RACE WEEK! Finally, it’s here! As is spring! Everywhere lilacs explode like fireworks. Birds are condominiumizing each eve and shutter. Just yesterday I swear a fox winked at me. Or sneezed. I’ll stick with winked—it sounds better.
If I’m honest, I don’t exactly feel ready. I’ve missed all but one of my exercise goals, I can’t seem to stop eating carrot cake, and I have this ridiculous t-shirt shaped sunburn. Worse yet, last post I described “process” as a refuge for the rudderless, so I have nowhere to nurse a bruised self-image.
At times, life can seem like an endless series of setbacks that only the most deft among us make look deliberate, if not graceful. My brother is that way. To see him change a flat tire is like watching Misty Copeland paint watercolors. Me, I’m all elbows and uff-da. I’m also what self-empowerment author Deborah Ward calls an HSP: a Highly Sensitive Person. We HSPs, she writes, “react to difficult situations, either by withdrawing, shutting down, giving up or falling prey to depression.” Consequently, dealing with discouragement elicits a flurry of contradictory emotions that I’m learning to let settle before making decisions.
Now that I think of it, my expectations may need a little recalibrating. Not to be confused with quitting, by recalibration I mean to reacquaint myself with the “why” behind what I’m doing. Why go running, after all, if you’re not reaching your measures? If it makes you feel like a failure, what’s the point?
Some years ago, my wife and I lived in Chicago where I loved to jog along the busy streets. Of course, I was younger then, more fleet of foot, not yet a father. All that hustle and bustle seemed to surge up through the concrete sidewalk and into my legs. At the risk of sounding cliché, it felt like flying.
There were hard days, too. One in particular, I remember thinking I’d lost my darn mind—so many cars, so much exhaust. The July sun might as well been six inches from the top of my head. Distracted, I turned the corner and nearly bowled over a woman in a wheelchair enjoying some shade. In response to my effusive apology, she said, “I’d give anything to trade with you.”
I smiled and chuckled, tried to reference the incredible heat. A maybe-not-today sort of gesture.
“I’m serious,” she said, deadpan. “Anything.”
Jogging home, I remember the distinct feeling that the why behind my motives sure could use a tune-up. Here I was bemoaning a run I’d chosen to take, while this nice woman would trade everything for the opportunity to choose.
Once again, today, I am in need of a little reminding.
So why register MHCGM’s 8th annual Lite up the Night run/walk for Mental Health 5k? Here’s my list:
What, I wonder, is your why for taking part in the Lite up the Night 5k? I certainly would love to know.
Being ambiguous is easy. Just nod meaningfully, pausing here and there to scrunch up your face. And if you wear glasses, the ear piece should migrate to your mouth at least once, then remove it to say something with a double negative, like: “It isn’t that I don’t disagree,” or “Wouldn’t not knowing be wonderful?”
Yes, it would(n’t). I think.
Specificity, on the other hand, is different. It takes courage. It’s fraught with risk, especially where personal goals are concerned. When you dare to be specific, you pave your very own thruway, complete with mile-markers against which you’ll inevitably be measured. Want to run a 6 minute mile? Me too! How about losing 13 pounds? When do we start?
As Associate Professor of Psychology Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., suggests: there’s no time like next Tuesday! And if not then, a few days after that. But definitely at some point, maybe.
While studies show goal setting invariably leads to positive outcomes, nailing down the details can be harder than it sounds. According to Pychyl, the reason we are specifics-averse varies:
But if my goals are blurry, I can bask in that non-judgmental space called ‘Process’. Wherever I might be going, I’ll get there some day, much the way a listless boat eventually finds sand. Unfortunately for my rudderless schooner, research reveals it might be doomed to a life of endless wander.
Conversely, we know that specific commitments, whether successful or otherwise, can lead to stronger resolve, generating positive results. We are, after all, creatures of habit. Take Michael Phelps, for example: legend has it that in the first moments of the 2008 Beijing 200-meter butterfly Olympic final, Phelps’ goggles filled with water, rendering him blind. “No longer [could] he see the lines on the bottom of the pool,” writes Risë Rafterty, “guiding his direction, or the movements of his competitors, or how close he is to the wall in front of him.”
Thankfully, coach Bob Bowman forced Phelps to practice in the dark, occasionally blacking out his goggles so to encourage visualization—the exact number of strokes to reach the wall, the butterfly turn, dolphin kick. More than anything, Bowman was training Phelps to memorize specifics.
Okay, yes, we may be talking about exercise, but as noted by University of Rhode Island Professor and Stages of Change researcher James O. Prochaska, “Exercise spills over. There’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.” Whatever the desired behavior—smoking cessation, social media restraint, dietary adjustments—successful goal attainment appears contagious.
Not long ago Stigma Expert Gretchen Grappone was kind enough to conduct a Stigma Awareness & Reduction training here at The Mental Health Center, and of the many messages she delivered, one stood out in particular. She told us that change is best achieved by focusing on behaviors rather than attitudes.
