many years ago, before much of the clinical research to demonstrate the benefits of yoga was conducted, but my personal experience hooked me from that very first class. Now it seems new research is being published every month from around the world supporting the claims that yoga is not only a viable treatment for physical and mental health challenges but also a way to prevent illness by integrating it into a self-care program to promote overall well-being. So, if you don’t want to take my word for it – click on the link below to check out some recent research from Japan published in the International Journal of Yoga that suggests that yoga reduces anxiety, improving mental health, at any age!

How did “talk therapy” work for me?

My journey to a life experienced with more awareness, insight, acceptance, compassion, gratitude, and ultimately forgiveness for myself and others did not just happen and I certainly wasn’t raised in an environment that supported such practices or values. My first encounter with therapy was when I was about 10 years old, when my single-mother-of-three-children took the family to the Division of Youth and Family Services for help. When I reflect on this early childhood encounter with the mental healthcare system, I wonder if it was the first step on the long and winding road to becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist today. I do know that the experience opened me up at that very tender age to the fact that sometimes we need help from someone other than our family and friends, a route that I found myself taking at different stages of my life. I didn’t know that seeking support through therapy was viewed in our culture as a stigma, suggesting that I was either weak or crazy, as my mom was a platinum member of the therapy frequent flyer club who shared what her therapist said to her to anyone that was willing to listen.

Flash forward 20 years, when I find myself married, working two jobs and back at school to pursue a Master’s degree in Healthcare Administration (have I mentioned yet that I had acquired an overly developed work ethic by this point?). My attachment to work and “doing” (being productive), not creating enough time and space for my relationship with my partner or myself for that matter, and my need for a sense of value and belonging somewhere produced the ideal environment for the perfect storm. Just reflecting on that time through writing these words is making my belly and chest tight! I found myself back in therapy, both with my partner and individually, on-and-off for the next four years.

Initially, therapy did not progress smoothly as it took several attempts to finally find the ‘right’ therapist to help us as a couple and another one to help just me. I didn’t realize that every therapist had a different approach; all I knew is that after a couple of sessions I didn’t feel like I was being heard or understood. My partner was a bit more direct than I was when he would simply say “I don’t like him and I don’t want to go back”, so the search continued. Even after a ‘good fit’ was found for us to do the work, we would experience progress, terminate therapy, and then we would hit another pot hole and find ourselves back in session. It wasn’t until my therapist guided me to focus on and discuss my past relationships, specifically with my parents that the real healing and change began.

What I learned about myself – the past influences going back multiple generations in my family that shaped my world and how I learned to adapt to survive – was beyond powerful. On one side of my family, emotional expression was very high while on the other side, emotional expression was not tolerated – so what was I “to do” when I felt a moving emotion? I spent a great deal of energy stuffing my emotions down, only to have them leak out in some of the most inopportune moments. I would think to myself “Why can’t I control my emotions?” or “What is wrong with me?” My compassionate and patient therapist would listen to my stories of how I navigated between the chaos on one side of the road and the desert on the other side to avoid being flooded or dehydrated. She encouraged me to feel my emotions, explore the benefits of those emotions, and even discover new, more subtle (yet no less powerful) emotions such as compassion and gratitude.

Once I was able to honor my emotional intelligence and tap into the reservoir that I had built up over the years, I developed a very close and dear relationship with my emotions and now depend upon them for their guidance, especially the ones that most people try to avoid, such as anger, fear, sadness, and even helplessness. What I have come to understand and value is that all emotions serve a purpose and our overall health and well-being depend upon the ability to experience a broad range of them in order to live life to the fullest, especially in our relationships with our significant others where a deep emotional connection is the life preserver that helps us weather the many storms and pot holes life presents along the way.

I found myself back in therapy once again as I took the final steps on the path to becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist. It was important to my development as a therapist to once again explore and expand my emotional awareness as I navigated this latest life transformation. Through my personal experience of therapy, my education, and my training, my view of life has grown. I now have a deeper appreciation for the resiliency of the human spirit as I developed a greater understanding of our reactions to life’s challenges as normal, natural adaptive responses motivated by a desire to stay connected, to be accepted, to belong, and to survive.

If my personal reflections on how ‘talk therapy’ changed my life and my relationships don’t convince you that psychotherapy works, check out some of the latest evidence gathered by researchers by clicking on the link below: