16 months ago I was diagnosed with diabetes. I was shocked. My eating and exercise habits were healthy, I didn’t fit the typical diabetic profile, how could this be? Once I had accepted the diagnosis, I became adamant that I would not poison my body with drugs that would further diminish my health. I decided to seek alternative health care and attempt to lower my blood sugar through diet and exercise.
Habits can be excruciatingly hard to change, even when they are hurting us!
My alternative doctor laid out a plan for me to take charge of my health. The plan included monitoring my blood sugar after and between every meal, keeping a log of everything I ate, practically eliminating carbohydrates (they immediately turn to sugar in the body), and eliminating any foods containing sugar. And so the learning curve began. I discovered that carbs are in everything (even many vegetables) and that I was addicted to salt and vinegar potato chips. Yes, addicted is accurate, I craved them all the time. I also discovered that I could have a glass of red wine but that white wine sent my blood sugar soaring – no more Pinot Grigio for this girl! Having been fortunate enough to be born with a slender frame, I had never been on a diet. Now I had to monitor each and every morsel that entered my mouth – can I tell you how challenging that was? I say “was” because now, a year later, I don’t really think too much about it. I know what I can and can’t eat, I spend a lot more time planning and preparing meals, I hardly ever eat out (it’s just not fun anymore), and (technically) I no longer have diabetes!
I am telling this story to illustrate that while changing habits is challenging, there are ways to help make it easier. There were many times I became so frustrated that I wanted to give up and just take the medication. During these times I had to dig deep. I had to celebrate small victories, like managing to come home from the grocery store without salt and vinegar chips or breathing through a carb craving.
I would like to share with you 6 tools that worked for me:
Affirmations can be incredibly powerful. An affirmation is a statement you create and repeat frequently to consciously control your thoughts. Research shows that about 80% of our unconscious thought is negative. 80% – that’s an awful lot of negative thinking! I am a pretty positive person and while I was changing my eating habits, my thoughts would go something like this “I’m sick of this, it would be so much easier to just take the medication. Why me? I am depriving myself. I don’t have to do this, diabetes isn’t that big of a deal….” You get the picture? A downward spiral of doom and gloom that wasn’t helpful at all and could have easily derailed my efforts. Whenever I started feeling deprived or having cravings I would tell myself “I choose not to poison my body“, “I am increasing my quality of life by making these changes“, “I deserve to feel good“. It’s important to make sure your affirmation rings true for you. I have found that if you don’t really believe your affirmation, it won’t work. I encourage you to really put some time and energy into writing your affirmation instead of using a “ready-made” affirmation from a book or online resource. Then write it down and post it or carry it with you so you can recite it frequently throughout the day. You’re worth it!
Neuroscience proves that our brains do not know the difference between a real experience and a vividly imagined experience. I’ll let that soak in for a moment. We stimulate the same regions in the brain when we visualize something as when we actually do it! If you re-create your most awesome day ever by imagining how it felt, what you were wearing, who you were with, the smells, the sounds, the feelings – every single detail – your brain will release endorphins and other feel-good chemicals and hormones into your body. So how can visualization help change habits? Well, you can visualize the outcome by imagining your life once you’ve changed the habit. I would regularly, in increasingly greater detail, envision myself living diabetes-free and happy eating only the foods that didn’t spike my blood sugar. Now I envision myself being completely satisfied with the foods I am allowed to eat (this can still be challenging for me, it’s a process). You can also visualize the steps it will take to reach your goal. Again, make sure you make the visualization as rich as possible, include all your senses. Please note that visualization alone will not be effective in making changes, it is a tool to help make the process easier and trick the brain into believing you have done it and therefore, over time, rewire your brain’s neural pathways. It can also help make you feel better while you in the process of making the change, because let’s be honest – change is hard!
Meditation is both simple and excruciatingly difficult, especially if your brain is constantly thinking (which most of ours are). I have been practicing meditation for about 6 years now, so using this tool to help me with my lifestyle changes last year was a no-brainer. However, if you have no prior experience with meditation, you need to know there is a learning curve. A very worthwhile learning curve for managing everyday stress and increasing peace and well-being in your life. If you’re new to meditation, try The Relaxation Response, a 5 minute guided-meditation focused on noticing your breath to achieve relaxation. Depending on the day and my capacity for focus, I might listen to a short guided meditation or engage in an hour-long open meditation. In terms of helping with my many lifestyle changes, I use meditation to help center and ground myself and to help me relax if I am feeling anxious or despondent (normal feelings when you are making changes in your life). The beautiful thing about meditation is that anyone can learn how to meditate and there is no right or wrong way to meditate.
