Staying Motivated with Mindfulness

When it comes to sport or behavior change, motivation is usually defined as the drive to engage in an activity (Walker, Foster, Daubert, & Nathan, 2005). It is what prompts us to action, therefore, motivation is not only the behavior itself but it also represents the underlying reasons for one’s behavior, desires, and needs. All of these factors can make staying motivated more complex than it seems. Often the “just do it” philosophy does not help here. So what does help?

Mindfulness. (Before your roll your eyes and think this is a hippy-dippy trend, hear me out.)

Yes, mindfulness has become awfully trendy as of late, but for good reason. Mindfulness is at the center of how to stay motivated, feel happier, and reduce stress. The power of mindfulness is undeniable. Mindfulness has been studied and proven to change your brain in just 8 weeks- shrinking the part of the brain that responds to stress, and thickening the prefrontal cortex (i.e. the executive functioning part of the brain), and essentially re-wiring your brain for improved concentration and stress reduction (Taren, Creswell, & Gianaros, 2013). Furthermore, mindfulness-based interventions are clinically efficacious, meaning that mindfulness-based tools have been scientifically proven to be helpful in treating mental health concerns like stress, depression, anxiety, and even chronic pain to name a few (Kabat-Zinn, 2003).

So what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). Mindfulness has roots in Buddhist philosophy and meditation and has been adapted by western psychologists and incorporated into several theories and approaches to therapy, such as in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Basically, mindfulness is the skill of “tuning in” to the inner world of our thoughts, sensations, feelings, and behaviors, especially when the world around us makes it very easy, even habitual, to tune out. Sounds simple enough, right? Well…yes and no.

To successfully use mindfulness to stay motivated towards achieving your health goals, you must do two things simultaneously- practice mindfulness AND engage in your goal behavior. Although mindfulness is considered a “conscious discipline”, it doesn’t have to be difficult or time consuming. In fact, you already have the major mindfulness tool at your disposal, your breath. All you have to do is pay attention to it. Once you have practiced paying attention to your breath more regularly, you can use it as an anchor and reminder to “tune in” to your thoughts and feelings. This information is vital to understanding why we might “fall off the workout wagon” or not feel motivated even if the goal is seemingly important to us. (By the way, falling off the wagon is normal and common. Motivation is not something that can be sustained indefinitely. To think that you will keep the same high level of motivation throughout this program is setting yourself up for failure. Motivation is something to continue to cultivate and re-ignite over and over again.)

If you are struggling to engage in your goal behavior regularly, stop trying to force the behavior to happen. My guess is that you are only feeling worse about “not feeling motivated” or “eating that bag of Cheetos” the more you think about it. Using pressure, or worse shame, to motivate ourselves into doing something is not a long-term solution to finding and maintaining motivation.*

My advice is to start practicing mindfulness as a way to get back on track. Here are 3 tips to using mindfulness for motivation:

The first exercise to get back on track is to practice mindful breathing (and meditation if possible). When you turn your attention to your breath, you practice detachment from whatever stimulus is distracting you or causing stress and engage your body’s relaxation response. Start by noticing the breath as you inhale and exhale, observing the sensations of the breath as you breathe. Breathe into your belly and try to take gentle, deep inhales to avoid shallow, anxious breathing. Next, notice any thoughts, feelings, or sensations that might distract you from paying attention to your breath and let them go. (Try using the image of watching the thoughts float away on a cloud or down a stream. This is called thought defusion.) Finally, as you continue to pay attention to your breath, focus on extending the outbreath to deepen the sense of relaxation. Taking just a few minutes per day to practice mindful breathing can help you to cope with stress and allow you to re-group if you are feeling low on motivation. (Other mindful breathing exercises can be found with a simple Google search.)

