Break the Negative Thinking-Feeling Feedback Loop

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A friend asked for my advice recently. He was experiencing emotional turmoil or as he described it, an overwhelming shit-storm of horrible feelings all mashed up together. He didn’t know what to do; he was thinking in circles. He needed another person’s perspective. As he listed all the troubles that he was going through, I could understand why he was disturbed. There were a lot of bad happenings, uncertainties and unknowns. I suggested talking over all his issues, one by one, to separate and understand them. In the end, though we didn’t solve anything, I think he felt better.

061PinkyNBrainLater, he told me that he had identified the horrible feelings in his gut as stress. He had been stressed out by all his problems. So stressed that he couldn’t think clearly, couldn’t made good decisions, and couldn’t work. I think the problem started off with him dwelling on his issues, creating negative emotions as a result of all that thinking, and those emotions in turn causing his thinking to become more negative. Or the bad emotions caused negative thoughts, which made the emotions even worse. It was a feedback cycle of negative thoughts and feelings that caused him to work himself into a stressed-out state.

The gist is that negative thinking leads to negative feelings which lead to negative thinking and so forth in a feedback loop. Or it could start with negative feelings leading to negative thoughts and so on. This cycle will increase stress as the person dwells upon one negative event after another. Sometimes, the person won’t be able to determine which came first, the negative feeling or the negative thought. Thankfully, which comes first doesn’t matter. Breaking the negative feedback loop is what is important.

Dominant thinking personality types probably start with a negative thought, while dominant feeling types start with a negative feeling. The dominant thinking type thinks a negative thought (maybe not consciously), which generates a negative feeling, and the thinking type tries to identify where that negative feeling came from and comes up with justifications for the bad feelings which generate further bad thoughts. Dominant feeling types get a negative feeling (probably unconsciously), which causes a negative thought, which causes another negative feeling (or re-enforces the existing one) and soon they wonder why they are feeling so bad. Feeling types also can come up with justifications which are negative thoughts which then cause them to feel worse.

However, dominant thinkers don’t always lead with a thought. And dominant feelers don’t always lead with a feeling. For me, as a dominant feeling type, most of the time, I probably lead with a feeling, but that doesn’t preclude that sometimes I lead with a thought. Most of the time, I feel that both arrive at the same time. It may be that unconsciously, one comes before the other; but by the time they reach my consciousness, it seems like they come simultaneously. Regardless, because they almost always appear in inter-dependent pairs, we must treat both thought and feeling. (Treating both may be especially required for hot button issues where I already have a pre-programmed thought and feeling response.)

There are two methods to break a feedback loop, one to prevent negative thinking from causing negative feelings and the second to prevent the reverse. Both may be required to break the feedback cycle.

Reframing: Prevent Negative Thoughts From Causing Negative Feelings

In my post, Who Are We to Blindly Judge?, I talked about reframing as a way to replace a negative judgment with a positive one. Fundamentally, reframing converts a negative thought into a positive thought (or at least a neutral thought). By changing negative thoughts to positive ones, we prevent the negative thinking from giving rise to negative feelings. This short-circuits one part of the feedback cycle.

To reframe, the moment you catch yourself having a negative thought, force yourself to think of an alternative, positive thought. For example, immediately after you find yourself thinking that the salesperson is being rude to you (and hopefully before you get irritated), think “gee, he was much more rude to the customer before me, so he actually likes me more”. If you can’t manage a positive thought, think of a neutral one like “that’s just how he is, what can you do… I’m glad I won’t be seeing him again ever”.

The goal is to prevent yourself from continuing to ruminate on another person’s bad behavior or some external misfortune, and working yourself into an agitated state. A reframe may prove to be the little additional support that prevents the emotional avalanche from occurring.

Reframes are great for one-of interactions and events, but if you find yourself doing reframes for the same person or event again and again, then you’ll need to be pro-active and attempt to confirm the validity of your reframes. If the repeated event is always stressful, consider removing yourself from the event. If repeated interactions with a person cause you stress, confirm with the person whether your negative thought is valid or not; you might have misunderstood. If you haven’t misunderstood, consider reducing or discontinuing interactions with that person.

Let us look at an example to explore the full range of methods to handle negative thoughts. If a friend said something which sounded really bad to you, here are some possible responses you can make, from worst to best:

  1. Respond to your friend immediately based upon your unexpressed negative thought and feeling response. Accuse him of being a bigot or whatever bad label comes to mind. This will escalate the tension because your friend may not understand why he is under attack and may counter-attack as a response. Most likely, both you and your friend will experience negative feedback loops and the resulting stress.
  2. Give your friend the benefit of a doubt; he is a good person so that is most likely not his intention. You don’t say anything in response beyond a non-committal acknowledgement and you let the conversation die or go elsewhere. This is still not the optimal response because you will always have a tiny bit of uncertainty and doubt about what your friend said, and the emotional response is still there, existing in your head and taking up your mental space. If this repeats in enough incidences, you may hold an image of your friend as someone who unintentionally makes bad-sounding statements and this will adjust your expectation. Because this friend is someone you care about and will see again, having to keep such an expectation in mind is unnecessary mental stress and baggage.

  3. Give your friend the benefit of a doubt and ask for clarification to remove all doubt. Give him a chance to respond and resolve any misunderstanding. Your friend will probably say that he didn’t mean it to sound that way, that it was not his intention, and that he meant to say it another way. You will end up with no mental stress or baggage — any related negative emotion is fully resolved and cleared, and your image of your friend as a good person is reaffirmed. Misunderstandings in conversations and human interactions are frequent and normal. What you want is to take this third step to avoid accumulating mental stress and baggage about people.

Acceptance: Prevent Negative Feelings From Causing Negative Thoughts

In a previous post (Acceptance: I Think And Feel, Therefore Nothing), I talked about how accepting thoughts and feelings, acknowledging their existence without judgment or attachment, leads to freedom from them. By observing and accepting my thoughts and feelings as they came and went, I learned not to be affected by them and to take control of how I acted (and reacted). Acceptance is also how one can prevent negative feelings from generating negative thoughts.

Feelings are irrational so most of the time, one cannot address them by rational thinking or reframing. Feelings don’t care about the possibility that the cause is innocent or that there is a misunderstanding. A negative feeling just feels bad and that is that. You can’t convince it otherwise, suppress it, transform it, or kill it. All you can do is to accept that feeling and decide whether to act on it or not. Usually with bad emotions, accepting them and then deciding not to act on them, with practice, can prevent negative feelings from generating negative thoughts. If you decide not to dwell on what could be causing the negative feeling, but just accept the negative feeling as okay to experience as itself, you won’t generate negative thoughts.

Acceptance means to expand your mental space to accommodate that negative feeling. It will still be uncomfortable, but you will let it be. If it chooses to stick around, you are fine with the continuing discomfort. If it leaves, that would also be good. You have no expectations of the feeling… you don’t react to it beyond acknowledging that it exists.

If you haven’t gotten the hang of acceptance, here are less ideal (though progressively healthier) ways to handle negative emotions that may serve as stepping stones to acceptance:

  1. Think very briefly about what is causing that negative emotion or why you are having it. If nothing immediately comes to mind, stop! If something does come to mind, hopefully understanding it will lead to acceptance. This method is dangerous (can degrade to extensive dwelling on why you are having bad feelings) and should only be done for causes that are very obvious; like when you are scared and pissed because you have just slammed the trunk on your thumb, the thumb is stuck, and you can’t reach the lock to release the trunk (yeah, this happened to me once). Otherwise, if you keep trying to come up with a cause, you might generate other negative emotions or thoughts.

    Thinking about the emotion will give it energy and keep it potent. So while calling up a good friend to discuss the problem might help you to understand it, if the conversation drags on without resolution, you may start feeling worse. Venting your negative thoughts and feelings may only re-enforce and increase them.

  2. Emotions persist. You usually cannot think a feeling to death. You can try to starve a negative feeling by getting yourself to experience positive emotions. Just like how it is hard to keep two opposing thoughts in your head for a long time, it is difficult to experience two opposing emotions at the same time for any significant length of time, especially if you focus on one of the emotions. So by feeling a positive emotion and thinking about that positive emotion, you will starve the negative emotion of attention and energy, and it will die… hopefully.

    My friend watches inspiring feel-good movies. The movie diverts his attention (thoughts) from the negative emotion and inspires him to have positive emotions. Reading a book, going out with friends to dance (but not to talk about your bad feelings), or doing any activity that takes your mind off the negative emotion and also encourages you to have positive emotions will most likely work.

  3. In some cases, reframing may help to handle negative emotions. A negative judgment contains both thoughts and feelings. When we reframe the judgment, we change (more accurately, replace) the thoughts and feelings. In fact, an effective reframe causes you to experience an entirely different powerful emotion that overwhelms the original negative feeling; the more powerful, the more effective the reframe.

