The Psychology of Food and Mindful Eating

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One great way to understand eating behavior is to examine it at its most raw, unfiltered form: How do most animals eat? Let’s take my cat, Roxy. My husband rescued her from the streets where she was susceptible to famine and other evolutionary threats. She now lives in our safe, cushy home, where she is provided with cans of seafood every day. Yet, she still approaches each meal like a race for consumption. She competes with her sisters to eat as fast as she can, so that she can linger around and eat any of their leftovers! She eats fast until her bowl is completely bare. She often eats to the point of nausea.

Now, maybe we aren’t quite desperate as Roxy. However, like Roxy and other animals, we are still influenced by some primitive eating habits. Our brains are hard-wired to seek high caloric foods, foods with greater variety of flavor and scent (often an indication that food contains a diversity of nutrients), and we have a tendency to eat excessively. These habits are rooted in our earliest human experiences, which were also often characterized by scarcity of resources and even famine.  Although you may have never had a personal experience or conscious memory of starvation, your genes still carry these impressions.

Consuming so much food that we feel painfully stuffed at a gathering or potluck is a predictably human response to being surrounded by so many options for high calorie, salty, sweet, and diverse food options. So, how can we protect ourselves from these mindless habits that can sometimes overwhelm us?

Check out these scientifically based suggestions to use psychology as a tool for wellness and mindful eating:

·      Go in with a plan or intention. Most people wait until they sit down to eat before making any decisions. By this time, we might be really hungry and tempted to opt for a huge portion or really high calorie meal. If we are going out to eat, we might be persuaded to make decisions based on the social pressures of those around us. If your friend asks you “Hey do you want to split the nachos?” ... how hard is it to refuse that offer?! We might also be swayed by marketing, like the delicious smells, plating, and descriptions of our favorite foods on the menu. Personally, there will always be a part of me that is tempted by any combination of carbs and cheese: mac and cheese, grilled cheese, loaded French fries, pizza, etc. So, it’s always a good practice to check in with yourself, before you sit down to eat. Ask yourself: What would I like to experience from this meal? Do I want to indulge and if so, where is my limit? Am I planning to drink tonight? If so, how many glasses of wine would I like to consume?

·      Declare your plan. It may also help to just let your friends know so that they can support you in sticking to your goals. “Hey guys, I’m really trying not to drink tonight.” We all know that things don’t always go according to plan. That is ok, because we are only human. However, by beginning with a plan or intention, we are less likely to be distracted by external factors. When we share our plan, we are enlisting the support of our friends to help us adhere to our goals. 

·      Have a backup plan. Let’s say you go into a company potluck with the best of intentions: salads, water, no sweets. But, you arrive after a grueling workday and find your favorite comfort foods and your favorite people gathered around them. Perhaps, you might have a backup plan.  For example “If I plan to indulge, I will only grab a small plate.” You might even plan to take small breaks from eating, or set a goal to consume a glass of water in between each serving. In this way, can you can still have a little bit of structure and organization, even when you feel like indulging. 

 ·      Pay attention to the consequences.  If you do cross the line, eating too much, eating poorly, or drinking to excess, try to pay attention to how you feel afterwards. Begin to take notice of how your moods, thoughts, and energy levels are affected by what you put in your body. For example, if you spend an entire day drinking only coffee and wine (no water), notice how this might affect the way your skin looks and feels, and any other symptoms of your dehydration, like migraines or headaches, fatigue, and your cravings/thirst.

 ·      Create a ritual around eating.  It’s common in many cultures to say a prayer before eating. Many people have other basic little rituals, like shaking a sugar packet, or swirling wine in the glass before taking a sip. Recent studies find that practicing little rituals around food can actually enhance your experience of the flavor of food [1]. So, whenever possible, avoid eating in the car or while multitasking. Take time to pause and give thanks before you eat, or maybe light a candle. Pay extra care to create an environment that will allow you to fully enjoy your food.

 ·      Keep it simple: Less variety.  We’ve all experienced buffets or potlucks where we find so many options for food that we eat way more than we need to. Research finds that people eat less and report being satiated (feeling “full”) more quickly when there is less variety [2,3]. Perhaps you can develop a tactic to curate your plate when you are faced with a lot of variety. Stick to a theme or decide on a system in advance (e.g., 70-80% veggies, 30-20% other). If your friend is eager for you to try their yummy homemade creation at the potluck, you can still go for it but opt for a smaller spoonful.

