Everyday Inspirations: The Serenity Prayer

I had the pleasure of meeting psychologist Dr. Beverly Adler (aka Dr. Bev) at a diabetes educator conference this month. She gave a presentation on incorporating spirituality into counseling sessions with an example of the Serenity Prayer. Now if you’re starting to get nervous with the words ‘spirituality’ and ‘prayer’, hear me out for a few more paragraphs. You don’t need to be religious to appreciate this post.

You’re probably familiar with the Serenity Prayer. It was written in the early 1900s and has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other 12-step programs. The first three lines are:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

As I mentioned, you don’t have to be religious to apply these words to your life. You can call it a mantra instead of a prayer. It was originally written as an appeal to God but you can substitute any higher power in which you believe. And your higher power doesn’t need to be a deity. Maybe it is the healthiest and happiest version of you or a role model in your life. It’s someone you look to for strength when times are tough.

How does this apply to your health journey? Imagine this scenario: You had a long day of work and are on your way home when you hit a massive delay. Traffic is backed up for miles or the train was cancelled due to a mechanical issue. What a pain! By the time you get home, you are starving. You raid the cupboards or refrigerator and fill up on food that does not align with your health goals. Can you relate to this story? There are many variations. You had a rough day at work and took it out on your partner or children at home. The weather was crummy so you didn’t exercise. Someone brought treats to the break room and you overindulged. 

Let’s line it up with the Serenity Prayer:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
(traffic, people’s behavior, weather, genetic predisposition to disease)

Courage to change the things I can
(emotional responses such as outbursts, eating, or avoiding healthy habits)

And wisdom to know the difference
(Instead of stressing about what you can’t change, focus your energy on modifying your response to align with your health goals)

In stressful situations, it’s easy to get swept up in emotions and to forget about the things you can change. Your emotional response becomes a habit. It might be such a strong habit that you don’t feel you have control, but you do! It takes patience and compassion to change an emotional response but with time, you’ll be able to respond to stressors in a way that will help you move towards your health goals. Sometimes you’ll need extra support from a healthcare provider or group. And you might need a lasting reminder that you can look to in tough moments.

I find these words so valuable that I choose to carry them with me everywhere I go; I keep a handwritten copy of the prayer in my wallet. Dr. Bev feels the same way. She wears a bracelet with the lyrics and has pillows and other inscribed objects in her office. Whether you carry it in your mind or as a physical memento, I hope you can use this concept to move towards a healthier and happier life.

Everyday Inspirations: My Crummy Teeth

“You can’t relate to me because you don’t have a weight problem.” If you are a dietitian working in weight management, you have probably heard this before. If you are a person working with a dietitian, you have probably said this before (at least in your head). I always struggle with the best response to this statement. What am I supposed to say?

  • “No, I can’t relate to you which makes me a terrible dietitian.”
  • “Well, you don’t know anything about my weight history.”
  • “Actually, I also work hard to maintain my weight.”

Don’t worry. I’ve never said any of these things. I just acknowledge the statement and try to move forward in a more productive way.

And then it came to me recently while walking home from a dentist appointment reflecting on my crummy teeth. Let me give you some history. As I child, I had yellow tooth stains from penicillin, buck teeth, and abnormally large gums making for a smile that led to lots of teasing. After bleaching and gum removal, my smile was somewhat improved. Unfortunately, after 2+ years of braces, the stains reemerged accompanied by bright white calcification. In my early 20’s, a mysterious dark stain appeared on my gums above my front teeth. It has never disappeared. And then the cavities…. I have had so many fillings that my teeth weakened leading to my first root canal at age 25. By age 28, I had 3 crowns, one of which has cracked twice in 3 years. Did I mention I grind my teeth?

Every time I visit the dentist, I am complimented on my amazing hygiene. “We can tell you do a great job with brushing and flossing! But… unfortunately there’s another cavity.” It turns out that some people have genetically bad teeth and are prone to these types of issues. Lucky me. For how hard I work at maintaining my teeth (prescription-strength fluoride toothpaste, daily flossing, anti-cavity mouth wash, etc.) and the amount of money I’ve spent on procedures (can we get dental insurance reform?), I deserve a celebrity smile. But it’s not in the genes. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Obesity is a multifactorial disease and one of the factors is genetic. Many people who struggle with their weight have a genetic disposition that makes it easier for them to gain weight and harder to lose weight. How frustrating! It means you can bust you butt exercising and have a near-perfect diet but you still might not reach the weight of a person without this genetic factor. If you want to become a multi-millionaire, join a research lab discovering these genetic components and create a drug or therapy targeting them.

Walking home from that dentist appointment, after learning that my crown had cracked again, I was so discouraged. But then I thought about the state my teeth would be in if I didn’t try so hard. I probably would have had a full set of dentures at age 30. I know I will struggle with my awful mouth for the rest of my life but giving up on hygiene will only make the problems worse.

It’s not fair that you might be prone to obesity. It’s not fair that you will have to work hard the rest of your life to maintain a weight that isn’t your ideal. But what if you gave up? Where would your weight be now? What kinds of health problems would you have? You can’t control your genes (until you develop that drug!) but you can control your response.