    For example, there is a story about a dad on an airplane with a crying son. The boy was screaming and the dad was incapable of quieting him down. The passengers nearby grew irritated, annoyed and angry. Finally, the dad explained in a trembling voice that the boy’s mother, his wife, had just died. The passengers felt shocked, sorry and even some shame, which immediately short-circuited all the irritation and anger. They then asked what they could do to help.

    Initially, in a reframe, I had believed that the explanation (thinking) was primarily responsible for changing the negative emotion, but it was really a much stronger emotional response which replaced both the negative emotion and thought. An effective reframe needs to provide an explanation that explains the behavior, diverts attention from the negative emotion to a strong new emotion, which overrides the old negative thought and feeling.

Hopefully the tools above will help you to break out of the negative thinking feeling feedback loops that we all experience as a part of life.

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Expectations Are Bad, M’kay?

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My friend was complaining that his neighbor was mean, that he knew this because of the few times he has said hi to her, she rarely replied and when she did, she sounded annoyed. I then had this conversation with him:

mrmackey

Me: “Yes, I used to be annoyed too until I learned to let go of my expectation that everyone should reply.”
Him: “No, I don’t have expectations of people like that.”
Me: “Well, you seem upset about it. Why are you upset?”
Him: “I was taught that when you greet someone, they should greet you back. That is common social decency.”
Me: “So you got irritated because she did not exhibit social decency?”
Him: “Yes.”
Me: “So you expected her to say hi back and when she didn’t, you got annoyed?”
Him (with chagrin): “Yeah, I guess I did have an expectation… but it was drilled into me by my parents.”
Me: “I understand. Most of my expectations came from my parents also.” (Another one to blame the parental units for!)

I believe that letting go of expectations is the key to avoid getting upset or annoyed by the actions of others or even by random events. If you expect your spouse to read your mind, be ready for disappointment. If you expect that life should be fair and bad things happen to you, you are going to be angry. I didn’t discover this principle; it is nothing new and is actually one of the primary teachings of Buddhism (and probably other faiths).

Training Wheels: The Anti-expectation

Unfortunately, there is no step-by-step manual to letting go of expectations. You are told to let go of expectations, but how to go about doing that? There are fortunate people out there who can just decide to let go, but I’m not one of them. I had to come up with my own method.

Because it is easier to replace something than to just get rid of it (leaving a vacuum), I decided that I needed to replace the expectations with something else. Similar to how a smoker would replace cigarettes with a nicotine patch, I decided to replace an expectation with its opposite, an anti-expectation. An anti-expectation is not a low expectation; it goes all the way to the opposite end. Optimists would call it a totally negative expectation; I call it keeping my sanity.

Some examples of anti-expectations:

  • I do not expect people to reply to my greeting or to demonstrate social decency at all.
  • I do not expect my spouse to read my mind.
  • Life is not fair. Sometimes, it looks like life is out to get me.

With high expectations, you’ll be disappointed most of the time. With low expectations, you’ll be disappointed some of the time. With strict anti-expectations, you’ll be occasionally pleased when people and events exceed your anti-expectations. Which kind of expectation would you rather adopt in your live?

For my friend, if he held the anti-expectation that his neighbor would not return his greeting, he can continue to greet her pleasantly, take her non-replies in stride, and occasionally be pleasantly surprised when she greets him back. Maybe, her greeting will be so enjoyable that it will give the rest of his day a positive glow.

If you are married and hold the anti-expectation that your spouse cannot read your mind at all, you’ll assume he or she is as obtuse as a rock (though very lovable) and requires very clear communications. And even when he or she messes up, you are not upset because well, what can you expect? You probably didn’t do a good enough job explaining it. And when they do exceed your expectation by getting it partly right or totally right (pigs are flying), you’ll be so giddy that your feet will not touch the ground for the rest of the day.

If you don’t expect life to be fair, you’ll be the calm at the center of any storm. Tornado throws a tree missile through your living room? Well, you’re just glad no one got hurt. When a cashier overcharges your grocery, you’re glad you only lost a few bucks instead of a million dollars because that could totally have happened! Your coworker, who you think is less capable (though still very likeable), gets the promotion you believe you deserve; oh well, it’s amazing that even one of you minions got promoted and it offers that tiniest chance that life will decide to stop screwing with you and promote you someday… maybe… probably not.