 ·      Small portions! So much of our eating experience is visual. Much like Roxy the cat, we tend to eat until the plate is clean. This is a visual cue that we are finished with our food [4]. One simple way to prevent from excessive eating is to choose smaller plates. Most plates at restaurants carry portions big enough for 2 or 3. When you go to a restaurant, ask for a smaller appetizer plate to eat from, or better yet, ask for a “to go” container and place half of your food in the container, before you even begin to eat! This will help you have a natural opportunity to check in and make a more conscious decision about how much more you want to consume (if any). This is also quite cost effective: you often end up making two meals for the price of one! 

·      Make the healthy stuff accessible, the decadent stuff harder to reach. It’s simple psychology. We live busy lives! When we come home after a busy day and we’re hungry, chances are we will opt for the easiest foods to prepare and consume. Therefore, it’s a really great idea to clean and cut veggies in advance and keep them handy for quick and easy consumption.  Conversely, make it harder to access the “treats.” My husband and I store some of our favorite guilty pleasures, like cookies or chips, in the garage. This way, they are less visible, less accessible, and we actually have to think before reaching into a bag of yummy snacks and finding ourselves half-way finished with it’s contents!

·      Savor. I hate the tone of guilt and shame in our language around food. If you absolutely love and cherish the experience of decadent foods, you should be able to enjoy them. Food is a vital part of life, it is one of the many ways we experience pleasure. That said, when you sit down to your favorite piece of cake, take your time to be fully present with it. Express your gratitude for it. Look at it, smell it, and really taste it. Let it roll around in your mouth.  Feel all of its textures on your tongue. Take your time! Don't watch T.V. or look at your phone while you eat. Let yourself experience every morsel with all of your senses. You will likely find that by slowing down and approaching food in a more mindful way, you can be satisfied with a more modest serving [5]. Eat, enjoy, and be grateful. 


1.     Vohs, K. D., Wang, Y., Gino, F., & Norton, M. I. (2013). Rituals enhance consumption. Psychological Science24, 1714-1721.

2.     Wansink, B. (2004). Environmental factors that increase the food intake and consumption volume of unknowing consumers. Annual Review of Nutrition24, 455-479.

3.     Raynor, H. A., Niemeier, H. M., & Wing, R. R. (2006). Effect of limiting snack food variety on long-term sensory-specific satiety and monotony during obesity treatment. Eating Behaviors7, 1-14.

4.     Wansink, B., Painter, J. E., & North, J. (2005). Bottomless bowls: Why visual cues of portion size may influence intake. Obesity13, 93-100.

5.     Timmerman, G. M., & Brown, A. (2012). The effect of a mindful restaurant eating intervention on weight management in women. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior44, 22-28.

 

 

Everyday Magic: Rituals to Enhance Quality of Life

Many cultures, religions, and groups implement rituals in times of crisis or urgency. Even outside of these structured systems, many individuals often intuitively develop personal superstitions and rituals in their lives. For me, it was a lucky mechanical pencil I would rely on to take all of my math tests in high school and a favorite dress I would wear to give presentations and talks in college. Whether they are intended to bring “good luck,” healing, or closure, many studies find that superstitions and rituals can actually influence the outcome of an event! For example, for people who are grieving the loss of a loved one, taking part in some kind of mourning ritual or ceremony appears to accelerate the process of healing [1]. Similarly, researchers find that priming or activating a superstitious belief (e.g., giving someone a lucky charm, telling someone to “break a leg”) often improves performance on a given task [2].
Without getting into speculation about magical forces and powers, we can still consider the “active ingredients” of these practices.  In this post, we will explore these powerful elements of rituals and ask ourselves: How can we bring a little bit of everyday magic into our lives?  I’ve identified a few key psychological characteristics of rituals and suggestions for action. I hope you find these useful!

Invoking intention. Despite our romanticized view of human behavior as uniquely rational and intentional, we find that most of human behavior is much like any other animal behavior: entirely habitual/automatic, and deeply rooted in evolutionary adaptation. What is interesting about rituals is that they require an element of intention or purposeful action. Whether it is an ancestral dance or movement that is dedicated to invoking a divine presence, a tea ritual that is intended as an honorable offering, or a purification ritual that is aimed towards inducing a sense of renewal to participants, most rituals begin with a specific purpose. Anytime we reach beyond automatic behavior and unconscious habits, we are already experiencing something unique and truly special.  In the practice of yoga, we find that even something as basic as breathing can become a powerful experience when it is done with focus and intention.


