Since I'm a recovering bulimic, I have to keep a close eye on my relationship with food. Lately, I've been struggling with food a bit. More accurately, I've been ambushing food. Struggle suggests resistance and the problem with food is that it never puts up much of a fight. It just sits there and lets me eat it all, which is quite passive-aggressive of food. It's not totally food's fault, though. Food really just gets used by me as a way to numb myself when I get anxious. When I start to overeat, I'm really looking for peace, but since I'm not sure how to get that, I'll take second best. Second best, for me, is a carb and sugar-induced coma. Comatose on the couch = not feeling much. So, mission accomplished. We overeat because it works. Not in the long run, of course. but the long run is really just for enlightened people.
My overachieving therapist insists that in fact, the long run is for EVERYONE. Since she can't help food be more assertive (since it doesn't have insurance), she said I should start keeping "danger food" out of my house. In order to identify my "danger foods," she asked what my go-to foods are when I'm anxious or lonely or sad. Cereal, I said. Once I start with the cereal, it's really all over. If there's a little milk left in the bottom I can't WASTE it because I'm really responsible so I have to keep refilling and refilling the bowl until I'm almost dead. And so my therapist said, "Great, let's start by keeping cereal out of the house -- especially when you're feeling vulnerable." "OK," I said. "So... always?" And she said, "Yes, we'll start with always."
I tell you all of this because I am about explain how social media, like food, can be threatening to my well-being. I've been thinking about this a lot lately, because an unexamined social media life isn't worth living. Inherently, I do not think that social media is any more dangerous than Rice Krispies. I just think that for some, social media + human nature can become problematic, so some of us have to keep a close eye on our relationship with it. If you are the type who can flirt with Facebook and General Mills and a glass of chardonnay without landing yourself in the mental hospital -- well, congrats, really. Good for you. Consider this an opportunity to delve into the mind of someone less fortunate.
I went on an Internet fast recently -- I spent 40 days without logging on to anything. Here is what I learned about how I had allowed social media to change me over the years.
1. Social media had transformed me into an input junkie. Without social media, I experienced the same restless anxiety I felt while detoxing from alcohol. I was twitchy and fidgety. I simply didn't know what to do with myself. During every un-filled moment, I felt the urge to "check" something -- anything. Facebook, Twitter, my blog, Instagram -- just give me something through which to SCROLL! I had become unable to just sit with myself. I have "Be Still" tattooed on my wrist because I know that feelings, creativity, inspiration, wisdom, peace and the rest of the good stuff knock during empty moments -- and that if we're too "busy" to answer the door, they sneak into our souls through cracked windows and haunt us. We have to answer the knocks we hear in the quiet because it's our LIFE knocking. But sometimes, answering the door feels like too much to ask -- so, I log onto the Internet in order to LOG OUT of my life. I habitually log on for the same reason I used to overeat and get drunk -- to avoid what I know I'll hear in the quiet, which might be a voice that requires me to feel or do something uncomfortable. So, the Internet has become my enabler. It keeps me from stillness and discomfort, and this keeps me from growing. Pema Chodron said, "So even if the hot loneliness is there, and for 1.6 seconds we sit with that restlessness when yesterday we couldn't sit for even one, that's the journey of the warrior." The Internet allows me to avoid my hot loneliness, and that squashes a whole lot of my peace and potential for growth.
2. I'd become a validation junkie, too. The hardest part of living without social media was remembering that my little life was enough, so I could just stay there and live it without asking for anyone else's permission or validation. I realized that for me, posting is like asking the world -- do you "like" me? Am I special enough? Am I funny enough, deep enough, smart enough, successful enough, love-able enough? How much do you like my opinion about this, that, and every other thing? Even if we're looking to people we love for these answers we're entering dangerous territory, but when we constantly ask a cyberworld full of strangers if we're worthy? Not good. It seems we're the first generation to graduate from high school -- to escape all of its competition and insecurity and desperation for belonging and attention -- and then to voluntarily throw ourselves RIGHT BACK into it.
3. Social media lured me toward shallow and rigid thinking. In order to navigate the Internet world, we learn to make things more black-and-white than they are in order to fit our thoughts into status updates and blog comments. When I was detoxing from social media, I realized that I was thinking in status updates. It seemed I had trained my brain to translate everything I experienced throughout the day into 140 characters or less. Everything complex became simple, everything beautiful became ordinary, everything three-dimensional quickly became just two. A week passed before I stopped automatically translating every indescribable moment, sunset or conversation with my kids into two sentences. I had to learn to stop shoving life into tweets and just let things be wild and big again.