To start, you’ll need to practice identifying the broken expectation when you get disappointed, upset, or annoyed at the actions of others or events. Once you have identified the expectation, you can pretend that you believe in its opposite, the anti-expectation. Mulling over the anti-expectation will then quell the disappointment. (What are you disappointed about? After all, you anti-expected it in the first place. Duh!) With practice (a month or two), this will become a habit. With even more practice (several months), the time between the disappointment and move from expectation to anti-expectation will reduce — until the disappointment, identified expectation, and anti-expectation occur almost simultaneously.

Letting Go (After A Lot Of Hard Work)

Eventually (after half a year to a year of practice), you will find that things which bothered you in the past will no longer disappoint, upset, or irritate you. It would seem as if you have no expectations, that you have successfully let them go (at least for those expectations that you have practiced anti-expectations for). I believe that practicing the anti-expectation will train your subconscious mind to disregard the unmet expectation immediately, so that no emotion response occurs. Letting go of an expectation means that you are no longer affected by whether it is met or unmet.

Unfortunately, learning to let go of one expectation does not automatically get rid of all your other expectations. You will have to put in the work for each expectation that you identify and wish to let go of. Over time, with practice, it should become easier and less time-consuming to do the anti-expectation work.

Great Expectations

I don’t think it is healthy to let go of all your expectations. The expectations you might consider keeping are positive expectations concerning yourself (like achieving life goals) and expectations concerning how others should treat you (they should treat you well). If you keep those expectations, you will want to manage how you react when those expectations are not met or violated. You will want to react understandingly and calmly, while determining your next steps.

The solution is to simultaneously hold both the expectation and its anti-expectation in your head. The practice of recognizing your unmet expectation and then bringing its anti-expectation to mind should hopefully have given you this ability to have two conflicting thoughts at the same time (well, almost at the same time). When an expectation you have decided to keep is not met, the existence of its anti-expectation should blunt any emotional reaction and give you the clear head to decide what to do next.

If you have placed the expectation on yourself to win the gold medal, but end up with the bronze, it’s okay; you’ve tried your best. If a friend consistently mistreats you, you may decide to hold onto the expectation that friends should treat you well and gracefully reduce the time you spend with that friend. The anti-expectations should prevent any regrettable, emotional reaction. You’ll be more understanding and forgiving because you know that you are choosing to hold that expectation for yourself, not anyone else.

The Serenity Prayer authored by Reinhold Niebuhr:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”

I think the goal is to not hold expectations that you have no control over (other people’s actions and events) and to hold expectations that you have autonomy over (yourself, how you react to others, and how you allow yourself to be treated by others). I find this way of looking at things very empowering and hope that you will too.

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Ski in Jeans, Run in Tennis Shoes

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matterhornBack in the early 90’s, my college buddy and I decided to go skiing in the Swiss Alps. Never mind that we were beginner skiers, we were confident that we could tackle the Alps. We took a train to Zermatt, rented skis, took the lift to the top, looked in wonder at the nearby Matterhorn mountain, looked at the slopes, asked if we could re-board the lift to go back down, and the man said “the exit lift is 3 miles that way” with his finger pointing down-slope.

I had on my standard protective skiing outfit at the time: a pair of Levi’s jeans, t-shirt, sweat-top, blue-and-hot-pink jacket (from the 80’s), and neon red/pink gloves (also from the 80’s). My buddy had a comparable outfit on. On our best days, we could take a 30 degree slope, but starting from the top, we were looking at 45 degree slopes. Not wishing to die, we decided to sled down on our skis.

After much sledding, a few short bouts of skiing on small slopes, walking awkwardly on flat icy passages, shouting responses of “we’re okay, thanks for asking” to concerned skiers, we finally made it to the exit. We took so long that by the time the lift got to the bottom, it was almost dark. I had five holes in my jeans from the sledding; the two on my derriere were big enough that I had to hide them with my hands on the way back to the hotel.

Later, we found out that we were lucky because it would have been easy to head down the wrong side and end up in Italy (without our passports) instead of Switzerland. Looking back, I see that we were totally overmatched and unprepared, lacking the necessary skills and protective clothing. Still it was great fun once the ordeal was over. Youth are easily amused.

What strikes me is that back then, I was fine skiing around New England in jeans and whatever I had on hand. I didn’t feel the need for specialized winter clothing. Nowadays, I would need to spend several hundred dollars on thermal under-layers, a tri-climate jacket with high-tech materials, and waterproof snow pants before going skiing or snowboarding.