 Try it: Set aside a specific time of the day, week, month, or year for conscious and purposeful action. Take stock of your personal and emotional desires and needs at the time: What do you crave the most in your life at this time. Are you seeking safety and protection? If so, perhaps you can engage in an action that makes you feel physically strong and safe. Do you desire deep companionship? If so, set aside time to gather with close friends or like-minded individuals (even strangers) in a setting that promotes deep connection (sharing personal stories, embracing vulnerability, letting go of self-consciousness). Perhaps you are seeking healing and relief from emotional and physical pain? Set aside time to acknowledge, sit with it, allowing for space to consciously witness yourself in this experience of pain. Make time for restorative and comforting actions, like taking a bath or giving yourself a massage, all done with a focus on and intention for healing.


Claiming control. Another important aspect of rituals is that they allow us to claim control over something that is otherwise seemingly impossible to control. This is an aspect of ritual that has been particularly important in the context of mourning and bereavement, where it is impossible to control situations of loss [1]. Rituals provide us a means to organize an otherwise chaotic emotional experience. Through repetition of behaviors and systematic procedures, we are able to bring a sense of order over even the most seemingly uncontrollable experiences [3].


 Try it: Think about a situation in your life that makes you feel powerless. Think about the BIG STUFF: financial, emotional, romantic, and existential. See if you can create an action around this that symbolizes stepping into action and power. The important part about this is not that you somehow become almighty in the face of life’s challenges, but simply the fact that it represents your desire to take hold of the situation. This idea allows you to rethink your misfortune in a way that gives you a sense of control and power. If you are able to identify even a narrow opening that will allow you to feel like you have some power in the situation, you will find a sense of relief. In many rituals, these actions are quite abstract. In grieving for lost loved ones, we know we cannot bring them back to life. However, we can set aside time every year to remember them, honor them by enjoying their favorite foods, or visiting their favorite places.
These rituals can also be adapted to be more pragmatic and concrete. For example, facing financial limitations can be quite devastating to our quality of life, limiting our ability to enjoy our favorite activities for lack of time, money, and other resources. However, you can create a system to help you organize your money, like setting aside a certain dollar amount for monthly or weekly savings. You can even introduce symbolic action into this otherwise mundane ritual by creating an intentional space to deposit your savings (e.g., a beautifully colored box, a shrine of auspicious symbols and images).


If you only just believe. Rituals are often rooted in a deep sense of faith or belief, whether it is religious or personal. People who engage in a ritual often do it with a belief or expectation that it will provide extra support for them.  As such, people who engage in rituals often experience a boost in self-efficacy or confidence that they can and will succeed. Your internalized beliefs and expectations about yourself and others can absolutely shape your outcomes [4]. In other words, if my “magical pencil” made me feel a sense of calm and confidence taking my math tests, it’s likely that I actually performed better on my tests, because my anxiety did not affect my test performance.


 Try it: Engage in a ritual or intentional action that you find personally meaningful. Think and write about how you believe it will be effective in changing your own life. The more we think about and rationalize these ideas, the more ingrained they become. So don’t be afraid to think about it, talk about it, and invest in it.


Transcending the hedonic treadmill. I have these friends who are madly in love, despite being in a relationship for over two decades. I swear they act like teenagers who have a crush on each other. They are definitely an exception to the norm!
Research shows us that humans are really skilled at adapting to life’s highs and lows [5]. This is great in the face of negative life experiences, it means that we can and will recover happiness in the aftermath of most negative life events. However, it also means that boosts or increases to happiness are rarely sustained over time. Imagine, YOU FOUND YOUR SOULMATE or YOUR DREAM JOB! How long can you sustain your joy and gratitude for this event? How long before you start to take life’s gifts for granted? Sadly, research shows that it’s very likely your joy and gratitude will fade over time. The good news, rituals allow us to transcend the ordinary and mundane, bringing a divine element into everyday actions.


 Try it: Take something that you do every day: eat a meal, dinner with your romantic partner, even washing your dishes… and create a ritual around it! Light candles, turn on music, meditate or pray before or after it, recite a mantra or chant. Use this as an opportunity to step beyond the everyday rhythm of your life, to stop and observe your life through radically techni-colored classes.


Connecting to nature. Many rituals also tap into one of the richest source of healing available to us: nature. Rituals often create an opportunity for people to connect more deeply with natural elements, like fire, water, and earth. For more information about the role of nature and healing, please check out the work of Dacher Keltner and Craig Anderson, as described in this

Try it: Visit a natural space, like a forest or beach with a specific intention. Fire up your awareness, take in as much sensory experience as you possibly can. If you are unable to visit nature, try bringing it into your home. Light up your fire pit, watch an amazing nature documentary, take a bath, take a meditative walk in your backyard with no shoes on. Allow yourself to receive these sensory messages and the benefits will become inevitably apparent to you.

I hope these tips will help you amplify the level on your quality of life. Thanks for reading! Wishing you a magical day!