The concept was freeing. We need not fixate on the way we feel about something, we focus on the way we act. Studies show, she said, that attitudes follow behaviors more readily than the other way around. Rather than altering my mindset (which is constructed of decades of external influences and complex biological entanglements), all I need do is enact positive answers to specific questions: Will I jog that 2.34 mile loop today? Will I eat a banana instead of that red velvet chocolate chunk muffin? Will I reach out to a family member regardless of his personal struggles?
As for Phelps and his waterlogged goggles, not only did he take home a gold medal for the 2008 200-meter butterfly Olympic final but he also set a new World Record: 1:52.03.
That’s 76 strokes if you’re keeping track.
 Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist,54(7), 493-503. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.54.7.493
 Staw, B. M. (1981). The Escalation of Commitment to a Course of Action. The Academy of Management Review,6(4), 577. doi:10.2307/257636
Among the many historical events of 1810, Napoleon quiets his cannons to wed Marie-Louise of Austria, the first steamboat chuffs up the Ohio River, and German artist/politician Johann Wolfgang von Goethe publishes the much dismissed Theory of Colours. Okay, that last one might seem obscure, but it paved the way for Color Psychology (i.e., the study of hue as a determinant of human behavior), which only recently has attracted the attention of researchers.
Nearly two centuries after Goethe’s observations, MIT Nutritionist Richard J. Wurtman tells the New York Times, “It seems clear that [color] is the most important environmental input, after food, in controlling bodily function.” Everything from blood pressure to respiration rates, from brain activity to biorhythms—color, it appears, has us wired to silky saturation levels. Who knew pigment could have such an affect?
In fact, so influential is it that “when we’re in a space where the walls are painted in warm colors [reds and oranges], we actually feel that the temperature there is warmer than we do in similar spaces painted cool colors [blues and greens].” Studies show we are drawn to warmer hues because of their energetic magnetism. By contrast, we are calmed by cooler, more mild-mannered hues like Sherwin Williams SW 6210: Window Pane. While some colors slow blink and pat-the-pillow, others smile and snicker. Come on in, they say, can I take your coat?
For many, pigments also encourage certain characteristics. A google search tells us green is linked to balance and creativity. Spirituality and sophistication are hallmarks of violet. Yellow lays claim to joy, optimism, and cheer. Orange traffics in physical comfort. And brown—poor brown—is stoic yet dependable, like nice a pair of chinos.
Yet according Goethe: “...light and darkness, brightness and obscurity, or if a more general expression is preferred, light and its absence, are necessary to the production of colour.... Colour itself is a degree of darkness.” In other words, color is an expression of darkness, a derivative—darkness as godfather of all things visible. Daunting when you think about it.
What Goethe couldn’t know, however, is in the 1930’s another type of pigment would be created, brighter, more vibrant than anything that came before. A brain-child of the Switzer brothers, DayGlo® (a.k.a. fluorescents or neon) harnesses invisible light energy and translates it to the visible spectrum. And as such it appears electrified by its very own little sun. They are colors that stand up and sing: WE ARE HERE AND DEMAND TO BE COUNTED!
In a nutshell, that’s why we wear bright colors for the Runwalk for Mental Health 5K. As Director of Development and Marketing Sandra Seney puts it, “We established the neon theme for our run/walk as a way for community members to publicly show support for mental wellness. By wearing bright colors, we hope to shine a light on mental illness and bring it out of the darkness.”
I do wonder what Johann Wolfgang von Goethe would make of mental health supporters lighting up the night this many years later. Who knows, maybe he’d join in. Or maybe he’d prefer to cheer loudly down by the “Doggy Door.” Although part of me thinks he’d rather sit and watch all those gleaming suns jog by, looking down every so often to pen stigma’s obituary.
 From techopedia.com: Color saturation refers to the intensity of color in an image. In technical terms, it is the expression of the bandwidth of light from a source. When color is fully saturated, the color is considered in purest (truest) version. Primary colors red, blue and yellow are considered truest version color as they are fully saturated.
 Augustin, S. (2015, April 11). The Surprising Effect of Color on Your Mind and Mood. Retrieved April 21, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/people-places-and-things/201504/the-surprising-effect-color-your-mind-and-mood
My wife and I are quitting sugar. That’s the plan anyway. Unfortunately for me, there are these radium red chocolate chip muffins in the commissary where I buy lunch that I’m genetically inclined to eat. They’re the size of elephants, and the moment I break one open, my desk disappears, as does my computer, my phone, and those important Post-its thumbtacked to my corkboard might as well be leaves of an Acacia tree.
It’s not that I want to give up sugar. Besides, we don’t consume all that much—the occasional baked good or the odd teething popsicle I nab after my son goes to bed. Now that I think of it, I shouldn’t be eating those—the little guy’s molars are working through. Then again, Raspberry Lime double-dip? Come on!