I feel that exercise and recreation have been commercialized, specifically in the expectation that I have to purchase expensive equipment as a prerequisite or precaution. To go jogging, I had better get running shoes that match my foot type and running form to prevent injuries. Back during high school track, I remembered that we had no problems running in tennis shoes (or whatever footwear we had on).

Now, I’m not against getting appropriate equipment if you want to, but I’m against being misled into believing that it is necessary or a safety requirement. Definitely, waterproof snow pants were a vast improvement over water-logged jeans. And if I ran a marathon, I would want the best footwear that I can afford. Or would I? It turns out that expensive, specialized running shoes may be no better, and may even increase the chances of injury, than an inexpensive, neutral pair.

“The First 20 Minutes” book by Gretchen Reynolds is a surprising look at how we exercise based upon the latest research. Reading it has caused me to change many of my assumptions. Here’s what I learned:

  • 150 minutes a week of light exercise (like walking) split into any chunk of time is enough to achieve health benefits. Do more intensity or duration to increase benefits.
  • High-intensity interval training (HIIT) can reduce that time drastically (150 minutes down to 6 minutes of hard exercise a week, not including prep and rest times) while gaining equivalent health benefits.
  • A warm-up (like stretching) before a workout may be counter-productive by tiring out muscles, so do it lightly or not at all. It’s better to just start easy; i.e., walk before you run. Having said that, dynamic stretching to activate the joints specific to the activity (handwalks for tennis) can be effective.
  • Cool-down activity doesn’t lessen soreness. Ibuprofen, massage, and ice bath don’t reduce soreness either, but may actually slow down recovery. Rest from vigorous activity is the most effective remedy.
  • During exercise, drink only when you are thirsty. After exercise, low-fat chocolate milk is better than Gatorade for recovery.
  • Moderate exercise doesn’t rev up your metabolism for the rest of the day; the extra calorie burning ends with the exercise session. And moderate exercise isn’t effective for weight loss because the body compensates with less activity and more appetite/food intake. However, prolonged or painfully intense exercise will maintain the increased metabolism and blunt the appetite, resulting in weight loss. (Moderate exercise is helpful for maintaining weight though. Exercise is also necessary to mitigate the bad side-effects of a low-carb diet like Atkin’s.)
  • Weight training (resistance exercises) improve cardio/endurance performance and vice versa.
  • Core strength (that is, having a six packs) do not improve athletic performance. Repeated bending of the spine can contribute to damage of the spinal discs, so go easy on (or forgo) crunches (or sit-ups).
  • Running is not a problem for many knees; marathon runners continue to have sturdy, healthy joints. However, running (and other intensive sports) does result in significantly more injuries than walking. In fact, elderly people who run lightly to moderately have healthier knees (less arthritis) than those who don’t.
  • Reduce the duration of cramps by stretching the muscle (if you can) and/or taking a shot of pickle juice (no one knows why pickle juice works, but it does).
  • Don’t use foot type as a basis for buying a running shoe because it is not clear that over- or underpronation is the real, underlying issue. Buy shoes that fit and feel right (and do not cause pain or discomfort) regardless of foot type. (The evidence is not solidly for or against barefoot running, so take it easy when transitioning to it.)
  • The biggest predictor of injury is a previous injury, so don’t get hurt in the first place. When hurt, cortisone injections will slow healing; it’s better to do nothing (wait and see) or undergo physical therapy.
  • Exercise is good for the brain, may improve cognitive capabilities, better your mood, and might prevent neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

The gist is that if you have not injured yourself with what you are doing for exercise (warm-up, using exercise equipment like shoes, eating/drinking before/during/after, and cool-down, etc.) and are comfortable doing it (no pain), then keep doing it. There is really no conclusive scientific evidence as to the best way to exercise.

Given all the benefits of exercise and really how little exercise we need to maintain our fitness, it is a no brainer to move. Walk a couple blocks to the grocery, take the stairs, park further from the store entrance, mow the lawn, vacuum the house, do push-ups when you are bored … it all adds up.

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Supportive Excitement For When Too Much Excitement Is Just Too Much

Personality No Comments

My friend was telling me about how he was doing a diet with his sister. More importantly, how he was suppressing his excitement about the new diet’s effectiveness so that his sister would be more excited about it. This is the first time he has consciously done this and it is born of past diet attempts when he was very excited and his sister was not. He was wondering why that was the case? Why did he have to dampen his excitement to avoid killing other people’s excitement and motivation to do things?