1.     Norton, M. I., & Gino, F. (2014). Rituals alleviate grieving for loved ones, lovers, and lotteries. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 266-272.

2.     Damisch, L., Stoberock, B., & Mussweiler, T. (2010). Keep your fingers crossed! How superstition improves performance. Psychological Science, 21, 1014-1020.

3.     Legare, C. H., & Souza, A. L. (2012). Evaluating ritual efficacy: Evidence from the supernatural. Cognition, 124, 1-15.

4.     Rosenthal, R. (1994). Interpersonal expectancy effects: A 30-year perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 3, 176-179.

5.     Frederick, S., and Loewenstein, G. 1999. Hedonic adaptation. in D. Kahneman, E. Diener, and N. Schwartz [eds]. Scientific Perspectives on Enjoyment, Suffering, and Well-Being. New York. Russell Sage Foundation.

 

 

 

Beyond Survival Mode

Sometimes, it feels like making it through the day is just about the best we can do. We may be met with hardships, illnesses, losses, wounds, or even just the bustle of everyday obligations that take up so much space, that we can't seem to contact that sense of happiness and contentment that we all ravenously seek. This survival lens can also be tinted by unrealistic expectations for how we think our lives should look. Everywhere on the internet, we find stellar examples of what a "good life" should look like. This can be a great source of inspiration, of course. However, when we find ourselves in times of challenge, these one-dimensional representations become the feeding grounds for suffering and discontentment. On the surface, it appears as though everyone else has it together, which may trigger feelings of desolation and shame. 

As far away as relief may seem in these moments, it is possible for most of us to shift gears from survival to thriving mode. Barring major life crisis and acute mental illness, the average person does have the ability to transform their stress experience. As a yogi and health psychologist, I am confident in declaring that this shift begins with the breath. Recent studies find that basic human emotions (i.e., anger, fear, sadness, and happiness) are characterized by unique cardiorespiratory patterns [1]. Happiness is commonly expressed as a stable increase in heart rate, paired with even breaths, while sadness is expressed as uneven breathing, and anger is expressed as a dramatic heart-rate increase. Most of the time, these cardiorespiratory changes happen without our conscious awareness or control. However, when we tune into the body in times of “survival,” we can override these communications taking place between the head, heart, and breath to say: “it’s all good.” In these moments, pausing to take slower, deeper, and more even breaths can bring us back to a state of emotional stability. When we consciously change our breathing patterns, we turn down the signals for arousal and our body sends feedback to the brain that promotes balance.

Think of your body as your friend. Often times, the negative effects of stress in the body are exacerbated by the thoughts that accompany it. Imagine you feel your heart rate increase at the thought of an upcoming job evaluation and immediately think “My heart is pounding like crazy. I can't do this, I’m so stressed out!” But, what would happen if you thought instead “My heart is fired up. I’m so pumped for this challenge, I’m ready to go!” When we are met with obstacles, we typically interpret them either as a threat or a challenge [2]. Most of the time, we unconsciously interpret the cardiorespiratory changes that naturally occur in times of stress as a sign that we are in trouble. However, research finds that when people label their body’s response to stress as something that is functional in preparing them to better deal with the challenge ahead, they buffer themselves from the physiologically damaging effects of stress in the body [3].

Finally, survival mode is often accompanied by a sense of hurriedness or rushing. But, in these frantic moments, it can be so powerful to just take 5 minutes to stop and do nothing, just soak in as much sensory information as you can. This is a basic mindfulness technique and it can be a real game changer! Set your timer for 5 minutes. Close your eyes and try to notice all of the immediate sounds, smells, and sensations that come into your awareness. Don't be worried if you find yourself thinking again, just acknowledge the thought and bring your attention back to your senses. I love practicing this with my clients for the first time, because I often find this remarkable reaction after just 5 minutes of doing nothing: sheer awe! “Oh my gosh! Did you hear the birds? They sounded so beautiful and surreal!” It’s amazing to see how much of your attention is typically consumed by your thoughts, especially in times of stress. By tuning in to your physical experience, you savor the richness of your environment; you unlock the sources of natural healing that are available to you in your own body and your relationship to the living world [4].  

I'm glad to know we have all survived thus far. It's a big deal! But, I want to see what it looks like when we step beyond surviving, into thriving. 


 

1.     Rainville, P., Bechara, A., Naqvi, N., & Damasio, A. R. (2006). Basic emotions are associated with distinct patterns of cardiorespiratory activity. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 61, 5-18.

2.     Tomaka, J., Blascovich, J., Kelsey, R. M., & Leitten, C. L. (1993). Subjective, physiological, and behavioral effects of threat and challenge appraisal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 248-260.