Were this Prochaska’s Stages of Change, I’d be somewhere in the contemplation phase, willing to admit adjustments may be needed, though highly ambivalent regarding details. I’m happy to learn about the effect sugar has on the body, however, so long as my muffin safaris remain a possibility. Needless to say, my chances of success are not looking good.
With respect to Prochaska’s stages, Psych Central contributing author Mark S. Gold, MD, writes, “Understanding your readiness to change by being familiar with the six-stage model of change can help you choose [regimens] that are right for you.” While the model was based on close observation of individuals attempting smoking and drinking cessation, it can be more broadly applied.
And it all begins with Pre-Contemplation, a phase largely defined by non-thought. In pre-contemplation, an individual is not thinking about the “problem behavior”; in fact, he or she may not even consider the behavior problematic. Until my wife expressed the desire to eliminate sugar, I was blissfully unaware I was consuming it. Yes, I do realize when sweet things enter my mouth, but the behavior enjoyed unfettered domain over my subconscious. I am what’s called a “reluctant pre-contemplator,” citing insufficient data to even approach change.
When my foresighted spouse reminded me sugar can cause metabolic dysfunction and other chronic health issues, I graduated to the Contemplation phase. Weight gain, diabetes, impaired immune functions, heart disease, not to mention erratic exercise performance—the rationale to quit is long and thorough. Though add semi-sweet chocolate chucks and it’ll make my stapler vanish. Experts often refer to the contemplation phrase as an event rather than a stage because it results in commitment. Having entered the dark side of 30, make no mistake: I need to drop refined sugar. The pros outweigh the cons 2 to 1.
Next comes Preparation (sometimes known a Determination). It is a stage marked by detailed planning. The individual assesses the instruments of change, what will be needed, anticipating potential pitfalls and workarounds, and the overall difficultly. “Commitment to change without appropriate skills and activities,” says Dr. Gold, “can create a fragile and incomplete action plan,” which can ultimately lead to failure. I, for example, did not anticipate there would be a goliath bag of Swedish fish in the mailroom at work and before I knew it, schools of them were swimming in both my pockets.
Though fish is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Now I’m rationalizing (not to mention fictionalizing). As my wife likes to say, a desire without a plan is merely a wish. I know I crave sweets throughout the day, so why not bring fruit?
Had I been more forward thinking, I’d be prepared for Action, ready to implement a detailed strategy, make a public commitment, and seek external monitors to cheer me on. Resolve and thorough planning are synergistic, and nothing breeds success like success. With appropriate support, counseling, or treatment, individuals in the Action phase begin to regain things the unwanted behavior caused them to lose, including hope and self-confidence. No need to rush this stage, however. Routine is the godfather of change, so allow three to six months.
As anyone who has faced addiction will tell you, the true test of change is time (i.e. Maintenance). Arming yourself with a cache of relapse prevention skills is paramount in this phase. On a personal note: when my brother was released from an inpatient treatment center, he told me relapse is always possible. I’d be lying if I pretended a squall of fear didn’t blast through my chest. We were riding these paddle bikes on a lake that looked about 1,000 feet deep. But then he said, “You just have to brush yourself off and learn from it.”
Here, my instinct is to make a self-depreciating joke about the triteness of Swedish Fish compared to Substance Use Disorder, but no. Effecting change is not a game of comparative chicken. If the goal is Termination, strategy, support, and self-confidence are foundational no matter the behavior. In fact, I would argue making light of something unwanted is a defense mechanism. I know it is for me.
Yet another behavior to contemplate.
After one last joke: what did the blog writer say to the radium red, semi-sweet chocolate chunk muffin?
At times the world can seem divided into opposites. A meal out is either good or bad, as was the season finale of This Is Us. Our New England weather is alternately nice or nasty, our politics veer right or left, and as I’ve griped I’m not a runner anymore, meaning I once was. But if I do run, however hopeless the distance, I have what’s known as a midfoot strike, considered beneficial or wasteful by experts, while inside my shoes my feet are either pronating or supinating—I forget which.
Bienvenue a la age of antonyms. Black or white. Good versus evil. And just in time for yet another Star Wars movie. Thankfully, we may “find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view” (B. Kenobi).
Well put, Jedi Master
The advantage to a this-v-that perspective is the clarity it brings. Put simply, if that is wrong, this must be right. A solution, then, always sits 180° due north (or south). You merely pivot on your heel (or forefoot) and barrel (or amble) headlong. Psychologists call this approach “Convergent Thinking.” As author Toni Bernhard J.D. notes, “It’s an important cognitive tool, particularly in math and science,” as it causes thoughts to converge on a single, best answer from myriad information. Practical, yes, though Convergent Thinking is not without limitations.
Bernhard, a former law professor forced to retired because of chronic illness, writes that following her diagnosis Convergent Thinking caused her to fixate on only two options: “I was sick or I was healthy. Each night I’d go to bed, hoping to wake up healthy. When I didn’t, I considered myself to be sick. It was one or the other.” Black or white. This versus that.
