Living Lite

Katherine's Mantra for Transforming Your Life: Never Give In!

July 9, 2017

Thank you for writing me with your well wishes over the past few weeks. Your responses to my articles documenting my recent personal challenges have been heart-warming. I've especially enjoyed hearing your stories - many of you my clients - of how the skills I'm sharing in these pages are ones that have helped you maintain your healthy and happy lives. And I've felt privileged to hear about your own life challenges through which you are working.

People look at my life and think it's easy for me, and sometimes even tell me I couldn't possibly relate to them or help them. I'm writing my story to disabuse you of that notion.

"I'm no sacrosanct preacher looking down at a congregation of sinners. I've been there ... And I know what it takes to come back from those depths of despair  - and to stay on top!" I said in my book, Diet Simple. And I'd like to demonstrate how you can do the same, like my clients have, through the many years I've served them, and continue to do so.

I've been documenting my life's recent transformation because I believe the steps I'm taking are relevant to anyone who wants to change their lives for the better. Everyone goes through hard times, and one of the most difficult, yet important skills for maintaining a healthy and happy lifestyle, is recovering from set backs.

One of my mantras through the years that I borrowed from Winston Churchill has been, "If you're going through Hell, keep going ... Never give in, never give in, never, never, never!" It is not always easy, including for me. That's because we're human and imperfect. But I firmly believe that we must live by this philosophy when it comes to doing good in the world or for ourselves.

In fact, studies of successful weight loss maintainers found that one of the differences between people who lose weight and keep it off versus those who relapse and gain their weight back is recovering from slips, instead of allowing them to snowball; seeing "mistakes" as normal, being kind to oneself, and getting over them.

My best case study demonstrating how powerful your response to slips can be is of Melissa, who spent many years struggling with her health and her weight. Today, Melissa is 50 pounds lighter than when we first started working together, maybe 15 years ago, and she's kept it off for the past five years. But her journey was not an easy one. Melissa has insulin-dependent diabetes and was sent to me by her doctor to lose weight and improve her health. She desperately wanted to lose weight. She was 5'5" tall, and slowly gained weight through her adult life until she weighed 200 pounds. She and her doctor wanted her to weigh under 150.

Like many people in Wahington, DC, Melissa is a highly educated, hard-working professional. She successfully directs a non-profit organization helping abused children. You could say Melissa - and her husband, John - are "workaholics." They live for their work.

For at least ten years, Melissa would successfully change her habits and lose weight. Sometimes 20, sometimes 30 pounds. She'd feel happy, healthy, on top of the world; she loved the way she looked. But inevitably, when she'd go through difficult times - perhaps a holiday, a stressful family event, or a challenging work situation - she would slip up. And of course, you're thinking, that's normal, right? Well, Melissa didn't feel that way. Any deviation from what she thought she should be doing made her feel so terrible that she'd fall into a depression. She was a perfectionist; and hard on herself. She started cancelling appointments, and wouldn't return my calls. She disappeared. I lost contact with her. She gave up, felt ashamed. I felt terrible.

But amazingly she'd come back within a year or two - or three, though unfortunately having gained some, if not all, of her weight back. I was always happy to see her and pleased she was trying again. After about three failed attempts, we had (another) serious heart-to-heart about her perfectionism. We discussed her "disappearances," which always led to weight re-gain. We discovered they were always related to a slip she was ashamed of, or a time her work load or family life got too busy. She promised to never lose contact again. She agreed that no matter how hard things got that we would work through it together, no matter what.

Many times during our sessions (often by phone because she was so busy), Melissa would feel down and want to give up. But she promised to get in touch the next day(s) and to keep our appointment the following week, even if she felt she didn't do well. This time we worked together, she kept her promises. Over time, she got used to "slipping up" now and then; she started regarding her slips as normal... okay...  to be expected... and sometimes even planned as "splurges" or "taking a break." Melissa had to learn how to get through the tough times, to put up with feeling too busy or stressed, feeling unsuccessful, or not getting results. And eventually, she'd always bounce back.

I enjoy staying in contact with Melissa. She sends me photos of herself at a gala, or in a new fabulous outfit, so I can see she's having fun and staying fit. I like to keep up with how she and John are doing, and appreciate her staying in touch.

You could say I have a rewarding job. I would agree with you! Now, if I could only be perfect... Hmmmm


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Working Through the Pain: Priming Your Mind for Change

July 2, 2017

I don't know if you've noticed, but we humans don't always think or behave rationally, even when it comes to our own self-interest. In fact, we can be so stubborn that we stand by while watching our own self-destruction. Sure, we want to make positive changes in our lives, and may even know what to do, but often can't seem to overcome our inertia.

Changing your thinking, your emotions, and perhaps parts of your self-image may be necessary for becoming happier, healthier, more energetic, or achieving your ideal body weight.  In the third installment describing my recent life transformation, I am sharing my progression through these steps (for the umpteenth time in my life), toward recovery from some difficult times

Whether healing from an illness, surgeries, or even just experiencing a long run of being too busy to exercise or take care of yourself... Beginning again, becoming fit, or healthy can be a painful process and can seem almost impossible to achieve.