3.     Jamieson, J. P., Nock, M. K., & Mendes, W. B. (2012). Mind over matter: reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141, 417-422.

4.     Howell, A. J., Dopko, R. L., Passmore, H. A., & Buro, K. (2011). Nature connectedness: Associations with well-being and mindfulness. Personality and Individual Differences, 51, 166-171.

 

 

Times of Crisis, We Need a Revolution

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.
— Audre Lorde

“Compassion fatigue” is a common experience among nurses, therapists, and health professionals [1].  Common symptoms of this kind of burnout include diminished empathy and less interest and investment in helping others. In addition, some people may also experience secondhand or “collective trauma,” internalizing the symptoms of trauma simply by way of being exposed to traumatic images and stories [2]. 

Although this phenomenon is commonly studied in professional caretakers, I would venture to say that perhaps a large population in the United States, even across the globe, could be experiencing a dose of compassion fatigue. Perhaps now more than ever, with the constant rush of information available to us at any waking moment, we often carry more of an emotional burden than we are equipped to bear. To get a sense of the staggering quantity of data created and shared on the internet every second, check out these live statistics here: http://www.internetlivestats.com/one-second/

What is the cost of compassion fatigue?

We might be feeling more loneliness.

Even though we are now hyper-connected through social media and ephemeral social interaction, it may not satisfy our needs for social support [3].  This suggests that social networking may make us more vulnerable to feelings of loneliness. Loneliness has been linked with depression, deteriorating functional health (e.g., mobility, physical activity), and even shorter life [4]. As such, many doctors and researchers have deemed loneliness a public health concern [5].

We might be alienating others, without even knowing it.

When we abandon compassion, we risk becoming disaffected, maybe cynical. Without this motivation to relate to others, we might be unintentionally reinforcing the arbitrary categories that separate “us” and “them.”[6]. 

Self-care is the best antidote.

Interestingly, this kind of burnout is most likely to occur when people neglect to implement regular self-care behaviors. Self-care should be multidimensional: addressing physical, psychological, spiritual, and social needs [7]. The problem is that many of us neglect to ask ourselves what we need, until after burnout or fatigue hits us.

The good news is that self-care behaviors can restore emotional balance and greater compassion. Research finds that counselors who learned a mind-body approach to self-care (i.e., yoga, meditation, qigong) demonstrated a boost in their emotional and physical health, and an improvement in their ability to care for others [8]. Similarly, even those who are not professional caretakers report experiencing less stress and less rumination (repetitive and intrusive negative thoughts) after practicing mindfulness meditation [9].

Too often we confuse self-care with selfishness. It can be difficult to give ourselves permission to take time away from the many obligations vying for our attention when it feels like there is always so much to attend to and take care of. Taking a more holistic approach, we find that the ability to make productive and prosocial contributions is directly related to emotional and physical well-being. Regardless of who you are and what you do for a living, self-care is a necessary act of self-preservation. Imagine what kind of world we could create if each person took responsibility to nourish themselves and recharge their batteries as needed?

 A self-care revolution may just be the key to greater understanding, cooperation, and productivity for all!


1.     Figley, C. R. (2002). Compassion fatigue: Psychotherapists' chronic lack of self care. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58, 1433-1441.

2.     Holman, E. A., Garfin, D. R., & Silver, R. C. (2014). Media’s role in broadcasting acute stress following the Boston Marathon bombings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 93-98.

3.     Bayer, J. B., Ellison, N. B., Schoenebeck, S. Y., & Falk, E. B. (2016). Sharing the small moments: Ephemeral social interaction on Snapchat. Information, Communication & Society, 19, 956-977.

4.     Luo, Y., Hawkley, L. C., Waite, L. J., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2012). Loneliness, health, and mortality in old age: A national longitudinal study. Social Science & Medicine, 74, 907-914.

5.     Gerst-Emerson, K., & Jayawardhana, J. (2015). Loneliness as a public health issue: The impact of loneliness on health care utilization among older adults. American Journal of Public Health, 105, 1013-1019.

6.     Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (1995). Implicit social cognition: Attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypes. Psychological Review, 102, 4.

7.     Richards, K., Campenni, C., & Muse-Burke, J. (2010). Self-care and well-being in mental health professionals: The mediating effects of self-awareness and mindfulness. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 32, 247-264.

8.     Schure, M. B., Christopher, J., & Christopher, S. (2008). Mind-body medicine and the art of self-care: Teaching mindfulness to counseling students through yoga, meditation, and qigong. Journal of Counseling and Development: JCD, 86(1), 47.