Despite the many merits of Convergent Thinking, it can impose rigidity over as messy a thing as our day-to-day lives. My 18-month-old son, for example, is forever fighting something. If it’s not the sniffles, it’s a poor night’s sleep; if it’s not teething, it’s good old-fashioned toddler ‘tude. So affected is he that I asked my wife if there weren’t something wrong with him (as opposed to right). Yes, she should have answered me, he’s human. To be Homo sapiens, after all, is to be an assortment of nuanced, often complicated, sometimes conflicting characteristics. Add to that mix a daily landscape of textured events and you have the human condition.
There is another cognitive tool worth considering, one where thoughts expand outward like rings rolling away from a skipped stone. It’s called Divergent Thinking. Instead of isolating a best answer from many inputs, the divergent approach seeks many answers from fewer inputs. And it’s as simple as replacing one coordinating conjunction with another: in lieu of or, try and. In Toni Bernhard’s case, isn’t it possible she was both healthy and sick?
My son, too—can’t he be both tired and teething, rather than tired or teething? In fact, at this very moment he’s likely tired and teething and ecstatic and diaper-rashy and determined and frustrated and milk-drunk and probably in need of fresh knickers. So why reduce it to a single state?
I know I’d hate to think of myself as a one thing at a time. What would I choose? Husband. Dad. Hungry. Exhausted. Working-it-out. Etc.
And I can’t imagine just how limiting it must feel to be crammed into either/or categories by someone else. Either healthy or sick. Sane or crazy. Gentle versus Violent. It belittles everything it is to be human.
I really should be more careful. Last post, I fell into the trap negative thinking, mourning a superb runner I no longer am. And while, yes, self-deprecation is all the rage today, a closet door now hides my sneakers and sunny days do something regrettable to my psyche. I’m flirting with what Distinguished Professor of Psychology Patrick Corrigan calls the “Why Try Effect.”
Generally associated with the stigma surrounding mental illness, “‘Why Try’ is a variant of modified labeling theory,” Corrigan writes, “that […] also suggests avoidance as a behavioral consequence of devaluation. When people perceive devaluation, they may avoid situations where public disrespect is anticipated.” As a result, self-esteem starts to evaporate and the path to achievement fades from view. Why try, after all, if shame and rejection lie just around the corner?
And that thinking begins with public perception. When myths spread about individuals facing mental illness--that they are dangerous and shouldn’t be trusted, for example--awareness of those myths can lead to agreement by the most vulnerable among us, which they then apply to the self, causing further harm. Think of it as a chain of increasingly hefty links that ends in leg irons.
Point of fact, a recent study reveals that 46% of respondents said they would be embarrassed to seek help from a psychiatrist, 38% would be embarrassed to see a psychologist, and 34% would be embarrassed to talk to a counselor. So damaging is stigma’s influence that researchers argue it is “a central driver of morbidity and mortality at a population level”.
In light of such frightful statistics, my comparing first run blues with something as destructive as self-stigma is sorely insufficient. There are no myths swirling about me in sphere of public opinion, I neither perceived nor suffered any public disrespect, and I certainly will run again in the future. More than anything, the analogy was an attempt at what Lee, Slater, and Tchernev refer to as “lowering [my] status,” thereby reducing “resistance to a message that may be perceived as threatening.”
Sure, the adjective “threatening” does seem a touch serious, though the authors’ intention is simple enough: relatability through humor. It can go spectacularly wrong, however. Take, for example, Slate.com’s You’re Doing It Wrong, a column whose content is as useful as it is self-righteous. The sheer length of nose over which each sentence peers down at me stirs a fight-or-flight response deep in my chest. I have enough self-doubt, thank you very much. I don’t need more from a blog involving cranberry sauce.
And yet, the very notion of negativism is at the heart of where I’m going with all this. Whether internal or external, by blog or nightly broadcast, it can influence the fabric of our everyday. At best, it’s a Pinterest parlor trick. At worst, it forms an impenetrable barrier separating those in need from the life-saving treatments they deserve. Consequently, the life expectancy of individuals experiencing mental illness is 20-25 years less than individuals who do not.
Thankfully, there is a serious adjective for that fact, too: unacceptable.
It is why we run.
It’s why we inaugurated the Mental Health 5K in 2010, and it’s why will be running again May 25th: to empower individuals to achieve recovery and promote personal and community wellness through an accessible, comprehensive, integrated and evidence-based system of mental health care.
That I limped my son and me around the neighborhood a few weeks back is merely preparation.
 Self-Stigma (as defined by disabilityrightsca.org): By internalizing negative beliefs, individuals or groups may experience feelings of shame, anger, hopelessness, or despair that keep them from seeking social support, employment, or treatment for their mental health conditions.