In my case, after knee and back surgeries, spending a good deal of time being sedentary, and even bed-bound, I tried jumping back into life too quickly many times. These false starts had the effect of delaying my healing, furthering my pain, exhaustion, and depression. I had to learn to take baby steps (funny, something I'm told I'm very good at helping my clients with while helping them improve their lives). I had to notice how my thinking, self-talk, emotions, and even my own identity were interfering with my successful recovery.

One of my revelations was that my self image as a fit and physically active person affected me negatively and slowed my progress for a couple of reasons. First, my inability to be physically active while recovering from surgeries made me perhaps more depressed than would be expected. That depression kept me from the world, isolated, and of course, we all know, that made my situation worse: physically and psychologically. Second, when I finally got the will to start moving, I didn't know how to start slowly. I jumped right in, taking difficult yoga classes and walking too much. That caused pain and discouraged me from continuing to try. And this prolonged my convalescence. 

After many such failures, I decided to try joining the world again. But this time, taking my own advice and doing it one baby step at a time! For this to work, I had to change my thinking. It is the cornerstone of any behavior change: Noticing your thoughts and deciding how to react to them. I decided it was time  to notice the negative thoughts in my head that led to counterproductive behavior. Noticing self-defeating - and irrational - thoughts, such as "I'll never be myself again," or "I don't want to go out and be seen unless I'm completely back in shape," allowed me to change them to more rational and productive thoughts, such as, "of course, I'll always be myself! And, besides, a little improvement is good for anyone," or "people will still accept and like me, even if I'm not in great shape."  This officially is "cognitive therapy," an accepted pre-requisite for behavior change, and one I use extensively to help my clients. My willingness to begin this process allowed me to accept my humanness, my need to proceed slowly. I decided to share my experience after finding so many people were surprised that this process could be difficult for me, the "expert." I also wanted to share my experience so others would feel assured that this transformation is possible for anyone.

Before you can change the way you think, though, you'll need to develop a sense of urgency about your goal, if you haven't already. A sense of urgency, according to The Dalai Lama in "The Art of Happiness" – and scholars in this important field of psychological research, can be achieved two ways:

1) Remind yourself of your positive vision for success. For example, visualize yourself at your ideal fitness level, your goal weight, or see yourself feeling happy, healthy, energetic, and confident (see "Dream" in my book, Diet Simple), and

2) Ponder the negative consequences of not making a particular behavior change (a little fear can be a good thing – but just a little). I mean, after all, did I really want to feel terrible for the rest of my life? This may seem like an absurd question to ask yourself, but when your behavior doesn't lead to positive outcomes, what else could the counter-productive behavior mean? What outcomes could you possibly expect besides negative ones? You may try this yourself by asking, for instance, in the morning as you’re considering two options: getting out of bed to exercise or sleeping just a little longer, "Do I want to feel good today? Or do I want to feel crummy today?" Another example, as you're driving home from work and deciding to grab some carry-out or to go home to eat the healthy meal you've already planned. Ask yourself: “Do I want to achieve my weight loss goal (insert positive vision here) or will I accept being the same weight and having the same health problems for another year?” “Do I want to stop taking these darn medications or will I be taking them forever – and even increasing the dosage? What will my doctor say?” “What kind of example am I setting for my children, my spouse? Is this a behavior I can be proud of?” etc. You get the idea…

ACHIEVING INCREASED HAPPINESS

Outlining the consequenses of your actions and acting on your long term goals, as opposed to momentary desires, helps you grow as a person and become a happier person, according to scientific research. It increases your general happiness level because you are making decisions which contribute to your long-term goals.

THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL OF GIVING IN

Usually, when we do something that feels good momentarily, such as giving in and staying in bed for 30 more minutes of sleep in the morning instead of exercising, or grabbing a coffee cake at the coffee shop when we originally just planned on buying coffee, our happiness level may increase ("oooh, this feels yummy!") – but it's only a temporary blip of happiness. It goes back to the same level it did before - once the temporary experience wears off – and nothing changes for the better in our lives. We may even become more depressed as we continue to “give-in” to these unfulfilling momentary desires and dive into a downward spiral.

MAKING THE HARDER, BUT MORE SATISFYING CHOICE

If, instead, we say to ourselves, "I'm getting out of bed NOW! I'll feel terrible if I don't, and I'll never achieve my goals," or “Will stopping to get carry-out change my life for the better? I’d be better off going home and eating something healthy as I want to lose weight, lower my cholesterol, etc,” or “I really don’t need that coffee cake, and I’ll feel terrible after eating it, and will it make me happier at the end of the day?" "Will this increase my happiness for the short term? Or for the long term?" Another more extreme example might be a drug addict relapsing. It feels great momentarily, but the feeling doesn’t last.