9.     Shapiro, S. L., Oman, D., Thoresen, C. E., Plante, T. G., & Flinders, T. (2008). Cultivating mindfulness: Effects on well-being. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 64, 840-862.

 

 

 

 

Turning to New Seasons

Winter is just about here, and so come natural changes in the daily rhythms of light, temperature, and overall environment. Seasonal changes entail more than just weather, including changes to the social environment as marked by traditions and behavioral norms. Whether or not we are consciously aware of these changes, our moods, emotions, and activity levels can still be influenced. 

I am currently obsessed with the new season of Planet Earth 2, in part because this show so eloquently demonstrates the nature of experience for so many beautifully diverse species. Yet, despite so many unique forms of existence, we still find universal realities shared by all living creatures in the natural world. Across species, we find that winter marks a time when many animals are naturally inclined to retreat in the safety and comfort of their dwellings, often gathering together in their family groups for protection and warmth. Winter also symbolizes a time of cessation (in more yogic terms, non-doing), whether it is the wilting of plants and flowers or the surrendering sleep of hibernation. We may find literal and metaphoric similarities to our own responses to these changing seasons. By examining the gifts of this season, and our own symbiotic relationship with the natural world all around us, we become better equipped to understand and utilize our own responses to the changes that this winter may bring. 

Let the light in - The increased hours of darkness in the winter have direct consequences to our physiological and psychological states. Most notably, human hormone production and transportation are impacted by increased darkness. This increased darkness results in higher levels of "the sleep hormone" melatonin, which suggests that it is not a coincidence that we may experience more fatigue and lower levels of energy during the winter months, and sometimes even insomnia [1]. In addition, the relative lack of sunshine can also affect our mood regulation, resulting in lower levels of serotonin [2]. For the majority of people, these hormonal changes are too subtle to really notice. However, 10-25% of the population may experience seasonal affective disorder, or depressed mood corresponding to the decrease hours of sunlight. Relatedly, colder temperatures predict more narrowly focused thinking (e.g., less flexibility in behavior, less curiosity or interest in exploring new ideas) and negative mood [3].     

Self care tip: The human body was designed to function in alignment with the natural world. When the sun rises, the body is prepared for activity. As the sun sets, the body is inclined to begin to wind down. In this modern era of so much exposure to artificial light, it becomes increasingly important for us to take advantage of natural sunlight whenever possible, especially during winter months when sunlight can be harder to come by. Try to spend the first few hours of the day in a brightly lit space, which will signal to your body to halt melatonin production and assist you in transitioning out of sleep. Limit your use of artificial light (e.g., t.v., computers, phones, etc), especially during the hours before sleep. For those with noticeable seasonal side effects may want to try spending some time in an infrared sauna, as these saunas provide warmth and also emit infrared rays that simulate the positive effects of sunlight on the body. Pay attention to any changes in activity and mood, as they correspond with changes in light. If you notice an unexplainable increase in depressed mood during the winter months, you could be experiencing seasonal affective disorder.  

Gather your resources wisely- Winter can be a time of scarcity for many. Depending on where you live, this can mean scarcity of fresh food or other natural resources that are significantly less abundant in the winter months. This can also mean a more abstract form of scarcity, whether it is lower levels of energy or less restorative free time to fill your social and emotional well. As such, we may feel naturally inclined to gather up and reserve our resources. Researchers find an overall trend of weight gain that occurs during the fall and winter months [4]. Increased weight gain may not always be the healthiest way to gather your resources, but there may be some emotional and mental approaches that can help you reclaim and restore your energy during the winter months. 

Self care tip: Take notice of any habitual comfort eating. Winter presents so many unique triggers for stress: cold temperature, lack of light, holiday chaos, social obligations, family reunions, etc. It can be easy to turn to food and eating as a quick fix when we feel depleted.

For all of these reasons, winter can be a great time to start a mindfulness practice. Set aside just 10 minutes a day to sit in stillness. Insight Timer is my favorite meditation app on the market. They have beautiful bells to use in timed meditations, as well as a long list of guided meditations to address any specific challenges you may be facing. Meditation can sound intimidating or uninteresting at first. But, mindfulness meditation can offer tremendous benefits for your wellbeing, including: increased self-awareness, more positive emotional states, and greater self-control [5].  

Another great resource is time with friends. Often, our habit in times of stress is to retreat to our quiet places: maybe curl up with a favorite T.V. show or book instead of attending that social gathering that you were invited to. However, we must practice careful discernment when it comes to making these decisions. Although social gatherings do require effort, they can also be restorative. Even introverted people have a need for social connection and meaningful relationships. So, don't underestimate the power of communing with friends when your spirits are low. Conscious engagement in social interaction can allow us to release the personal burdens we carry by sharing and talking with a beloved friend, find humor and new perspectives during challenging times, and create more meaningful experiences, which can be especially important during the holiday seasons. 