 Barney, L., Griffiths, K., Jorm, A. &, Christensen, H. (2006). Stigma about Depression and Its Impact on Help-Seeking Intentions. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 40, 51-54.
 Hatzenbuehler, M., Phelan, J. & Link, B. (2013). Stigma as a Fundamental Cause of Population Health Inequalities. Amercian Journal of Public Health, 103, 813-821
 Colton, C. & Manderscheid, R. (2006). Congruences in Increased Mortality Rates, Years of Potential Life Lost, and Causes of Death among Public Mental Health Clients in Eight States. Preventing Chronice Disease: Public Health Research Practice and Policy 3, 1-14.
Grammatically speaking, it’s “It is I, your long-lost pal.” Subjective/verb (intransitive linking)/predicate nominative/appositive. Though the first run of the season can make a person feel like an object: me. Better yet: meh…
February heatwaves have a stoking effect on ego, however, so out I went, Nikes laced, shorts short, cracker-munching son strapped to jogging stroller. I may or may not have offered him protective glasses for wind shear, such was my confidence. Approximately thirty-seven strides later found me doubled over, hand on post. Any excuse to stop the pain. Are my son’s hands cold? They must be cold, I better fix that. Now they’re too warm. I’ll just pull off to the side here until they cool down.
Not twenty minute in, I shuffled homeward, drenched, dizzy, defeated. Great, I thought, I’ve buried the fitter me for this, a wheezing, semi-conscious thirty-something to whom his son offers one last sympathy sip of whole milk. I suppose I’m lamenting the collision between the idealized and the actual. I’m not a runner anymore. Four months ago, yes. Now, no way. And the road back there seems 7,000 miles of knee-grindy, lower back-knotty Dantean inferno. Forget Nikes. Find bright red Netflix icon instead; Stranger Things Season 2 should be here any minute.
Where the heck went my willpower?
Research tells us it still exists. Crept over and leafy with ground ivy but there. Lethargy has merely waylaid its assertiveness. Not to worry says the American Psychological Association (APA), willpower is comparable to muscle, and “while muscles become exhausted by exercise in the short term, they are strengthened by regular exercise in the long term. Similarly, regularly exerting self-control may improve willpower strength.” All I need do, then, is persist.
Were it not for that sinking feeling, I’d relish the simplicity. PERSIST, all caps! Ex nihilo nihil fit!
In reality “to persist” sounds inconceivable, like that Grammy I’ve been meaning to win or those five teensy inches until I can dunk. Preposterous. Unthinkable. Futile.
Not so fast says APA. There may be a solution: a little something psychologists refer to as an “implementation intention.” They are valuable tactics often in “the form of ‘if-then’ statements that help people plan for situations that are likely to foil their resolve.” Next jog, for example, I may tell myself, “If I get too tired to continue, then I’ll walk 30 paces after which I’ll start running.” Or even, “If I get a cramp, then I’ll continue for 10 seconds before I stop, stretch, and begin again.” Research suggests that by enunciating implementation intentions ahead of time self-control improves and willpower strengthens.
To be candid, I have yet to test the advice, though I am framing a few implementation intentions as we speak. If on that slow, motivation-killing curve I feel like turning back, then I’m going to sing the 1975 hit song “Why Can’t We Be Friends” twice through. And if the trouble spot in my lower lumbar starts acting up, then I’m going to take my son out of the jogger and do good mornings with him until I get three squeals of delight. That should do it.
Sure, this method may seem less than scientific, but it is hard to quantify as human a thing as persistence. For some to persist means to face down adversity. For others it’s akin to acceptance, embracing circumstance and enduring. For others yet, persistence looks something like distraction, tricking the self in ever expanding increments. And what better way to do that than in earshot of a snickering child. Joy has a funny way of making the intolerable seem almost amusing.
It just dawned on me that I’ve been writing the same blog entry since late April. Well, not the same same. There are superficial differences. The first describes running as a meditative act. Then it’s on to shoes, whether or not chic, techno-color Nikes are worth the sticker shock. The when and how of injury is next, and finally comes food, the tempestuous relationship between umami and American culture.
Thematically though, they’re all much ado about that buzzword mindfulness, a fashionable term the New York Times skewers as meaningless. It is true when nuanced language becomes corporate speak something elemental evaporates. Then again, is self-awareness in mass really so bad?
Permit me 5,000 characters (with spaces) and the allegory of running to make my case—no, it’s not.
When training for a marathon, the body becomes an epicenter of painstaking regiment. Runner’s World pegs measured runs as key, “no more than six during the season to avoid overtraining and fatigue.” As is nutrition, specifically 300 to 350 grams of carbs per day. So too is normalizing outdoor conditions, and clothing, of course, shoes, nutrient timing, hydration. The list is long and meticulous. In my research, I’ve discovered cleaver ways to “bombproof” my quads alongside tips to roll out calf cramps. I’ve learned two kiwis contain as much potassium as a banana, important stuff if your legs approximate old sailing rope.