In the past, I had tried to speak with my friend about this very same subject, though not very well because I had not figured it out myself. Telling him how his excitement affected me didn’t really help him to understand because he is not wired that way (he is a thinker type). So I was very glad when he broached the subject because it meant that he is ready to learn. As they say, when the student is ready, the master will teach?

stewie_excited_animatedI explain that he tends to get extremely excited about things. He admits that he has cultivated the ability to pump himself up to atmospheric heights, to motivate himself to achieve. I reply that it is a great skill to have; but unfortunately, some (if not most) people don’t have that ability and their excitement (and motivation) usually builds slowly. And that his way can kill their way. Some people build their excitement like a small campfire and he, in turn, is the forest fire sweeping down on them. They are not going to keep nursing their fire, they are going to abandon it and get the heck out of there.

To further clarify, I reminded him about how we spoke about a first date I had a couple of months ago. I told my friend that the date went well, that I felt attracted to her, and was excited to go on more dates to get to know her better. My friend commented how wonderful that is and as he spoke more about it, he got visibly more excited in voice tone (faster and louder) and more expansive in body language (waving his hands about). My friend talked about how my date was a great match for me, pulling in details (that I had told him) such as how her teaching job gave her the summer off so she could travel and how I loved to travel. And when I married her and had kids, we could travel as a family in the summer because the kids would also get summer off from school. And since Valentine’s Day was coming up, my friend told me that I should plan a weekend trip as a test run to see how well we would travel together. Within a few minutes, my friend was at least 10 times more excited and pumped up about my date than I was. Suddenly, I wasn’t as excited about my date anymore. In fact, I was not feeling much of anything about the subject beyond a growing annoyance at your friend. I wasn’t sure why I was getting irritated; I only knew that I was. Why did that happening?

As far as I can determine, the loss of excitement is caused by the large dissonance between my excitement and my friend’s excitement. His extreme exuberance made me want to protect my small kernel of hope by going numb. I ended up feeling, well, not very excited at all. Because do you know who was really, really excited? My friend was. Maybe he should date the woman, I thought. This feeling and thought dampened my excitement down to zero.

I think this comparison happens for most everything (though I’m training myself not do it). Say that you are great at tennis; you enjoy it and love playing it. Then you meet a new friend who is 10 times better than you. Suddenly, you’re not feeling so good about tennis and don’t think you are great at it; actually, you think you’re a horrible tennis player. You feel bad. Even though you are better than most people, the comparison makes you feel that you are worse.

My friend says that he doesn’t react that way to the dissonance. That he wants to meet very excited people because he wants to become even more excited. I think there is truth to that. When someone is a little more excited than you, you can become more excited by association. However, when someone is 10-100 times more excited than you, it can serve as a dampener. Because he constantly pumps himself up so much, I doubt that my friend has encountered anyone who is 10 times more excited than him about anything that he wants to be excited about.

stewie_barfing_animatedMy friend is a brainstormer and problem solver. As I’m sure most women know, men generally will interrupt with solutions when all you may want is a friendly sympathetic ear. (This is why when a friend tells me about something troubling; I try to ask first, do you want suggestions to fix the problem?) I believe this focus on fixing is the cause of my annoyance above. His excitement is causing him to plan out my future. He means well. Unfortunately, the end state is that he is “telling” me what my future will be and what I should do to realize that future. His excitement makes him very forceful in tone, like he is commanding me. Nobody likes to be told what to do. I know he means well so my rational mind attempts to suppress the irritation while my subconscious is reacting very badly.

To help my friend, I coined the term “supportive excitement”. I told him that I believed that supportive excitement is what he should have as a goal and what he is aiming for with his sister. (D’oh! Here I am, telling him what to do.) He quickly objected, “But that’s what I do. I pump up other people’s excitement.” I replied, the emphasis is on supportive, support comes before your excitement. He asked me what that meant.

It means don’t be more excited than the other person. Be just a bit less excited and at worse, a little more excited. You want your excitement to reinforce theirs, not overwhelm. This is not a battle of attrition; you are on the same side. You want to give that person the gift of motivating himself. In turn, by trying to increase your mutual, supportive excitement, he will increase his own excitement and motivation.