The second tool to get back on track is to practice mindfulness of thoughts. Using your breath to anchor you and tap into your internal dialogue, examine what types of thoughts you are having. One of the biggest killers of motivation is negative self-talk. Criticizing ourselves is not only de-motivating, but it can be demoralizing. Using mindfulness to listen to your self-talk is the first step in creating a plan to address and change your thoughts into more helpful and motivating thoughts. A quick guide for what to do next with negative self-talk can be found here: http://www.apsu.edu/sites/apsu.edu/files/counseling/COGNITIVE_0.pdf

The third tool is practicing mindfulness of feelings and body. Using exercise as a mindful activity is a great way to explore your relationship with your body and begin to appreciate it for all that it allows you to do. Furthermore, food and feelings are tightly related. If you are struggling to change eating habits, paying attention to your feelings is essential. Once you can identify the connections between mood and food in your life, you will open up endless opportunities to regain control, overcome common obstacles, and address the issue at the source. If you would like to learn more about mindfulness and food, I would recommend reading Eating Mindfully by Susan Albers, Psy.D.

Finally, when all else fails, cut yourself some slack and surround yourself with people you feel comfortable with and energized by. When your motivation gauge is on “E”, fuel up by letting someone else be your cheerleader or inspire you.

(*If you are struggling with chronic low motivation and energy and have concerns about your well-being, please seek medical or psychological advice as there could also be an organic or psychological cause for why you are not feeling motivated or engaged in your goals.)

References:

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003), Mindfulness-Based Interventions in Context: Past, Present, and Future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10: 144–156. doi: 10.1093/clipsy.bpg016

Taren, A.A., Creswell, J.D., & Gianaros, P.J. (2013). Dispositional mindfulness co-varies with smaller amygdala and caudate volumes in community adults. PLoS ONE 8(5): e64574. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064574

Walker, B., Foster, S., Daubert, S., & Nathan, D. (2005). Motivation. In J. Taylor & G. Wilson (Eds.) Applying Sport Psychology (3-19). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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Why Willpower is Bullsh*t

I’m going to put this out there knowing it will be controversial. I don’t believe in  willpower. Not even a little bit. I actually hate the word. I hate it even more when I hear a client use the word. Keep in mind, this is not only the perspective of a psychologist (i.e. shrink, touchy-feely therapist, enter your own stigma of a therapist here…), but also the perspective of a former collegiate athlete and endurance sport athlete. Sport experiences like mine should have entrenched me in the belief of willpower. The culture of sport is laden with the concept of willpower and its connection to success and goal achievement. Not to mention the influence of media, my gender, and personal family culture should all have me believing that willpower is the key to success, thinness, intelligence, athleticism, etc, etc, blah, blah blah. But it is simply not true. Willpower is bullsh*t.

I don’t ever believe that a lack of willpower is someone’s reason for not engaging in a behavior, for example changing their diet or exercising. Why you ask? Because the concept of willpower takes on a demeaning and derogatory meaning, especially when it comes to weight loss. It becomes a way that we shame ourselves into motivation, which DOES NOT WORK. For example, how many times have you said to yourself something like, “I didn’t have enough willpower to resist those cookies,” or, “I had enough willpower to resist the temptation of…,” or, “Sticking to my exercise plan only takes willpower”? Now let me ask you these questions: How has that worked for you? Did you find yourself getting down on yourself? What did it do for your motivation or your attitude or mood?

How about this doozy…Have you ever had a friend, family member, or personal trainer tell you or imply that your lack of being able to lose weight or manage your eating is a result of your lack of willpower? I bet that felt really great. Of course it didn’t! It feels awful! My response when a client tells me that someone they know implied they should simply “just exercise” or “just stop eating this or that” is always some variation of, “Well gosh darn it, why didn’t we think of that? Your lifelong problem is immediately solved! Why didn’t you think of that?” Of course, I’m being facetious and it always generates some levity and laughter amidst topics that are generally heavy and emotional. But seriously though, I think I’ve made my point about how perpetuating the myth that willpower is the key to changing a behavior is not at all helpful.

All of the previous statements and variations of them are messages that imply willpower is 1) something outside of you, 2) something to attain, or/and 3) something that you are deficient in. Based on the willpower myth, if you do (insert unhealthy behavior)/don’t do (insert goal behavior), then you are bad or there is something wrong with you. Ultimately the willpower belief is shaming and therefore reinforcing negative beliefs and diminishing your self-efficacy and esteem.

So what do I believe in? I believe in self-efficacy, personal power, persistence, and resilience. All of these qualities and beliefs can be learned and generated within a person. When one believes that she has the resources to be able to succeed, she feels in control of her efforts, she believes she can cope with problems or set-backs, and she knows how to get back on track, change is possible. And moreover, mood improves, self-esteem improves, and your perspective on life and your goals changes for the better.