A time for celebration - Regardless of your religious and cultural traditions, throughout the history of human culture, the winter months often represent a time for celebration. As a radical young adult, I was skeptical of the consumer-driven madness of the holidays in the West. But, as I took a step back from this hypercritical, politicized view of the season, I was able to notice the beautiful sentiments and intentions for peace, love, and togetherness that the winter holidays embody. I began to reclaim this season for my own.  I opted to gather friends and family in my home to prepare foods that I find nourishing. I took part in special rituals that inspire and bring me joy, like sending cards, lighting candles, and listening to joyful music. I have always loved to give gifts, but instead of rushing into the overstimulating environments of shopping malls out of obligation, I choose to shop at small, conscious stores and support my friends' businesses whenever I can. Among my favorite holiday tradition: welcoming the winter solstice with the yogic tradition of practicing 108 Sun Salutations. I gave myself permission to celebrate and create my own joyful traditions and this has drastically altered my experience of the winter holiday season. 

Self care tip: Decide how you would like to celebrate this season. Create traditions and gatherings based on the activities that bring you joy. Think outside of the box when it comes to your approach to these celebrations. What does this time of year mean for you? How can you honor and embody the virtues that you find most meaningful? 

Thank you for reading! Wishing you all a lovely Winter! 

 


  1. Lambert, G. W., Reid, C., Kaye, D. M., Jennings, G. L., & Esler, M. D. (2002). Effect of sunlight and season on serotonin turnover in the brain. The Lancet, 360, 1840-1842.
  2. Rosenthal, N. E., Sack, D. A., Gillin, J. C., Lewy, A. J., Goodwin, F. K., Davenport, Y., Mueller, P.S., Newsome, D.A. & Wehr, T. A. (1984). Seasonal affective disorder: a description of the syndrome and preliminary findings with light therapy. Archives of General Psychiatry, 41, 72-80.
  3. Keller, M. C., Fredrickson, B. L., Ybarra, O., Côté, S., Johnson, K., Mikels, J., Conway, A., & Wager, T. (2005). A warm heart and a clear head the contingent effects of weather on mood and cognition. Psychological Science, 16, 724-731.
  4. Yanovski, J. A., Yanovski, S. Z., Sovik, K. N., Nguyen, T. T., O'Neil, P. M., & Sebring, N. G. (2000). A prospective study of holiday weight gain. New England Journal of Medicine, 342, 861-867.
  5. Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 822.

Healthy Holidays with Auteur: A Program Designed for You

 

I have a confession. Even though I’m in the business of wellness, I do fall off the health wagon from time to time. I still have days when I forget to drink enough water. I can get totally carried away at the snack table at parties, (depending on the party). Some days, even the thought of cutting up lots of veggies and throwing them into a bowl sounds way too hard or not at all enticing, so I regress back to my childhood favorite of eating nothing but bread and cheese.  

As the holidays are approaching, this temptation gets louder. We are constantly reminded of the 1,739 new ways to inject sugar and pumpkin spice into our foods or wrap bacon around something to make it even more decadent. At holiday gatherings, grocery stores, and coffee shops, we are bombarded with offerings of candy, cakes, and “cute” holiday cocktails to indulge and overindulge in. In the bustle of the holidays, our health choices are often tested and challenged, particularly when the muscle of self-control is overworked and worn out, when we are in a state of "ego depletion" [1]. Walking into a grocery store after a long and stressful day at work, after dealing with traffic and long lines, thinking about all the prep work I need to do before family comes to visit or before my upcoming trips, it’s no coincidence that I end up buying that “King Size” holiday edition chocolate seductively calling to me in the checkout line and promptly devouring it in the parking lot.

Fortunately, my “off the wagon” moments are much less frequent than they used to be. I have learned how to be more mindful of the foods I consume and their effect on my physical and emotional state. I have also learned to prioritize activities that make me feel more vital, and identify situations that I find depleting, triggering, or otherwise not aligned with my health goals. I didn’t do this alone. I made the choice to take action, I still have to make that choice every day, but I have had tremendous support and mentorship. These supportive bonds that nourish me and keep me accountable are the exemplars of what I now bring to my clients.

This was the inspiration for Healthy Holidays with Auteur, a program created to target those temptations and challenges we face in the months of November and December. This program allows you to set goals, create a plan of action, and stay accountable. You will have the support and tools needed to honor your goals and face the New Year with confidence and strength.