Simple mindfulness meditation for beginners:
1. Sit or lie comfortably in a place where you will not be disturbed.
2. Close your eyes.
3. Do not try to control your breathing; just breathe naturally.
4. Focus your attention on your breath and on how your body moves with each inhalation and exhalation. Notice how your body moves as you breathe. Observe your shoulders, chest, rib cage, and belly. Do not try to control your breath; simply focus your attention. If your mind wanders, return your focus back to your breath. Maintain this meditation practice for 2–3 minutes to start, and increase the time as you get more comfortable/proficient.
A favorite of mine. The practice of gratitude is simple, yet powerful. Remember the 80%? This will help turn that around. Be grateful – for anything and everything! Wake up in the morning and think of 3 things you are grateful for, notice how it changes your mood and sets you up for a positive day; make a gratitude list; keep a gratitude journal; make a gratitude jar or box and deposit gratitude notes into it every day, then read them at the end of the week; end your day with gratitude and thank others out loud or in writing. Being grateful and expressing gratitude has been shown to improve relationships, improve overall health, and make us happier. Even though I possess a black-belt in gratitude, during the first few months after my diagnosis I sometimes found it challenging to summon up any gratitude (did I mention changing a habit is hard?) because I was feeling pretty overwhelmed, resentful, and sorry for myself. I had to make a conscious effort to practice gratitude and count my many blessings. When I am having a particularly hard time being grateful, I write out the letters of the alphabet and find something to be grateful for with each letter, I am usually laughing by the end of this process as I have to be pretty creative when I get to Q, X, and Z 😀
Mindfulness has become a bit of a buzz-word over the past few years, but what exactly does it mean to be mindful? Mindfulness is a form of meditation, it’s a practice of awareness, of paying attention, of being “in-the-moment” (as opposed to in the past or the future). Living in the 21st century, we are inundated by stimuli. Our lives are busy, we are constantly trying to juggle several things at once, there are distractions at every corner, we are almost inseparable from our smartphones, and have lost the ability to be present. Mindfulness is all about being present. It’s about absorbing the moment, connecting to the here and now with our entire being. How does being mindful help? If we are mindful, we are aware of what our body is telling us. We are in touch with how we are feeling, and we can address the early signs our bodies are giving us in every situation. It also trains the mind to focus and to pay attention.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness: Mindfulness Meditation (see above); Body Sensations – Noticing subtle body sensations such as tingling, tightness without judgement and letting them pass. Scan each part of your body from head to toe; Emotions – Allowing all emotions to be present without judgement. Name each felt emotion, accept their presence and let them go; Sensory – Notice sights, sounds, smells, touches, and tastes without judgement and let them go; Urge Surfing – Notice how your body feels when the craving enters, replace with a wish for the craving to go away knowing it will subside.
I don’t know why I put self-care last? Perhaps because as a mother, caretaker, and healer I often put myself last! Self-care is a catchall for anything that involves taking care of yourself. You get to define what that means for you. For me it’s being in nature, sitting down to enjoy a lovely cup of tea, going for a run, taking time to meditate, painting my toe nails, reaching out to a trusted friend, petting my dog, saying “no” to things that don’t align with my values, taking time to breathe, playing with children, creating art, eating yummy nourishing food, laying still with the cat purring on my chest, practicing yoga, unplugging from media, going for a walk…..you get the idea? It’s so important to honor yourself, to take time for you, to nurture yourself, to fill your proverbial cup. We’ve all heard the announcement on airplanes about making sure we attach our oxygen mask before assisting others, well that applies in everyday life too. We need to take care of ourselves so that we can be fully present for ourselves and others. What we have to offer the world is diminished when we are “on empty”. So be kind to yourself, celebrate small victories as you work towards changing your habits and living a healthier, happier life, and reward yourself often.
Lastly, make sure you surround yourself with people who love you and are cheering you on and remember to ask for help along the way. It can be helpful to seek professional therapy when you are contemplating making changes in your life. Set yourself up for success – you can do it!