I supposed one could argue that any one of those attributes/qualities could be turned into a shaming tactic. Yes, this could be true. For example, “I’m not persistent enough.” Anything could be made negative if we try hard enough. In some cases, as with a depressive disorder, it is not a matter of “trying hard enough” for the individual, but a general maladaptive and negative way in which the person views herself, others, and the world. This person often feels hopeless when it comes to change and therefore it can be challenging to develop resilience. In this case, the focus of sessions would likely include cognitive-behavioral approaches in addition to a behavior modification approach. However, these approaches also include tenants of resilience training such as encouraging insight and reframing. So underneath it all, we are still working on building resilience.

I often work with clients on issues like depression or anxiety in addition to the goal behavior they wish to change. Sometimes these clients don’t even realize that there are other issues at play until we get into “the nitty gritty” of why they want to change and readiness to change. (By the way, readiness to change will be a topic in an upcoming blog post so stay tuned…) In many of these cases, things like emotional eating, weight gain, or unhealthy habits become viewed as a symptom of underlying emotional concerns. This also highlights the value of seeking help with a licensed psychologist as opposed to another type of helping professional (i.e. wellness coach, life coach, personal trainer). Not to bash these professionals, since I give mad props to any person who dedicates their career to helping others, but a psychologist who specializes in health and weight loss is adequately prepared to help you work with multiple levels of the presenting concern. Therefore, you are working on alleviating the symptoms (i.e. working to reduce emotional eating and incorporating healthy behaviors) while you are also addressing the issue at the root. This approach has the best prognosis for MAINTENANCE of the behavior change; meaning if your goal is to lose weight, you are more likely to lose it AND keep it off.* (At the same time, a psychologist is not the sole answer to a problem like weight loss. Talking about losing weight likely won’t make you lose weight in and of itself. Make sure you have a team of professionals to address the aspects of weight loss that you struggle with so you have the professional support you need. A team approach with health-related concerns is considered to be a best-practice in the field.)

Exceptions aside, I would encourage you to think about yourself and your goals from a new perspective: Building Resilience. To be resilient means to handle life’s stressors face and adversity without letting oneself become defined or thwarted by those experiences. To be resilient is to experience hardships and continue to grow. Although some people are naturally predisposed to be more resilient, it is not an inborn trait that you either have or don’t. An article from Psychology Today described it best, “Resilient people don’t walk between the raindrops; they have scars to show for their experience. They struggle—but keep functioning anyway. Resilience is not the ability to escape unharmed. It is not about magic.” (Marano, 2003) You do not have to be defined by your experiences. Resilience can be cultivated.

For more on the science of resilience as well as the characteristics of resilient people, stay turned for the next blog post. Until then…

Be the best you,

Megan

Megan Pietrucha, Psy.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist

* For more information about how psychologists can help you lose weight, please see this article by the American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/weight-control.aspx

Marano, H. E. (2003, May 1). The art of resilience. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200305/the-art-resilience

3 Tips for Maintaining Motivation

I recently read a quote that goes something like this, “There are three reasons why people change: They have learned a lot, they have suffered a lot, and/or they are tired of the same thing.” I find that people often come into counseling and seek to change for at least one, and many times all three of these reasons. Regardless, the driving force behind change is commonly pain or some variation of it. It’s in human nature to want to avoid pain. It’s what we do. So we seek change in the form of more happiness, stress relief, or to be healthier. Initially pain can be a very motivating and powerful force to propel us toward change. However, using pain, punishment, or self-loathing as a form of motivation to change is not a helpful tactic. In fact, it can be very damaging in the long term. Other times, our pain can be overwhelming and crippling. I often hear people say, “There’s so much. I just don’t even know where to start.”