And it means not dreaming or brainstorming more than they would. If they are dreaming up one or two good outcomes in the near future (like a second or third date), while you are coming up with 50 good outcomes spanning from the near future to the distant future (when they are married with kids), you have effectively overwhelmed any small hopeful dreams they may have. Again, the emphasis is on “supportive”. You want to re-enforce what small dreams they have, not overwhelm and kill off all their hopeful buddings. Rather than coming up with a vision of their life (can you see how assuming and offensive that is?) and throwing out your ideas on what they should do, you should ask them to expand on their small dreams. Give them the gift of cultivating their own hopes and dreams.

I think supportive excitement is what my friend is attempting to do with his sister concerning their new diet. I hope that I at least helped him to understand what he is trying to do so that he can be more effective at it. I can see that if he drops into his normal, volcanic, pumped-up excitement mode, it may just kill whatever motivation his sister has. And that would not be good for either of them, because in the end, he also needs her to maintain his own excitement and motivation.

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The Russian Roulette Diet

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014ChefDisclaimer: I am not a doctor, so take everything I write with a big pill of aspirin.

As I mentioned in my previous post, My Brain is Made Out of Saturated Fat!, after I added fat and meat back to my diet, my cholesterol levels strangely improved.

For two years, I had eliminated fat, reduced meat consumption, and exercised regularly to improve my blood chemistry. Dishearteningly, my cholesterol level refused to change (hovering around 230) and worse, my HDL (the good high-density cholesterol) decreased significantly (from 52 to 36). After watching the Fat Head movie, I started eating fats and meat moderately and even reduced the amount of exercise I got. My cholesterol level dropped to 200 and my HDL increased to 48, both borderline normal!

I didn’t understand why, but was just glad that I could enjoy the occasional, mouth-watering marbled steak again. I decided to eat everything I wanted, in moderation; though I continued to avoid sugar, especially in the form of soda, and heavily processed food items, like hot pockets.

In honor of my Russian coworker’s “eat everything but don’t overdo it, stupid” philosophy, I named this diet the Russian Roulette Diet. Basically, put all the different foods on the roulette, spin, and then consume whatever food gets landed on… in moderation. It’s Russian roulette because eventually, the latest science will warn us that a few of those food or food ingredients are very bad for us… and then tell us that what was bad before is now okay or good.

I just read Nina Teicholz’s book, titled “The Big Fat Surprise”, and it has cleared up some of my food confusion. Evidently, the modern recommendation to avoid fats, especially saturated fats (meat, butter and cheese), is not based upon good or sound science. This low-fat, low-cholesterol diet was proposed in the mid-20th century and then seized upon by the government (in the 1970’s) as the answer to the increase in heart disease rates during the first half of the 20th century. Since then, obesity and diabetes have increased drastically.

Instead, the preponderance of the scientific evidence suggests that eating meat, butter and cheese is better for our health. However, this is not a license to eat any sort of fat, saturated or otherwise.

I recommend avoiding heavily processed food such as meat that has been pulverized and glued back together (with chemicals and preservatives) into a pleasing shape, a chicken nugget. Or fried food. Restaurants may be using trans-fat-free vegetable oil to fry with, but under sustained high heat, the vegetable oil (which is less stable than trans-fat-producing hydrogenated oils) may breakdown into toxic oxidative products. The long-term effect on the human body of such products is unknown.

Meat Good

From the Fat Head movie and the book, I learned that eating animal fat increases HDL and eating carbohydrates increases LDL (and lowers HDL). When I ate more fat and meat, my HDL increased and because I ate less carbohydrates (rice) as a result (of eating more meat), my LDL decreased. My total cholesterol dropped to around 200 (borderline normal).

There is no correlation between LDL and heart disease. There is a correlation between HDL and heart disease though. A follow-up to the famous, long-term Framingham Heart Study (which followed participants from 1948 and is still continuing today with their children and grand-children) indicates that someone with a HDL less than 35 mg/dL has eight times more risk of heart attacks than someone with a HDL greater than 65 mg/dL.

So, one can safely ignore the total cholesterol level (until it reaches near 300) and concentrate on the HDL level instead.

country6plotCorrelation is Not Causation

That correlation does not imply causation is drilled into every student of science. Just because B follows A does not mean A causes B.

Ancel Keys, the scientist who promoted the linkage of fat (in the diet) to serum cholesterol (in the blood) to heart disease, used the chart to the right to show a correlation between increased fat consumption and greater occurrence of heart disease. Keys concluded that fat is the cause of heart disease.

