Spending too much time in Italy can really ruin you. After a wonderful 3 week trip over a year or so ago, to celebrate our friend’s 25th anniversary it was not easy to transition home to New England. There were no platters of beautiful homemade pastries and espresso to wake up to every morning. No liter jugs of amazing red wine sitting on the table at lunch time. No longer did we have 2 hours to linger over dinner. Back to rush rush rush. With the exception of one little habit I seemed to have fallen into. Wine.
As most people know we Italians love our wine, especially red wine. As a dietitian I have rationalized how good it is for me (and probably the reason my HDL level, the “good” cholesterol, is out of sight). The problem was, during that vacation we drank wine pretty much daily. We did not drink excessively, just often. When a liter pitcher of wine is 4 dollars, why not have it with your pizza while sitting outside under an umbrella in the sunshine on a cliffside in Cinque Terre, or while watching the children chase the pigeons at an outdoor cafe on the island of Murano? After all, You Only Live Once.
When I got home, a meal no longer felt complete without a glass of good wine. Oh, and of course I needed to find one of those glass pitchers that were all over Italy (and no where to be found in stores in CT). I finally found one on-line and was all set. Unfortunately, the reality that I was no longer in Italy and had to go to work took a while to sink in. I found myself sleeping poorly. People think alcohol makes you relaxed and sleep better, but it actually interferes with sleep. And for me, someone who needs to remember to drink water, I found myself getting somewhat dehydrated on a daily basis. Not good.
Since then, I have obviously had to readjust to real life. As I was working on easing back into a healthier lifestyle, I noticed some very interesting things going on in my head. You know, that voice we all have in our minds, often referred to as “self-talk”. I have written about self-talk before, and how important it is to be aware of what you are saying to yourself, as thoughts affect mood and moods then affect behavior. When there is a constant negative dialogue going on, eventually negative, or non-supportive, and often unhealthy behavior results. So, as I have been reflecting on this wine “habit” I have come to the conclusion that it is very difficult to distinguish between when this voice is giving appropriate advice, or when it is basically trying to undo all efforts and progress to a healthier lifestyle. I am passionate about savoring life and all it has to offer. I absolutely LOVE the expression You Only Live Once (YOLO). I don’t believe in rigid anything. Rigid diets, rigid exercise plans, rigid house cleaning, rigid schedules. When life gives you the opportunity to experience something awesome, I say go with it. For example, I was planning on getting some work done last Saturday, but then found out there was a Women’s March in my state that I had the opportunity to join. The work could wait. Sometimes, if I come home from work after a long day and tell myself I need to rest, and my husband had a hard day at work and wants to go our for dinner, I quickly change my mind about that rest. I love rolling with it all. You know, YOLO.
But sometimes, I may come home from an especially chaotic day at work, feel emotionally drained, and cracking open a bottle of wine makes lots of sense. The dialogue in my brain may go something like this: “You deserve it. You only live once!” When this same dialogue happens more than once in awhile, well, an unhealthy habit is formed. That YOLO language sounds more like sabotage. One definition of sabotage: “any undermining of a cause”. I came to the conclusion it is not always obvious or easy to keep a healthy balance in life when it comes to living that happy-but-healthy-ish lifestyle we all want. How do we find that balance, and know for sure that we need to go for it (YOLO), or that we need to make a different choice because in reality we are sabotaging our efforts, or “undermining our cause”of wanting to be somewhat healthy?
After much reflection, here is my advice to those who can relate to this, and also struggle with the balance between enjoying all life has to offer, yet maintaining healthy balance in life. Remember, this is my experience only. Yours may be different.
- Ask yourself: do I have a “cause”? By this I mean a health goal. Is there something your doctor may have identified (high blood pressure, a need to decrease salt), or maybe a health goal you have for yourself (increase physical activity, decrease alcohol, etc). If something jumps to mind right away, then you know what it is. You must also ask yourself it this cause or goal is healthy and realistic. For example, if it is an extreme weight loss goal or anything to do with perfectionism, then it may not be a healthy cause. A true cause typically is more about clear-cut and damaging behaviors you may have fallen into and really do want to change (plopping on the couch, grabbing a drink, etc).
- If you have identified a specific behavior you want to change, and it is a realistic goal (litmus test: do most people agree this is a healthy goal?) take the time to identify your triggers. For example, for me, having an open bottle of my favorite wine in the fridge is not too wise, and may be referred to as a “sabotaging environment”. For the person who really needs to increase physical activity for health reasons, putting on your jammies the minute you walk in the door is also self-sabotage.
- Once you identify your triggers, modify your environment towards being more supportive. Make it doable. For the person who wants to increase activity, put on sneakers instead of slippers. Start small.
- Pay attention to your dialogue without judgement. Notice how hard it is to ignore. Even if you give in (I am putting on my PJs, I deserve it! YOLO!) don’t judge yourself. Instead, reflect on the reality (how many days are you actually putting on those PJ”s, and are you expecting too much to stop this behavior every single day? Can you modify your goal to make it doable?) If you change your dialogue to one of acceptance and learning (“wow, that was harder than I thought. Let me readjust this. On Tuesday and Thursdays I am putting on sneakers). In my world, Friday happy hour is totally good with me. And if a friend I have not seen in awhile invites me to happy hour during the week, I am going. This is not about being perfect. It is about gradually changing bad habits.
- Substitute a new behavior for the old one you want to change. Omitting something from your life leaves a huge void. You need to fill it up with something equally enjoyable but more supportive of your goals for health. For me, having a constant cup of hot herbal tea is symbolic of relaxation and serves a similar purpose as that wine. I feel like I deserve it and it represents nurturing.
- Instead of jumping right into your old behavior when it feels like a YOLO moment, take 20 minutes to stop and think. Postpone it, take a long hot shower and relax and think about your goals for yourself. Then make a decision without judgement. Is this just an automatic impulse, or is it truly an opportunity that arose, or a true need (you really may be exhausted and need to go straight to that couch). Some days are like that and it’s all good.
- Remember, it is repetition that creates habits, both good and bad. Once you get a few weeks under your belt of a new healthy behavior, you do feel better, both physically and emotionally. After a month or so, some new habits will take hold. After this, when you feel a YOLO moment coming on, go for it! Once it is a mindful choice and not just an automatic conditioned habitual response, then it truly is ok to totally enjoy every moment of every day. But, you want it to be your choice, not mindless.
- Give yourself time. Don’t give up! Remember, it is all a learning experience.
I will always want to enjoy as much of every day as I can. I light candles for ambiance, even if nobody is home. I have “happy clothes” which I put on the moment I walk in the door. I may take hours to cook a single meal on Sunday because I enjoy every minute. But, these things don’t interfere with my health. Lack of sleep and dehydration definitely do. If you have something that makes you feel less than optimal, don’t beat yourself up or expect change tomorrow. But do start paying attention to that dialogue in your head. THAT is where to start, the rest will eventually fall in place. And if not, seek help. Life is too short and remember….YOLO!