4. Social media threatened my only source of real peace and joy, which is gratitude. All of this posting about my life shoved me out of THE MOMENT, which is where gratitude lives. Choosing to live my life out on social media meant that I was never truly present because as soon as a great moment presented itself to me, I jumped right out of it. My brain said, Well, this is something remarkable, and then leaped immediately to: how am I going to describe this, and where? Facebook, Twitter, Instagram? With this, I moved right out of the moment, into my head and then onto my computer -- and just like that, the moment was lost. My kids might still be there, but I wasn't. The sunset might still be there, but I wasn't. And since gratitude is in the now and gratitude is the only path to joy, choosing to hop out of the now and into the cyber-world is rejecting gratitude and stealing joy from myself. And so I had to retrain myself to live in gratitude again. To stay present with beautiful people and moments. Because I've found that remarking on every remarkable thing just makes everything less remarkable.
5. During my Internet fast, I learned that social media makes me feel bad. Halfway through my fast I decided to cheat, because that's just the kind of person I am. I logged onto Facebook and clicked on a post from another blogger whom I love and respect and for whom I wish All The Good Things. Her post was an announcement that she had just won a well-deserved writing award, and as I read her good news, I started to notice that my stomach was tightening up. I "scanned my body" to check for input, as my yoga teacher taught me. And I noticed that my shoulders were sagging and I felt a flutter in my chest like a low-grade panic. What the hell, I thought. What's going on here? What was going on was comparison. I was comparing my life to hers and as they say, comparison is the thief of joy. Like I once heard an Olympic swimmer say: "I swim best when I mentally stay in my own lane." No matter how satisfied I am with my stroke and my pace before I log on, Facebook shoves me right out of my own lane and back into the ridiculous hunch that I'm not good enough, that I'm missing something important, that I don't have enough peace and success and that everyone else is living a more fulfilling, fabulous life than I am. If Facebook has this effect on us, we can forgive ourselves. Because all we're doing is using it exactly the way it was intended to be used. Facebook was designed by college boys to decide how "hot" one woman was compared to another, and now we use it to decide how hot one woman's life is compared to another's. Sometimes.
When I was in college, I went out partying every night because I had a serious case of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). FOMO is powerful and sometimes compels us to make less-than-healthy choices because we don't want to feel left out. I wonder if FOMO is what keeps many of us so closely tied to social media. On my Internet fast, I learned that I was right to have FOMO, because I was missing something, and it was my real life. These people -- the ones in my home and in the post office and in my kids' school and in my neighborhood -- they are real life, and my real life deserves my full and undivided attention.
Last year, Craig and I took the kids to a high school football game. The students were hanging around in awkward circles, trying to get noticed or trying not to get noticed, just like we did in high school. But we noticed with sadness one major difference. EVERY KID WE SAW was on her phone. I understood. There is so much hot loneliness in high school that if I'd had a phone back then, I'd likely have melted into it completely to avoid my feelings. Maybe I'd have become addicted to my phone instead of food. But still, it felt sad to me. Because everybody was there, but not really there. Everybody was together, but not really together. Everybody seemed somewhere else and alone. I think too much life spent on social media can make us perpetually somewhere else and alone.
But I also can't deny that social media has added so much good to my life and the world, too. Just last week, Momastery was used to raise $100,000 in six hours for families in need. The word for this Love Flash Mob got out through social media. And at least once a day, the people behind the little profile pictures on Facebook and Twitter remind me that We Belong To Each Other, and that DOES bring me peace. I often feel like support and love is actually flowing from you, through my computer and directly into my heart. I really feel that. I LOVE that. And so I won't quit social media. Like everything else in life, it's not good or bad. Maybe it's just that there are helpful and not so helpful ways to use it. And so I'm going to explore how to use it helpfully and healthfully. I'm going to write social media underneath food on my list of things I can either use to nourish or numb, to check in or check out. I'm going to set some healthy boundaries and keep a close eye on our relationship. I'n going to continue exploring how to use social media in life-giving instead of soul-sucking ways. I'll keep you fully appraised of how we evolve together.
Now if you will excuse me, I have to go Facebook and Tweet the heck out of this post.