In the pursuit of ever increasing distances at decreasing split times, preparation is the Holy Grail. In fact, the same could be said of most aspects of life, except college midterms, which everyone knows are best taken under the guise of nonchalance. And preparation can’t help but conjure Rocky-esque training montages, actor Sylvester Stallone goose-stepping railroad ties, chasing pesky chickens, hot-footing up the stone steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
What we don’t see, however, is him sitting quietly, legs a folded lotus, or maybe not, maybe they dangle from a park bench while he ponders the intrinsic value the bolo punch.
Is that contemplative mumbo-jumbo really necessary?
Uniformly sports psychologists answer yes. In an interview with Medill Reports, University of Tennessee professor and former president of the Association for Applied Sports Psychology Craig Wrisberg says, “The skills, the techniques, the mental demands …, it’s all about the participant and how they manage their focus and composure under pressure.” And never have competitive events so consumed the American public, whether they’re attended, broadcast live on television, radio, or streaming, or analyzed 24/7 on myriad sports networks like ESPN, ALN, MLB Network, NBA TV, NBCSN, Fox Sports, ONE World Sports, the Golf Channel, and the World Fishing Network, to name a few.
The field of sports psychology dates back to the 1920s, but not until the 1984 Summer Olympics did it gain prominence when nations began hiring dedicated psychologist to help athletes navigate the rigors of world competition. Today, a quick google search reveals over 40 nationwide programs offering advanced degrees in Sports Psychology, a “hot” industry according to the American Psychological Association that nets practitioners between 60,000 to $100,000+ annually to help competitors do what running great Alberto Salazar calls number nine of the 10 Golden Running Rules: “Tackle Doubt Head-on.”
For the casual runner, anything over a mile or two may be doubt inducing, list or no list. Even more so coming from Salazar, a man whose running prowess drove him to the brink of death on multiple occasions. Of the New York City Marathon, Salazar states, “The pain of running is like the pain of drowning. A kind of weariness sets in and you lose the will to fight. What I could do is simply push myself through that exhaustion.”
Great. Next time I lace up my sneakers I’ll imagine going for a quick drowning around the neighborhood.
Joking aside, Salazar’s comments illuminate the true power of humankind: our adaptability. We can, should we choose, immerse ourselves in nearly any circumstance and find a way to persist—such is the strength of our will. In addition, studies show that willpower is best described as a behavioral muscle, meaning it can be trained, toned, and refined over time to reflect exact preferences. Think of it as the very point of the spearhead that is attached to the spear of self-control.
The trick to sharping that point lay in short bursts of restraint. How, for example, do I take the next twenty strides when what I really want is to be wheeled off to the nearest waterpark? Perhaps pick micro-goals, the stop sign just ahead and then that weeping willow around the bend. Or maybe sing Lionel Richie's "All Night Long" start to finish letting your mind roam beyond each meniscal cartilage scrunching step. These are coping strategies that require us to identify our situation, consider what worked in the past and understand what may work now, and choose corrective measures.
Circumspection is invaluable to remediation, but nowhere has it been more impactful than in the treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder via Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), which:
Combines the basic strategies of behavior therapy with eastern mindfulness practices, residing within an overarching dialectical worldview that emphasizes the synthesis of opposites … Change strategies in DBT include behavioral analysis of maladaptive behaviors and problem-solving techniques, including skills training, contingency management (i.e., reinforcers, punishment), cognitive modification, and exposure-based strategies
So successful has DBT been that there are now multiple adaptions for various outpatient settings, from substance misuse to eating disorders for adults and adolescent alike. In fact, the stories associated with DBT are nothing short of astonishing.
Thankfully, The Mental Health Center has made DBT, DBT Lite, and DBT informed treatments a priority. Consequential, 18 (soon to be 19) MHCGM clinicians provide hundreds of clients per month with this particular mindful, life-changing treatment, more than any CMHC in New Hampshire. This increase, however, brings up a few related rhetorical questions: in what reality is the expanded accessibility to such a treatment considered a bad thing, corporate speak or not?
By contrast, what about running? Do those who prize running do so because it’s widely inaccessible?
No. The art of running is that all you have to do is lace up and let go. Similarly, it’s hard to argue exclusivity is what makes Dialectical Behavioral Therapy valuable. In fact, the opposite is true. The more people who practice mindfulness techniques, the better off we all are.
I do realize I am comparing incomparable things, i.e., committing weak analogy. It’s just the way I make sense of the world, by seeing a little of this in a little of that and a little of that in a little of this. Sometimes the interconnectedness is hard to miss.
