So over the last week or so (apologies, it’s been a while since my last post), I’ve actually managed to listen to my body and respond to its needs. Now, I know this isn’t rocket science. In fact, it’s something that should come naturally to any woman, or man. But it’s something I’ve always struggled with. And I know, from talking to friends, there are many who share this struggle.
In the past, if I was tired, I’d fight the tiredness with food, particularly sugar and more specifically chocolate. It’s like there was a short circuit in my neural pathways. Whereas many would think ‘tiredness = go get some sleep’, I’d think ‘tiredness = go get some food’.
If I was fearful or anxious, I’d also push down the fear and anxiety with food. And if I felt hurt or angry, I’d smother those uncomfortable emotions with food too. Of course, I had other mechanisms for avoiding feelings, ranging from zoning out in front of the TV, to obsessing about a man, to binge-drinking in my earlier years or working to excess. But food, as I’ve said before on this blog, was always my first port of call. Overeating was a quick fix but one that came with painful consequences – self-loathing, shame, embarrassment, and a desire to hide away from the world.
Things have changed a lot over the years but I often still struggle to give my body what it needs and can resort to food. The good news is, however, on several occasions in recent days I’ve asked myself exactly what I need in a given moment and responded appropriately.
As a by-product of listening to my body, I’m a much happier, healthier and saner person but, as a consequence, I’ve achieved a lot less. Where in the past I’d have used a chocolate injection or sugar rush to help me sit at the computer longer or work harder, this past week I’ve actually paid attention when my body has said stop.
So on Thursday, I sat down at my laptop after lunch and felt that familiar mid-afternoon slump. My brain was telling me I needed to plough on, to get stuff done. Pretty soon, I’m sure it would have also told me that something sweet would help. But I had a brainwave. I’d packed my gym kit. So why not go and use it? I went and worked out and then came home with renewed energy to do a few more hours work. It sounds so simple. So why’s it so difficult to do?
I was struggling away in front of the screen again on Friday. I hadn’t had enough sleep after a fun evening out and a late-night chat with a friend who was staying over.
As expected, the energy dip hit again around 4:30 pm. I willed myself to carry on working as I’d done very little in the morning but my body really didn’t want to. It took me into the kitchen where I spied the beautiful box of chocolates my friend had brought as a gift. ‘Of course, chocolate is the answer,’ I thought. I started to take the ribbon off the box and then, just in time, I experienced a moment of sanity. ‘Hang on a minute,’ I thought. ‘I’m tired. I’m not being very productive. Is this chocolate really going to help? Isn’t it just going to give me a sugar rush followed by an even bigger energy and mood dip? And am I really going to be able to stop after one or two? How about a lie down instead?’ So I did. I took myself into my room, closed the blackout blinds, set my alarm for an hour later and got into bed. Simple, yet so hard to do! Hard to do, I guess, because of the guilt – that voice that tells me I’m not working hard enough or achieving enough. But surely health and wellbeing come before achievement?
To some of you, these little victories might seem little more than common sense but for me they were a major coup. I was replacing my old, unhelpful formula with a new one: ‘tiredness = go and get some rest/sleep’.
I had another little coup on Monday night. I’d had my dinner and felt like eating more. But instead of getting out the organic natural yoghurt and rustic muesli (I’ve become such a healthy overeater in recent years), I asked myself what was really going on. I realised I was feeling anxious as I had a number of decisions to make in the next few days. So instead of following the age-old but flawed formula of ‘anxious = eat something’, I remembered an alternative formula: ‘anxious = pray and meditate about what’s worrying you’. I can safely say it worked much better than excess food would have done.
I also allowed myself a few extra hours in bed on Monday morning as the day before I could feel a tingling on my lip signalling an imminent cold sore after a fun but tiring weekend. With the extra sleep, I woke up refreshed and the cold sore never materialised.
I guess these are examples of ‘small wins’, to coin a term business consultant and author Peter Sims uses in his book ‘Little Bets’, which I’ve just read and reviewed for Mind Tools. These are the little victories that boost our confidence, in work or in life. They’re victories we can build on.
Of course, I’m aware not all of us have the luxury of resting or sleeping when we’re tired. That’s one of the upsides of a freelance career and self-employment (there are many downsides too). Even as a freelancer, sometimes I don’t either. On my recent work trip to Mozambique, there was no opportunity for an afternoon nap or a lie in – I had an all-day course to teach. Inevitably, though, by the end of the week, I was trying to boost my flagging body and mind with sugar (as I wrote in my Mixed Feelings post).
Now, I know a mid-afternoon chocolate bar is common practice for many and has limited repercussions, but after years of recovering from disordered eating, I’m so painfully aware when I’m eating on tiredness or my emotions that I feel really rubbish afterwards. So maybe it’s about finding the right balance – letting myself off the hook when I do slip but also trying to avoid putting myself in situations that lead me down that path.
Writing this post on the back of yesterday’s riveting news involving Rupert Murdoch, the UK parliament and a foam-throwing protester reminds me of the six years I spent as political correspondent for Reuters in the House of Commons. With all that’s going on right now, I’ve been pondering the job I left behind. During my time in the Commons, there were many adrenalin-fuelled breaking news days like yesterday, often linked to Tony Blair and the Iraq war.
Of course, part of me wishes I was back there, feeling the adrenalin, the excitement and that sense of being at the heart of a momentous, global news story – seeing history in the making, if that’s not too much of a cliché. But another part of me knows the toll that kind of high-pressure job and daily grind takes on my body, particularly working for a 24-hour news service. There were only ever a limited number of hours or days that I could work at such a frantic pace in such a stressful environment without resorting to food to keep me going.
My life is much slower and more balanced today and I do miss the adrenalin-fuelled highs. But I definitely don’t miss the lows.