Many other diet and lifestyle programs are not focused on health as a holistic product of mind and body. Instead, they focus on a one-dimensional goal to lose weight or get your “dream” body, which only sets the stage for disappointment or dangerous, unsustainable habits.

We can do better. Healthy Holidays with Auteur uses a scientifically grounded and compassion-centered approach to help you outsmart the temptations that seem to take over during this hectic time of year. This program will empower and encourage you, rather than make you feel guilty for making “bad” choices. This program will make you feel good about your decisions, feel comfortable in your body, and connect with a supportive network that empowers you to live a healthier life, even when temptation abounds.


Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265.

 

It Takes a Village

In my last post, I wrote about the importance of taking responsibility for your own health journey. This is a crucial step in the transformative process of becoming more physically, emotionally, and psychologically healthy. Until this shift in how we define and approach our health journey, all other attempts at behavior change will likely be inconsistent and vulnerable to disruption based on any number of variables (e.g., where you live, how expensive a class or service is, how much affirmation you receive from others, your mood at any given moment, your current health status). As Joseph Campbell will tell us, there is a moment in every epic story when the hero must face their greatest obstacle. Your own story is no different; nobody else will ever have as much authority over your wellbeing as you do.

However, as a social psychologist, I know that there is no greater tool for influence than the power of other people. All humans are swayed by the opinions, behaviors, and norms of others. This general susceptibility to persuasion can be dangerous when it is paired with a lack of self-awareness or independent thinking, as evident in many contexts of group decision-making [1] and blind obedience to authority [2]. However, when used with intention, social influence and support can become one of our greatest gifts for motivation on the health journey.

All humans crave social interaction, belongingness, and support [5]. These social networks are crucial to preserving psychological and physiological health, as positive social interactions can shield or buffer against stress and the negative consequences of stress in the body [6]. You may not be familiar with the research on this topic, but you probably already intuitively know this to be true. When times get difficult, we often intuitively reach out to a friend or family member for counsel. This is a common reaction to stress that psychologists refer to as “tending and befriending”, a prosocial counterpart to the “fight or flight” response, and this is one of the healthiest reactions to stress we could possibly have [7]. Sometimes, the value of having someone who can listen to us lovingly and provide a new, uplifting perspective is priceless. It can be hard to imagine surviving the mundane stresses of life without this buffer.  

The relationship between your health and your social networks are manifold. Another take-home message from the research is that health behaviors, whether good or bad, are contagious. We tend to unconsciously mirror the behaviors of those around us, and over time, these daily behaviors amount to our lifestyle. The Framingham Heart Study has examined 12,067 people across multiple decades with the intention of understanding the risk factors for cardiovascular disease. The study began in 1948 and researchers are still collecting follow-up data today. What researchers found in this study was that social networks predicted peoples’ likelihood of becoming obese [3] and taking up or quitting smoking [4]. These findings demonstrate the extent to which people are highly influenced by the behaviors of others in their social networks. Perhaps you’ve experienced this for yourself. You go to work with the best intentions to stick to your healthy lunch of fresh vegetables, fruits, and protein. Suddenly, you notice a big group of your coworkers gathered in the staff room passing around plates with slices of cake… and the rest is history.  Some networks are notorious for creating unhealthy cultural norms: drinking multiple cups of coffee per day; gathering in small groups for smoke breaks; or “treating” each other with donuts and candies.  One reason why this temptation is so hard to resist is because by giving in, you also receive the implicit benefit of social acceptance and belonging.

The good news is that by knowing this, we can exploit the power of social networks to our benefit. It can be easier to quit smoking in a group of fellow quitters. It's easier to wake up every morning for a run if you participate in a running group. We can find other people who have similar aspirations and share our strategies for success, encourage each other, and impart perspective and comfort when facing major challenges. When times get hard, we can trust that instinct to reach out and connect with others. We should take comfort in this realization that we are not alone. In the pursuit of a more balanced and healthier self, we can rely on the power of friendship and community for inspiration, support, and strength along the way. 


1.     Janis, I. L. (1982). Groupthink: Psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascoes (Vol. 349). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

2.     Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York: Harper & Row.

3.     Christakis N.A. & Fowler J.H. (2007). The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years. New England Journal of Medicine, 357:370–379.

4.     Christakis N.A. & Fowler J.H. (2008)The Collective Dynamics of Smoking in a Large Social Network. New England Journal of Medicine, 358, 2249–2258.

5.     Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497.

6.     Cohen, S., & Wills, T. A. (1985). Stress, social support, and the buffering hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 98, 310

7.     Taylor, S. E. (2011). Social support: A review. The Handbook of Health Psychology, 189-214.