When you make a more thoughtful decision, which contributes to your longterm health – physical or psychological – you are more likely to achieve your life’s hopes, dreams and goals, you can actually increase your happiness level, feel happier more often and grow as a person.

WHY IT'S NOT ALWAYS EASY

It is not always easy in our society to make the healthy decision. It's easier - and the norm, in fact - to be unfit, overweight and unhealthy. But, I'm convinced it is possible to be healthy in an unhealthy world with planning, practice, determination, and support (I'm here any time you need me!) - Besides, what's the alternative?  

It takes effort to train your mind to work this way, but this is how we become better people and we advance as a society.


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Meditating on the Potomac: First Steps to Regaining My Identity

June 25, 2017

I'm sharing my journey toward getting my life back, after some rough times, losing my health, and my sense of self, because I know the process can be difficult - and even painful - for anyone. I know, because it's been my job - and my passion - for more than 25 years: helping my clients transform their health and their lives to better themselves and to increase their happiness. Ironically, I haven't experienced these joys for myself for quite a while, so it's my turn to tough it out. And I can tell you, after many setbacks, it's not for sissies!

In my story's first installment, I described the importance of mindfulness as a foundation for self understanding and successful life change. It reduces anxiety, helps you focus, and leave worries about the past and future behind.  This helps you work through problems more effectively, according to scientific research from the National Institutes of Health. I needed to keep my focus on the present, to relax, to feel hopeful, and to force myself out of my depression. I needed to be willing to work at overcoming my exhaustion after almost two years of knee and back pain, ultimately leading to surgeries on both, and sidelining me for the duration.

Katherine Enjoying Kayaking Peacefully on The Potomac River (Photo by: Katy Handley) Katherine Enjoying Kayaking Peacefully on The Potomac River

You see, I spent a lifetime being physically active. This was a part of my identity, a way I excelled in the world. I started gymnastics in pre-school (it was called "tumbling" then). I went on through my adulthood to continue practicing gymnastics, cheerleading, dance, swimming, scuba, fencing, climbing, skating, archery, aerobics, strength training, stand up paddle boarding, yoga ...You name it, I've done it, and excelled almost immediately at anything I tried (even basketball, though I'm 5'2"). 

It's funny that I only recently realized that this loss of my physicality may have been the underlying cause of my depression and endless exhaustion - because it was an integral part of my identity and self-worth. I never realized how much pride I took - wrongly or rightly - in being fit, active, and in exceptional (not just good) shape. I was always a leader, a teacher, and set the example for thriving and living a healthy life. I bounced back from negative experiences easily, and taught my clients to do the same. But somehow I couldn't this time. I actually felt embarrassed to let anyone know, outside a few of my closest friends and family, just how badly I felt. I stopped exercising (by necessity), I gained weight, I stopped going out, I stopped socializing, and even dealing with my business. I isolated myself, even though I knew this behavior was hurting my health in every way. 

I finally came to understand why I was not recovering as expected while listening to a friend's account of his wife's reaction to the fear of potentially losing her singing voice (she's a singer) after the successful removal of a stage 1, non-malignant cancer on one of her vocal cords. The experience left her inconsolable, silent, uncommunicative, miserable, and angry with everyone. No amount of love, support, or reassurance from the experts helped. Her reaction and behavior went beyond normal proportions. Why? Perhaps because using her voice was an integral part of her identity, and the fear of losing it, even an irrational fear, was too frightening to face, let alone talk about, or deal with.

Facing and working through that kind of loss and fear can be paralyzing. Admittedly, it's taken me way too long to begin my recovery. And every day I'm too tired - or too stubborn - to advance, I damage myself further.

If you inexplicably don't take steps to improve your life in ways you know would be helpful - and your loved ones are encouraging - perhaps exploring how your self identification has been or will be affected, will help get you started. This is a major barrier to overcome for anyone trying to change a habit, even one which is self-destructive.

Mindfullness has been essential for me to finally start taking the small steps toward getting my life back, and feeling like myself again. (Funny, taking small steps is the cornerstone of my life-change programs, and my book, Diet Simple.) Studies clealry show you can achieve mindfulness through meditation. But I believe any activity that absorbs your heart and mind, relaxes you, and focuses you on the present moment, can improve your mindfulness. Mindfulness allows you to work through your worries more effectively, to let go of thoughts and feelings that won't help, while concentrating on positive behaviors that will advance you toward your long term goal of increased happiness, however you define it. 

This weekend, mindfulness came to me through kayaking with a friend on the beautiful Potomac River. What wonderful resources in Washington, DC (we rented a kayak from the Key Bridge Boathouse)! I was able to step into another world, completely relax, and focus on Mother Nature, just a few blocks from home. A couple of weekends ago, I escaped to the Pennsylvania countryside. Music and reading elevate me too (anything but the news, please).

Personalize your way of becoming more mindful so you can start making small steps to improve your life. And try to be patient with yourself.

More later ...


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