Luckily, there are people and programs who can help you build on your desire to change and identify places to start.  My goal as a therapist and coach who specializes in weight loss and behavior change is to address common problems to sustaining that motivation. This is not meant to be an instructional guide, because I don’t believe there can ever be a generic step-by-step program that fully captures the process of change because we are all unique. Each person is unique, each goal is unique to that person, and each person’s journey is unique. That being said, there are some common themes in how we encounter roadblocks to happiness and success that we all experience in our own ways. I’ve summed up how to maintain motivation in 3 points:

  1. Planning is doing. Thinking is doing. Thinking about doing is doing.

Before you can run, you first learn to crawl. Same is true to changing behavior. Before we can move into action, we must prepare ourselves for action. I recently started to commit myself to a green smoothie a day. Instead of starting on “day 1”, I planned a “day 0” where I made a special trip to the grocery store and gathered up at least a week’s worth of food. This way I wasn’t overwhelmed on day 1 and couldn’t give myself any valid excuse for not following through with my goal. Reminding ourselves that thinking about doing is a step towards action can help ward off feelings of discouragement that we “haven’t done anything”, which ultimately lead to less motivation to engage in a behavior and decreased sense of efficacy. Give yourself more credit! (**Check back in a few weeks for more on this topic, why I don’t believe in willpower, and the stages of change.**)

  1. Do less.

If you haven’t seen the movie, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, rent it this weekend. There’s a scene in that movie that I refer to often. It’s the scene where the heartbroken and depressed Peter is in Hawaii trying to get over his break-up with Sarah (who ends up being there also) and he signs up for surf lessons in an attempt to break out of his depression. While trying to teach Peter to stand up on the board, the instructor yells at him to, “Do less!”, meaning to move more slowly and break down the motion of standing up into a more fluid and simple process. Eventually Peter just lays on the board not moving at all, to which the instructor says something like, “Well, you’ve gotta do a little more than that.” This is a familiar place we often find ourselves within the journey of creating new behaviors. We try and try and try, until we don’t know what else to do. So we blame ourselves for the failure and we get stuck in either the same cycle or resign to doing nothing. But there is great wisdom in the art of doing less. Another trick to behavior change is to break your goal behavior down into smaller and smaller steps. We don’t often realize that the goals we set for ourselves can be scary, daunting, and sometimes lofty. Break your goal into small measurable, attainable, and realistic action steps. Even when you think you’ve broken down your goal into the smallest steps, think again. Break them down further. When you feel like you’ve tried everything and you’re trying your hardest, but still not seeing the results you wanted, do less. Take your foot off the gas. Lay down on your surf board and stand up slower. Take a step back and decide to take 1 small step at a time. Acknowledge it as progress. Then master the little steps and acknowledge those steps as significant. Mastering the building blocks will help you build confidence, motivation, and provide a base to return to if (and when, because let’s face it, we are all only human and stuff happens that throws us off track all the time!) roadblocks happen.

  1. Have a beginner’s mind.

 Try. Fail. Forgive. Try again. Fail again. Forgive again. Repeat. It’s okay if you feel disappointed or upset with yourself if you fall off course. That means you care about yourself and your goals. Learning to detach and forgive ourselves for mistakes or struggles is one of the most valuable aspects of the change process. When we fail, we can see it as an opportunity to learn something about ourselves and our journey. When we can focus on increasing the capacity for resilience, we increase positive emotional experiences and thus increase general life satisfaction (Cohn, Fredrickson, Brown, Mikels, & Conway, 2009). This study also suggests that happy people become more satisfied not simply because they feel better, but because they develop resources for living well. When we fail, we build resilience. And that resilience will take us farther in our process towards becoming the best version of ourselves than any step-by-step or generic process can ever take us.

Resource:

Michael A. Cohn, Barbara L. Fredrickson, Stephanie L. Brown, Joseph A. Mikels, Anne M. Conway

Emotion.

Published in final edited form as: Emotion. 2009 June; 9(3): 361–368. doi: 10.1037/a0015952

2/13/15

@Copyright Megan E. Pietrucha, Psy.D., LLC

 

Food is not the Issue- Part 1

As I was web surfing today, I came across this New York Post article about the show, The Biggest Loser. (You can read the article for yourself here. ) Any time I find stories about weight loss or eating concerns in the media, I’m always intrigued. So of course, I read the article and can’t say I was totally surprised by some of this contestant’s experience. Unfortunately, this contestant’s experience isn’t too far from what many people experience in their normal, everyday lives either from family, trainers, or even worse- inside our own heads. Of course many times family and other people are “just trying to be supportive”, however, the approach can easily be interpreted as negative, unhelpful, or serving to reinforce existing feelings of inadequacy. No doubt that we can be our own worst drill sargent to the point of excessive self-bullying. And many people take this approach in the name of “motivation”. But is it really motivating to tear ourselves down? And would you ever talk to your friend the way you supposedly try to motivate yourself? Heck no! You wouldn’t have many friends left if that were the case.