 Dimeff, L., & Linehan, M.M. (2001). Dialectical Behavioral Therapy in a Nutshell. The California Psychologist, 34, 10-13
Truth be told, I am one of those adherents forever swept up by the latest food craze. Especially where exercise is concerned. A single jog has me scouring supermarket shelves for goji berries, crunching away on chalky chia seeds, guzzling electrolyte-ed neon drinks by the drum. Heck, I’d harpoon wild salmon if I thought it’d help. Not that I know the first thing about spearfishing, or salmon for that matter. I’ve read it’s good for you, something about the high-quality protein and omega-3s, as are chia seeds, loaded with antioxidants, fiber, and calcium. And so I feign delight as little black flecks decorate my teeth.
Though in the dash for nutritionally perfect Kamut Dark Chocolate Energy Bars, it feels as if something more than just ambrosia goes missing—Kale/Flax Seed smoothies are not delicious no matter what any magazine says. And that void seems related to the phrase “good for you,” specifically the word good, which can’t help but imply its opposite: bad. The problem is these terms suggest moral preferences that act as integers in a crude health arithmetic. According to fitness blogger, Kale/Flax Seed smoothie (y) is good and if I (x) consume said concoction, I too am good. Thus:
x + y = GOOD
Logic dictates the following must be at least trueish:
x – y = less GOOD
By comparison, the glistening, brown sugar rubbed ribs (z) that I (x) devoured on Memorial Day can only be considered not good, i.e., bad:
x + z = BAD
Hence I am bad.
Even now the heap of bones I managed to amass on my plate causes me a level of shame I’m not ready to confront. No, I’d rather avoid it altogether and instead place my focus on things I know will bring me joy, like the crumble-top apple pie that whispers my name when I open the refrigerator. Avoidance is not ideal, but it sure is effective.
In fact, avoidance is the perfect coping mechanism for what many health experts refer to as the U.S.’s obesity epidemic, for without it the statistics may threaten our tranquility: two-thirds of adults and nearly one-third of children are overweight or obese; obesity is linked to more than 60 chronic diseases; each year obesity related health costs us approximately $200 billion, nearly 21% of all medical costs nationwide, $2,741 higher per capita than “normal” weight individuals. Further, we now consume 31% more calories than we did 40 years ago, yet despite these truths, obesity numbers are forecast to continue climbing.
It is ironic, however, that while we appear to have perfected the art of avoidance, weight the concept continues to be a national obsession. We read about it in our books, we watch for signs of it in our beloved celebrities, the U.S. weight loss industry itself is valued around $60 billion, nearly $600 billion worldwide, a market specially designed to help us achieve something we tacitly know we must. But lo! crumble-top apple pie, why do you taunt me so?
In the battle between willpower and thinly sliced, sweetly spiced green apples, there can only be one victor.
If only it were that easy.
As heralded food writer and Food Inc. contributor Michael Pollan points out, the food of today is vastly different than that of yesteryear: “The [food industry] blames obesity on a crisis of personal responsibility, but when you’re engineering foods, you’re pressing our evolutionary buttons. The fact is we are hardwired to go for three tastes: salt, fat, and sugar.” And when that addictive mix joins a culture of celebratory eating (see Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, the religious holidays, sports broadcasts, birthdays, weddings, and even funerals), no wonder we find ourselves a few pounds north of doctor’s recommendation. It’s difficult to view food as fuel when what we’re eating accompanies every human emotion.
In spite of nefarious influences, I hesitate to place blame solely on such a nebulous group as the “food industry.” To be fair it is possible to change the body amid towering piles of salt, fat, and sugar. A person can exercise; were that not true, the gift that is Richard Simmons may never have sprinkled us with dance moves. Also, we do choose the foods we eat hence Jenny Craig. My gosh, I’m starting to sound like a food industry representative.
The trouble, I suppose, has to do with all the blaming. If I blame myself, I experience shame, and then follows avoidance, and we know where that ends, me head over heels in a flaky baked dessert. On the other hand, if I blame the industry, I surrender my agency; I am a mere marionette animated by a salty sweet ratio.
To this conundrum, MHCGM Community Support Service Director and bariatric surgery support group instructor Pete Costa may have an answer: “we must harness the power of mindfulness.”
In the six week Lifestyle Changes course he teaches, Costa stresses the importance of seeing weight management in the broader context of health management. Gone is avoidance inducing judgmental language, like good and bad, and in its stead Costa directs attention to the interplay between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. The thinking according to Costa: “You can’t change what you don’t notice.”
Paramount to successful health management, and by extension weight, is to first identify our food related behaviors, and then thoughtfully, supportively pull back the veil on what lies beneath. Any number of emotions may contribute to over indulgence: grief, depression, joy. As is true of our thoughts; cognitive distortions have a funny way of undercutting actual progress, black-and-white thinking, for example, or mind reading, or catastrophizing even the slightest deviation to a crevasse the size of the Grand Canyon. And as we come to know our tendencies, there are plenty of ways to outwit those thoughts: by identifying the distortion, examining the evidence, defining terms, thinking in shades of grey, etc.
In the end, it’s about gaining control. Though the verb “gaining” may not go far enough. “Taking” control, “wresting,” putting it back where it belongs, within each and every one of us. We need not be little wooden puppets on taut sweet and salty strings. With mindfulness, food can become fuel again.
