When Trouble Strikes, Attend to the Physical

A story I’ve heard quite often is this: Someone will start out on their low carb diet, paying attention to their nutrition, feeling better physically and mentally. Then something awful will happen – a death in the family, a job loss, a divorce, something like that. The dieter will be derailed. They will start eating chocolate and pasta and anything else they can get their hands on in the vain hope that it will somehow make them feel better. The exercise program will go out the window. And pretty soon, in addition to the pain caused by the initial, awful incident, they’ll be dealing with the unpleasant side effects of bad nutrition and physical stagnation.

I would like to suggest to you that when emotional and spiritual trouble strikes, you pay close attention to the physical. Why? Because it’s easy, that’s why, and it will have a beneficial effect on your emotional and spiritual state. Emotional issues can be nearly intractable. Busted marriages or love affairs are notoriously difficult to fix. Getting another job takes time and work. The death of a loved one is something that only time can heal, and time cannot be speeded up.

The body, however, is blessedly here, present, and amenable to care-taking. You can’t make him love you again, but you can make sure that your misery isn’t compounded by blood sugar swings. You can’t bring the dead back, but you can work off some grief with a long walk somewhere peaceful among living things. You can’t force the world to appreciate you as you deserve, but you can make sure that you don’t add sleep deprivation to your woes.

This attending to the physical will do three very useful things: First of all, it will help you heal as quickly as possible (which, I hasten to admit, may well still not be quickly enough) by giving your brain the support it needs to feel as well as it can given the circumstances. Never forget that your brain is a part of your body, profoundly affected by your physical well-being. And remember, too, that blood sugar crashes are enough to cause depression all by themselves. So is vitamin deficiency. You’re already miserable; don’t do things that induce further misery.

Secondly, it gives you something to focus on other than the source of your sorrow. Forcing yourself to fix some simple, wholesome food which will support your well-being, making yourself go out and take a gentle stroll in the sun, instead of staying in a dark room and concentrating on your grief, getting to bed on time even if you have to take something to help you sleep, rather than staying up till all hours looking at old photos or listening to the empty silence, are all fine ways to gently lead yourself back to the land of the living.

Third, all of this will remind you on a very tangible level that you are a worthy person, deserving of care, even if you have to give that care to yourself. This is a very important message to be giving yourself.

It may take some self-discipline to get your physical care program going; you may not feel up to cooking, for instance. That’s okay; you don’t need to cook whole meals. A chunk of cheese, a couple of scrambled eggs, some frozen hot wings or a grilled chicken breast or fish fillet warmed up in the microwave, some hot-and-sour or egg drop soup ordered in from the local Chinese restaurant, a dish of plain yogurt with some vanilla or lemon extract and sweetener stirred in – these are all simple but nourishing foods that will give your body the support it needs.

Getting out of the house is another physical act that can make a big difference. Whether you’re grieving over a death, or the loss of a spouse or lover, home will be a place with a million painful reminders. Give yourself a break, and go someplace that will gently distract you – a park, a zoo, the beach, a museum. If you’re having the aforementioned trouble getting yourself to cook, go out to eat, even if it’s someplace simple and cheap. Sometimes people feel that they’re somehow being untrue to the memory of the loved one (or the memory of the love lost) if they’re able to put it aside for a few hours. This is simply untrue. Tell your pain, “Pain, I know you have good reason to be in my life right now, and I’m not telling you to go away. I’ll deal with you, really I will. But just for this hour or two, I’m going somewhere else. I’ll be back.” Then go.

I urge you to avoid the mind set that says, “With all I’ve been through, I deserve to eat (candy, ice cream, pasta, whatever damaging food you’re giving yourself permission to eat.)” And if misguided friends or family members try to instill this mind set in you, do your best to head them off. Do you really deserve to go back to your dangerous addiction? If you had a friend who was a sober alcoholic, and something awful happened in their life, would you tell them, “Oh, c’mon. Your husband just left you, you deserve a shot of vodka!” Of course you wouldn’t. Going back to your carb addiction will do you no more good than that vodka would do the alcoholic.

Some of the carb craving comes from the fact that eating carbs releases serotonin in the brain, and can cause a lift in mood. Unfortunately, this is likely to be more than counterbalanced by the crash which follows. Taking the B vitamin niacin – about 100 mgs a day – can encourage your body to create more serotonin. (Be aware that niacin causes a “flush” – you’ll turn hot, red and itchy for about 10-15 minutes. No-flush niacin is available; read the labels.) Supplements of 5-hydroxytryptophan (aka 5-HTP) will also encourage serotonin formation. Too, this is not the time to drop your vitamin program. You need all the support you can get.

And please, in the face of really big grief, don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor. When my mother was disappearing into dementia, my father deteriorating from cancer, my dog dying, and my career moribund, I unsurprisingly found myself depressed, unable to think or concentrate or get much of anything done. I am not ashamed to tell you that I went on a low dose of antidepressants, and a very good decision it was, too.

I do recommend treating yourself within the realm of healthy carb control and good nutrition. This would be a good time to splurge on the best sugar-free chocolate you can find. (I like Guylian’s – imported Belgian sugar-free chocolate, not too shabby!) Perhaps you’ll spend a bit more on restaurants than you generally do. Maybe you’ll order or bake some low carb cookies or buy a better bottle of dry wine than you generally pop for. All of this is fine; you want to be gentle and kind to yourself. Just do it with things that won’t have an ugly backlash.

You can also have non-food treats – perhaps a massage would be soothing, or a video-thon of your favorite old movies, or a makeover, or two weeks off, lying on the beach. Whatever would help, without causing you added stress paying for it, you should give yourself right now. For that matter, this might be a good time to pay for a few sessions of professional counseling; this has always been useful for me.

I’m afraid none of this is academic. It comes from sad personal experience. I first wrote about this topic in 2001, after I found my beloved dog, Maggie dead, hanged by her dog trolley. She was a member of the family, and her sudden death hit both me and my husband very hard. For a couple of days we could do very little but hold each other and cry.

We did much of what I have recommended – made sure that we ate at least a little something nourishing, even if we had to spoon it in between sobs, got out of the house that felt so empty and went to where there were living things – a local historical site out in the woods, the Indianapolis Zoo. We took long walks together, and made certain we got enough sleep, even if I had to take something to nod off. We held each other a lot. We watched favorite old Monty Python videos. We ate out more than usual.

We still hurt, we still cried. But we were able to cope with our everyday lives reasonable quickly. And we adopted Jed the Hero Dog a couple of months later. I hope that you, too, will heal as quickly as God and nature allow.

Since then I have had worse hurts – having to force my mother into care for Alzheimer’s was the worst thing I’ve ever had to do. The principles of self-care held, and helped, even then.

Ida Rolf, one of the true pioneers of bodywork and a professional hero of mine, once said, “We work with people’s bodies because we can’t put our hands directly on their souls.” When your soul is injured, working with your body is one of the few sure and accessible routes toward its healing.

© 2009 by Dana Carpender. Used by kind permission of the untroubled author. What do you think? Please send Dana your comments to Dana Carpender.

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