Yerushalmy and Hilleboe, two other scientists, showed that no correlation is evident when more than the six countries hand-picked by Keys are plotted. The plot of data from 22 countries suggests that the correlation between fat and heart disease is false.

country22plot.jpgYerushalmy theorized that wealth is the cause of increased heart disease rates. Rising prosperity in the mid-20th century led to increased consumption of sugar, protein (meat) and margarine (trans-fat), a more sedentary lifestyle (population movement to cities, use of automobiles), and increased vices such as smoking.

Wealth makes sense to me. People eat richer, unhealthier food (more calories in) and exercise less (less calories out). Weight increases and diseases (like diabetes and heart disease) are more prevalent. It seemed to me that Key’s six countries were the most industrialized and prosperous countries at the time, and all of them had increasing rates of heart disease as compared to Japan (less industrialized). If we look at countries that have industrialized recently, are growing prosperous, and have adopted the American diet (highly-processed, carbohydrate-rich food and sugar) like China, we see that they are experiencing increasing rates of obesity and diabetes.

Sugar is the Enemy

The “The Big Fat Surprise” book suggests that sugar is the enemy of the heart. High sugar levels in the blood cause inflammation and tearing of the artery. The damaged artery is then infected by bacteria (ever present in our body; the same bacteria responsible for gum disease). White blood cells and LDL (the supposedly bad low-density cholesterol) kill bacteria and fix the tearing. Cholesterol is not the cause, it is the spackle. Just because one sees a lot of spackle on the artery walls (of a person with heart disease) does not mean that the spackle is the cause (of the disease). The culprit is whatever is causing the damage and most likely, the culprit is sugar.

Furthermore, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that the narrowing or shortening of arteries (arteriosclerosis) is a cause of heart disease. The plaque (cholesterol spackle) buildup which leads to the arterial narrowing may just be a fact of growing old, caused by the multiple repairs across the years of infection. Or it could very well be that some plaque grows unstable (cause unknown), detaches from the artery wall, floats along the blood stream, and eventually causes a heart blockage. Until we know for certain, reducing sugar consumption seems to be the most prudent action.

Avoiding sugar means avoiding refined carbohydrates and fruit juice. The human body easily converts refined carbohydrates into glucose (a simple sugar) in the blood. Hence, the recommendation to eat unrefined brown rice instead of refined white rice, because the body will take longer to convert the brown rice (which avoids a sudden increase of blood sugar). Likewise, the body converts fruit juice easily into fructose (also a simple sugar) in the blood. Eating a whole fruit is recommended instead because the fiber (in whole fruit) slows down the absorption of the fructose into the blood stream.

Update: The book, “Good Calories, Bad Calories” by Gary Taubes, suggests an alternative cause of obesity that provides a compelling explanation for the role of carbohydrate/sugar. The book posits the following:

  1. “The basic proposition is that obesity is caused by a regulatory defect in fat metabolism” where rate of energy storage (fat) exceeds energy release; internally, the body starves which leads to over-eating and/or inactivity.
  2. “Insulin plays the primary role in this fattening process, and the compensatory behaviors of hunger and lethargy.”
  3. “Carbohydrates, and particularly refined carbohydrates — and perhaps the fructose content as well, and thus the amount of sugars consumed — are the prime suspects in the chronic elevation of insulin; hence, they are the ultimate cause of common obesity.”

So, to reduce the rate of energy storage, we need to reduce the level of blood insulin (“insulin regulates fat deposition”). To reduce insulin levels, we need to reduce the intake of carbohydrates (“carbohydrates regulate insulin”). To reduce the consumption of carbohydrates (sugar and starch), we need to increase the consumption of protein, fats, and non-starchy vegetables; evidently, people on non-carb or carb-restricted diets usually get satiated faster (don’t feel hungry all the time), so they tend not to overeat.

Listen to Your Body

Thankfully, my body tells me clearly when I am eating particularly badly. Besides having taste buds that prefer salt, my body punishes me if I consume too much sugar. After consuming a lot of sweets, I will get a sore throat within an hour and/or a mouth sore within a day (which then lasts for days). I can only eat a certain amount of cheese or meat per day before I get an upset stomach.

An essential part of the Russian Roulette Diet is to listen to your body. Your body will tell you in minor and major ways when you are consuming a particular food past your own healthy limits.

Now go out there and eat some poor, defenseless animal.

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