Ask a Health Coach: Bad Habits, Before Pics, and the Post-Holiday Blues

woman sitting in sunHi folks! Erin’s here for another round of Ask a Health Coach. Today she’ll be answering your questions about breaking bad habits, obsessing over before photos, and knowing if you’re dealing with post-holiday blues or something more serious. Got more questions? Head over to our Mark’s Daily Apple Facebook group or post them in the comments below.

Gary asked:

“I was totally psyched to get my health on track this year but I’m finding I’ve developed some less-than-ideal behaviors (snacking, staying up too late watching TV, etc) that are derailing my progress. Any tips for breaking my bad habits?”

This past year has thrown a lot of our routines into an unhealthy tailspin. You might be working more hours, hanging around the pantry a little more often, and watching hours of mindless TV to cope with the new normal, which frankly, isn’t so new anymore.

Regardless, the fact that you want to change your habits is a good sign. Don’t get me wrong, breaking a habit can be challenging. One reason is because habits are reward-based learnings — meaning they involve a trigger, an action, and a reward.

Let’s take your snacking, for example. Say you’ve got some time to kill in between meetings and you’re kinda hungry (this is your trigger). So, you stroll over to the kitchen pantry and look for something snacky (the action). Afterward, you’re no longer hungry or have time to kill. Win-win right? This is the reward, by the way.

Every time you repeat this cycle you reinforce your habit until it becomes automatic.1 That’s another reason habits are so hard to break. Even though it might be a *bad* behaviour, it actually leaves you feeling good because you’re getting a reward.

And it takes more than good old-fashioned willpower to change it. This study from researchers at Yale showed that the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain associated with self-control) goes MIA when there’s a trigger like stress.2 Other research indicates that boredom has just as negative an impact on bad habits, especially when it comes to eating.3

How do you break bad habits?

1. Recognize your triggers. Seems simple enough, but if you know what your triggers are, you can anticipate your next step — and choose something different. For instance, your trigger might be your mid-morning check-in with your co-workers ending, which leads you to get up from your chair and make a b-line for the pantry.

2. Choose a different action. Here’s where you’ll start to reprogram those neural pathways. Instead of actually going to the kitchen and opening a bag of chips, do something completely different. Maybe drop and do 10 pushups or a 30 second plank. Heck, you could even walk outside, take a breath of fresh air, and walk back in. Point is, do something other than what you typically do. And do it every single time.

3. Acknowledge the reward. Do you feel refreshed after going outside? Do you feel strong after doing a few pushups? Are you more awake? More invigorated? Slightly more alive? Really notice how you feel. This will help reinforce your new behaviour and start to form your new healthier habit.

Julie asked:

“I recently saw an old photo of myself when I weighed around 135-140. I know I’m happiest at that point, but now that I’m almost 50, I can’t seem to get the scale to budge below 148. What can I do to lose the extra weight?”

I’m no stranger to this conversation. As a health coach, I quite often work with clients who start out by saying “I used to be so thin” or “lean” or “skinny.” It’s not uncommon to reflect on how things used to be, when you could eat whatever you want, skimp on sleep, neglect your body. You know, the good old days.

But there’s a difference between reflecting and obsessing, and I’m concerned you’re moving toward the latter. I’d love to hear more about why you think you were happiest at that certain weight. Was your happiness because the scale said a particular number that you felt was appropriate for a woman of your age or height or stature? Or was your happiness because you were younger with fewer responsibilities and stressors and maybe a few less aches and pains?

So much of our identity gets wrapped up in what we used to be. Those “before pics” often become a disservice to our current self — physically, mentally, and emotionally. We obsess so hard about who we once were, that we’re totally oblivious to how brave, bad ass, and balanced we’ve become.

Maybe you were ten pounds lighter, but you constantly deprived yourself. Or counted calories. Or were a slave to the Stairmaster.

Perhaps clinging to what you used to be is holding you back from appreciating where you are now. A place where you’re free from food scales (and hopefully soon, bathroom scales). Sure, my job as a health coach is helping people achieve effortless fat loss. But it’s also helping them realize that where they are now is a perfectly acceptable place to be.

LeAnne asked:

“I’m really feeling the post-holiday blues here. What do you know about seasonal affective disorder? I’m wondering if this has anything to do with why my mood is so low.”

Changes in mood are extremely common, both during the holidays and after. You might notice a low mood as you mentioned, or loneliness, sadness, fatigue, cravings, anxiety, depression, or any combo of those things. Part of it stems from the demands of the holidays (more family, more indulging, more stress). The other part is the shift in light. Or, I should say, lack of light. And this can lead to Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD.

What’s the deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, SAD is a type of depression with a recurring seasonal pattern. Experts believe that reduced sunlight in fall and winter can impact our circadian rhythm and disrupt hormonal regulation, lowering serotonin levels and increasing melatonin. And women are four times more likely to experience SAD than men.4 Interestingly, some of our Mark’s Daily Apple readers have shared that they notice symptoms of SAD in the warmer summer months.

There are a few therapeutic approaches you can take:

  • Use light therapy. It’s been shown to help SAD sufferers by emitting a bright, full spectrum light that mimics natural daylight. Use it first thing in the morning to help get your body’s circadian rhythm on track.
  • Supplement with vitamin D. It’s still under debate whether or not dietary supplements can relieve symptoms, but across the board, people diagnosed with SAD collectively have low levels of vitamin D.5
  • Exercise outside early in the day. Even just walking outside in the natural light can boost serotonin and help regulate the chemicals that can get off kilter during the gloomier months.

Keep in mind, there’s a subtle difference between the general “blues” and seasonal affective disorder. While the post-holiday blues typically start in early January and end a few weeks later, SAD can start as early as late fall and stick around ‘til springtime. Symptoms can be more severe as well, so it’s smart to get a handle on when your symptoms started and how intense they feel. If you’re not sure where you stand, be sure to consult with a professional.

What do you think? Any other suggestions you’d add?

About the Author

Erin Power

Erin Power is an NBHWC board-certified health coach and the Coaching and Curriculum Director for Primal Health Coach Institute. She’s also the co-host of Health Coach Radio, the podcast by health coaches, for health coaches. Erin lives outside of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on a hobby farm in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

If you have a passion for health and wellness and a desire to help people like Erin does, consider becoming a certified health coach yourself. Learn the 3 simple steps to building a successful health coaching business in 6 months or less in this special info session hosted by Primal Health Coach Institute co-founder Mark Sisson.

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