You've probably heard that stress can seriously up your risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks and other heart problems. While researchers aren't sure exactly why, the research is unanimously in favor of relaxation for your heart's sake. "There are studies to show that stress is comparable to other risk factors that we traditionally think of as major, like hypertension, poor diet and lack of exercise," Kathi Heffner, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at the Rochester Center for Mind-Body Research at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, told Health.com. Intense, sudden periods of stress or shock, like a breakup or even winning the lottery, can trigger such a rush of adrenaline that the heart can't function properly, resulting in heart failure or heart attack-like symptoms. In the case of a breakup or death of a loved one, this has become known as broken heart syndrome. Flickr photo by epSos.de
Sheldon Cohen, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has been at the forefront of stress research since the 1990s. Early on, he showed that chronic stress lasting more than a month but less than six months doubled a person's risk of catching a cold. His more recent research has tried to figure out why, and results seem to point to inflammation. It appears that stress hampers the body's ability to fight inflammation, by making immune cells less sensitive to the hormone that "turns off" inflammation, HealthyDay reported. Flickr photo by anna gutermuth
A March study found that, at least in mice, chronic stress impaired the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain involved in abstract thought, cognitive analysis and detecting the appropriate behavior for a given situation. Previous research in mice also showed that shorter bursts of stress impaired the centers of the brain involved in memory and learning, and left the mice struggling to remember how to find their way through a maze. A number of studies have also found that stress increases the amount of certain proteins in the brain that have been linked to Alzheimer's, possibly accelerating the development of the disease. Flickr photo by Sarah DuMay
A 2007 University of Cambridge study found that people who coped the best with stressful life events had a 24 percent lower risk of stroke. It may be partly due to the fact that people who handle stress well often are healthy in other ways, like exercising regularly and not smoking. A 2011 study examined the specific effects of work-related stress, and found that among middle- and upper-class men, psychological stress caused about 10 percent of strokes. Flickr photo by Florin Gorgan
Studies have shown that chronic stress can kill brain cells, and even prevent the creation of new ones, in the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in a healthy response to stress, according to Time.com. In 2011, a study in mice illustrated these findings and began to explain one possible way antidepressants work. The mice exposed to a stressful situation didn't want to eat, gave up during a swimming task much faster and exhibited "pleasurelessness" -- similar to human depression symptoms like loss of appetite, sadness and hopelessness. In humans, the prolonged presence of stress hormone cortisol can reduce levels of serotonin and dopamine, which are linked to depression. Stress is also likely to exacerbate mood problems in people with a history of depression or bipolar disorder, and could trigger relapse. Flickr photo by Danny Nicholson
It's no surprise that when you're under stress, you might not always be thinking so clearly. But a 2012 study found that stress seems to actually change how we weigh risks and rewards, and can cloud our judgment when we are faced with important decisions. Counterintuitively, stressed-out people actually tend to focus on the positive, and may ignore the cons of the decision they're about to make, one of the study's authors, Mara Mather Ph.D., a professor of gerontology and psychology at the University of Southern California, said in a statement. That may also help explain why alcoholics crave a drink more when they're under pressure. "The compulsion to get that reward comes stronger and they're less able to resist it," Mather said. Flickr photo by Daehyun Park
We love a good comfort food every once in a while, but reaching for foods high in fat and sugar too often can pack on the pounds, and stress makes it harder to resist. Cortisol increases appetite, and may even specifically encourage junk food cravings. Flickr photo by fwooper
It's a vicious cycle: You're stressed about that presentation at work, so you break out, and then you're stressed about the breakout! Researchers aren't exactly sure why, but stress seems to up the amount of oil produced by the skin, clogging pores and causing acne, according to WebMD. Flare-ups of other skin problems, like psoriasis, have also been linked to stress, and can be equally stressful themselves. But relaxing really helps: A 1998 study found that psoriasis plaques cleared up more quickly in people who regularly meditated.
One of the big reasons that women lose that lovin' feeling is stress, but men aren't immune either. In fact, Kinsey Institute researchers found that stress zaps the libido of around 30 percent of men (although another 21 percent said it actually increased their sex drive.). "Men are more likely to see sex as a stress reliever, whereas for many busy women, their husband's desire is just another demand on their time and energy," Alice Domar, Ph.D., director of the Mind/Body Center for Women's Health at Boston IVF told Ladies Home Journal. Flickr photo by pedrosimoes7
While research on the effects of stress on cancer growth are largely inconclusive, there is some evidence pointing toward a link between stress and breast cancer aggressiveness. Relaxing not only seems to delay the progression of the disease, but may also speed recovery. And if you're currently cancer free, relaxing now can keep you healthy later. A 2003 study found that stress may double a woman's risk of developing breast cancer down the line.
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