And not just the behavioral response such as exercising regularly and eating healthfully, but also your mental response. Maybe you are stuck with some crummy genes in terms of weight but what genes are you grateful for? Is it your eye color, hair texture, skin complexion, or shape of your nose? Is it your ability to sing, play instruments, think analytically, or crunch numbers in your head? Is it your senses of sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch? Refocus those negative thoughts into something positive before they start impacting your behaviors.

It’s frustrating to have a genetic factor impacting your health but nearly everyone is dealing with one of these challenges in some form. Accept it for what it is, continue your hard work to manage it the best you can, and when you are feeling down, count your blessings. There are always more of those than challenges.

Everyday Inspirations: Empuja la Vaquita

I recently came across a story in Spanish class called ‘Empuja la Vaquita’. Its author is unknown and it is translated into many languages. You might have heard it in English as ‘Pushing the Cow’.

Here is a summary: A professor and a student are walking through the countryside when they come across a small ramshackle home near the edge of a cliff. They meet the inhabitants, a man and woman with three children. All are dressed in rags and don’t appear to have been bathed recently. The professor asks the father of the family how they make a living in this small village with few opportunities. The father replies that they have a cow that provides milk every day. What they don’t consume, they trade for other goods.

The professor and student leave the home and, as the title suggests, the professor orders the student to push the cow off the cliff. The student is in disbelief but eventually gives in to the professor and pushes the cow. A few years later, still racked with guilt, the student returns to the village to find the family and apologize. However, upon searching the same location, the student finds a well-furnished home with a well-dressed and clean family of five. He asks about the people that used to live in that home and learns, surprisingly, that it is the same family. The father explains that they used to have a cow that fell off a cliff and died. Without the cow, they had to support themselves through other abilities that they didn’t realize they had and they were wildly successful.

The moral of the story? It’s a long-winded (and extreme) reminder that it’s important to get out of our comfort zone. Without the cow, the family discovered abilities they never knew existed.

When it comes to achieving your healthiest life, what types of cows are keeping you in your comfort zone? Maybe it’s the same exercise class you do every week and it’s time to challenge your body in a different way. Maybe you rotate through the same meals each week and are taking the flavors for granted. It might be a challenging habit, like reaching for a snack, a drink, or a cigarette in times of stress. Or it might be spending time with friends who don’t support you to be your best self. Routine is natural and comfortable. Without it, your life would be unnecessarily difficult. However, sometimes routine leaves you in a rut of repeated decisions that give you the same not-so-great results.

It’s hard to recognize when you are relying on these cows. The family was content and never dreamed that they had potential to live a better quality of life. If you are open to the feedback, you can ask a trusted family member or friend if they’ve noticed any cows in your yard. Or you can wait for someone else to make a decision that pushes you out of your comfort zone but you might be waiting a long time.

Maybe you have recognized that these cows exist but you’re not comfortable pushing them off the cliff yourself. Of course it’s scary! Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be as extreme as the metaphor. When it comes to exercise, there are low-risk, low-cost ways of exploring new ways to move your body. Go to a gym open house and try a new class. Buy a discount voucher (Groupon, Living Social, etc.) for a rock climbing, yoga, or circus class. Ask your friends about their favorite types of exercise and whether you can tag along with them to try it out.

As for a cooking rut, make a goal to try one new recipe each month. Search sites like Skinny Taste or Cooking Light for healthy spins on your favorite dishes. Have a recipe exchange with your friends. Splurge on a cooking class at a food store or community adult education program. Sign up for a trial of a home-order meal prep plan like Blue Apron or just get recipes without the ingredients from a program like Fresh 20.

Routine and stability play important roles in your life but don’t let them keep you from achieving your health potential. ¡Empuje la vaquita!

Disclaimer: No cows were injured in the writing of this post.

Everyday Inspirations: Responding with Curiosity and Compassion

While I was visiting my family in Minnesota last month, I went to a yoga class and was inspired by a phrase. We spent a few minutes meditating at the beginning of class and our teacher was offering suggestions for mindfulness during our practice. She encouraged us to be present while moving through poses and to respond to our bodies “with curiosity and compassion”. This phrase stayed with me after class and got me thinking about how it applies to the weight loss journey. So here we go:

Have you ever kept a food log? It’s a common recommendation for people who are working towards weight loss goals. Food logging promotes awareness and accountability which typically helps people to stay on track. If you keep a food log, you are encouraged to review it regularly, such as at the end of each day, to see what can be learned. Sometimes you might not be proud of the choices that you made that day but reviewing a food log shouldn’t be a reason to judge yourself or feel guilty. That’s not productive. Instead, I encourage you to look at your food log with a mindset of ‘curiosity and compassion’.

Be curious. Why did I make that choice today? Would things have been differently if I packed my lunch at home or if I took a few breaths to relieve stress before eating that brownie in the break room? What is triggering me to make these choices? How can I prevent it in the future?