In fact, that goji berry version of me jerked down the organics aisle is not so different, tugged along on a tether of someone else’s construction. Why am I propelled so? Because some blogger proselytized in Times New Roman? Anyway, I grew up in Midwest—what the heck is a goji berry?
I suppose the lesson here is know thyself. And if you don’t, dare to make introductions. You might be surprised by whom you meet.
No matter the transport—by bike or Buick, aboard a train, boat, or (perish the thought) airplane—the sound of mechanical failure is unmistakable. In my twenties, it came to me as PTWEEEENG! followed by a throaty warble rattling the hood of my lipstick red Saturn SC Coupe. I’d thrown a rod, whatever that means, which portended my lurching around in the vehicular version of a dazed Janis Joplin.
An intelligent person would’ve stopped driving, but that I am not, so I growled up and down the back roads for the better part of a week. Of course the car had other ideas.
On foot, too, something similar can happen, though that distinct sound is usually uttered in four letter increments. Injury—running’s evil twin. A pulled hamstring, foot fracture, ankle sprain, shin splints, sore knees are all common, as well as the hard to pronounce ones, like iliotibial band syndrome, colloquially referred to as ITBS.
And while “No pain, no gain” may be an age old battle cry for the über-motivated, there are times when exercising through injury is not only counterproductive but also dangerous. Runner’s World UK author Patrick Milroy reminds us that we must “learn to recognize [our] own body’s signs of pain,” for pain tolerance is as individual as the cause of such pain. Foot numbness, for example, could be either a too-tight shoe or a stress fracture, both of which require a drastically different response.
Not all aches are bad, however. Lactic acid is likely to blame for those lumbering legs, and low grade inflammation can make rusty hinges of knee joints. In these cases, light exercise may help restore some mobility. When approaching what could be, might be, sure seems like injury, Milroy suggests an acronym: RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation). And “if the pain hasn’t disappeared the next day, don’t try to run on it.” A doctor’s opinion may be necessary.
For most minor injuries, RICE is simple, practical advice. In fact, the mnemonic device is one of many under the umbrella of first aid. ABC (Airway, Breathing, Circulation) and HEAD (History, Examination, Action, Documentation) stripe my memory like an ‘80s era public service announcement--The More You Know! But behind the goofy acronyms and stately abbreviations are enumerated procedures that, however recollected, invoke step-by-step protocols that could save a life. Take ABC, for example: when treating an unresponsive individual, we must check (1) his or her airway for obstruction, followed by (2) the lungs for breathing, and finally (3) the carotid artery for circulation, i.e., a pulse. Jumbled, the mandates make little sense. Why perform external chest compressions if there is no respiration to oxygenate the blood? Why administer mouth-to-mouth if the individual’s airway is occluded?
ABC, HEAD, RICE, and myriad others, well-attend physical trauma, though what if that shrill engine sound comes from not the body but rather the enigmatic, oft-misunderstood reaches of our mind? Surely similar protocols do exist.
Thanks to the National Council for Behavioral Health, the answer is an emphatic YES: Mental Health First Aid.
Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is a nationwide 8-hour education program that in ten short years boasts more than 1 million trainees. Topics of the intensive course include identifying “common risk factors and warning sign of specific types of illnesses, like anxiety, depression, substance use, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, and schizophrenia.” MHFA participants are taught to engage a five-step action plan, cleverly named ALGEE, when attempting to support someone with signs of mental illness or emotional distress:
A quick visit to MHFA’s website lays bare the ‘why’ behind this sweeping program: “Because we can all be more aware and more informed. Because there is a suicide every 12.8 minutes. Because sometimes people don’t know how to ask for help.” Three insightful, albeit eye-opening statements, though for me the last one arouses the most empathy. It brings to mind the heart wrenching story of a Golden Gate Bridge “Jumper” whose suicide note read, “I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.”
To think, even the briefest human kindness could’ve saved his life.
With that story come others, anecdotal, however, less doleful. They are from my own upbringing. Me, a toe-headed toddler reaching for a floating ball and nearly drowning. Adolescent now and lost in the woods, determined to find my way home. Just out of high school, rattling a fire engine red Saturn SC Coupe to pieces because I didn’t know who or how to ask for help. To this day I’d rather peruse a grocery store for hours than inquire where the filo dough is. And if layered pastry has me swallowing my pride, consider what it must be like when mental illness is involved. Not to mention the accompanying stigma—my goodness! A barricade beyond imagination.
Of course, being part of any solution can mean many things. With regard to mental illness, it means learning to recognize the signs. It means taking what steps we can, carefully, thoughtfully. Oftentimes it means asking for help in order to help.
Whatever the circumstance, whether it’s ABC, RICE, or ALGEE, a silly mnemonic device could make the difference. Think of it as that single smile we all wish we could have bestowed.