I’m neither promoting nor bashing the show, but the point of this article that I encourage people to think about is what are healthy (physical and emotional) and sustainable weight loss approaches. “Motivation” that is fueled by underlying attitudes of negativity, punishment, fear or force are NEVER sustainable means of change.

Focusing on the food itself (i.e. eat this, not that) or your body isn’t likely to be the answer, especially if you’ve struggled with food or weight issues for a good portion of your life. And if you don’t believe me, let me ask you this… How far has this approach gotten you in the past and where are you at today? So what is the answer? If it’s not about food, then what is it about? This might seem perplexing, but food and food related behaviors are NOT the real issue at hand. They are the smoke screen that distracts us from the real issues that we struggle with, which when acknowledged, will set you free on the path towards the real, sustainable, happy YOU!

“So You Decided You Wanted to Make a Change?: Making a Change & Maintaining Motivation Towards Success”

Recognizing that you need or want to change something about yourself or your life can be difficult, and for many people, asking for the appropriate help is even tougher. Feeling supported in your decisions and actions- from a professional, a community, friends, or family- is a vital element in adhering to our plan for change. As a psychologist, I specialize in helping people identify what’s not working in their life, understand why, and formulate new goals that are congruent with their sense of self. Time and time again I’ve seen how feeling supported in your process change is a game changer for those who persist and succeed. Within the realm of image consulting, one area I specialize in is body image and weight loss. Studies have shown that the support of a team or community can help people lose up to 20% more weight. However, embarking on a journey to change our behavior, whether it is to lose weight or find our personal style, is often a more complex task than most of us realize. And along the way, if we are open to it, we tend to learn a lot more about ourselves than we anticipated at the outset; proving time and time again that there is truth to the old adage, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”

So once you decide that you want to make a change and you establish a goal, maintaining motivation and momentum towards achieving your goals can be a tricky task. The bad news is there’s no magic solution that will help you stay on track. There’s no “one-size-fits-all” way to guarantee you will achieve your goals, nor should there be. Even if the end product looks similar, we all start the journey for different reasons. The good news is that this means there are MANY ways that we can tap into our inner strength. The task is to find what works for YOU. This begins with taking the time to examine your behavior patterns and WHY they exist. Secondly, this allows us be more deliberate and intentional about HOW we change.

Most importantly, cultivating resilience is probably the greatest difference between those who falter on their journey and those who succeed towards fulfilling their goals. Developing a resilient mindset starts with accepting yourself- as you are, right here, right now. It sounds paradoxical to think that in order to change, I have to accept myself as I am, but this perspective allows us to adapt and overcome challenges more quickly and easily without getting derailed from the end goal.

Maintaining motivation isn’t about who has the most willpower or being mentally tough. It’s a dynamic, reflective process and the very heart of what the journey is all about. My hope is to help you find your unique path to personal growth and honor the commitment you’ve made to yourself. This is what sets the work I do with clients apart from other approaches that promise a quick fix. Most importantly, this approach helps you to maintain the changes you make for long-lasting happiness and fulfillment. Taking this approach will help you maintain your progress over time and continue to propel you towards succeeding in the future. Let’s work together on creating your journey towards wellness!

Welcome!

“I am not what has happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” ~ Carl Jung

 

Welcome to my blog! “Centered” is designed to address both general emotional and mental health issues that affect us all as well as highlight sport and performance psychology. My goal in tackling both aspects in one blog is to demonstrate how these topics are related and overlap. If we are living authentically and mindfully caring for our physical, emotional, and intellectual health, this sets the foundation for living successfully and performing to the best of our abilities in athletics, business, and in life.

I hope that you will find the information to be helpful as you pursue your own definition of a centered, authentic, and successful life. I welcome feedback via my email at dr.pietrucha@gmail.com.

What do you choose to become? Whatever it is, do it with fervor and unapologetically!

See you back here soon!