Have compassion. These choices don’t make me a bad person. I am faced with a lot of choices every day and I might not always make the best ones. But I am motivated to reach my health goals and I know I can continue to improve.

While I’m using the example of a food log, this can be applied to other situations too. You can reflect on any past behaviors with curiosity and compassion. Instead of getting trapped in an unproductive cycle of self-blame, this mindset allows you to respond more productively to behaviors that you would like to change. Curiosity helps you to think about choices from a neutral and unbiased perspective while having compassion encourages self-kindness and a no judgment zone. Are there areas of your life that could use more curiosity and compassion? 

Everyday Inspirations: Make sure your mask is secure...

I have been on quite a few airplane flights recently which means that I have heard the safety speech enough times that I practically have it memorized. While the information is specific to air travel, there’s one line that has stuck out to me as a great reminder for people in the weight loss journey: Make sure your mask is secure before helping others. What happens if you don’t secure your own oxygen mask in an airplane emergency? You may pass out before you are able to help those around you.

And what does this have to do with weight loss?

The majority of my patients are women; they are daughters, wives, and/or mothers and they are givers. (Side note: Of course, men can be givers too! I just happen to see this more often in women). They give of themselves in their families on a daily basis. Additionally, several of them have giving professions such as personal care attendants, health care providers, and teachers. Over the years, they have always put other people’s priorities before their own. They worry about taking care of the needs of others and they neglect their own health needs, such as sleep, nutritious food, exercise, and relaxation. For example, I worked with a patient who took time to make lunches for her three children and her spouse every night but never made her own lunch. Instead, she relied on fast food during the day for herself which was contributing to her weight problem. If you are a giver, I’m sure you can think of similar examples.

It’s wonderful to be a giver but you can’t neglect giving to yourself. To achieve your health goals and live your happiest life, you need to prioritize yourself. If you don’t keep yourself healthy, it is going to impact your ability to give to those around you. Maybe you will be less patient or have less energy due to lack of sleep, or you maybe you won’t physically be able to help someone due to mobility or strength problems, or maybe your life will be shortened due to health problems you have neglected. You need to take care of yourself so you can be the best you, whether it’s as a spouse, parent, child, sibling, coworker, or friend.

In the case of the patient I mentioned earlier, I encouraged her to take a few extra minutes each night to make her own lunch. She did this and started losing weight since she was eating less fast food. Losing the weight gave her more energy and made her feel better about her body, and this made her a happier person and a happier wife and mother. Taking care of herself helped her to better take care of her family.

If you are a giver, tune into whether you might be giving to others at the expense of your own health needs. Remember to make sure your health is secure before helping others. 

Everyday Inspirations: Acknowledge Your Practice Without Judgement or Praise

Acknowledge your practice without judgment or praise. One of my first yoga teachers used to say this at the end of every practice. It didn’t really make sense to me. At the time, I was new to yoga and I was so excited to learn new poses at each class. It was a fun challenge and at the end of class, I did want to praise myself for doing those poses. And yes, maybe I was a little frustrated with myself for not being able to do other poses but I never felt like I was judging myself.

It took a few months of practicing yoga before this phrase made sense. Making cool shapes with your body is not the main point of yoga. Yes, it’s fun to learn a new pose but if that is all you get out of yoga, you are missing the bigger journey. It’s not about whether you were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at yoga. It’s that you took time to nurture your body and to practice self-awareness.

How does this apply to the bariatric surgery journey?

Let’s change one word in this phrase. Acknowledge your weight without judgment or praise. Easier said than done, right? So often, people’s bariatric surgery journeys get distilled to one thing: weight. How much weight did you lose? How quickly are you losing weight? Have you regained any weight? I’m not saying that we should completely ignore weight. We are still acknowledging that number but we need to put it into context instead of making it the only measure that matters.

The bariatric surgery journey is not just about weight loss. I would argue that people who are focusing only on weight are in a less healthy place mentally, and sometimes physically too. When you focus only on weight, you don’t give yourself credit for all of the quality of life successes that happen after surgery. Greater energy levels, ability to walk further without getting winded, taking your kids on rides at the amusement park without worrying about weight limits, feeling comfortable in an airplane seat, bending over to tie your shoes… these are all huge quality of life successes!

When we acknowledge our weight with judgment or praise, we are turning our weight into a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ number and that can be toxic for our mental health. We shouldn’t think of weight as being a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ number. But ‘good’ and ‘bad’ can apply to quality of life. If you are not able to do the things you enjoy, you are not having the best quality of life that you deserve. For example, if you can’t play with your children or grandchildren, does it really matter what your weight is? If your weight is so low that you don’t have energy or strength to go for walks on the beach, is that still a ‘good’ weight? If your weight is higher than your “ideal body weight” according to a chart but you are able to wear the clothing you love and dance the night away at a party, is that a ‘bad’ weight? Your mental and physical health is most important for your quality of life and that isn’t always reflected in a number on the scale.

So next time you get on the scale, don’t let your weight become a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ number. Don’t judge yourself or praise yourself. Just acknowledge that number for what it is (a number) and focus on the quality of life milestones that really matter.