coping Archives - Dr. Mary Pritchard

What Do You Most Want Right Now?: Listening to that Still Small Voice

By | Goddess Wisdom, Walk the Path, Wisdom Blog | No Comments

It was Friday of dead week (the not-so affectionate, yet somehow appropriate term for the last week of classes) and I was exhausted. After working 12+ hour days for an entire week and more of the same planned for the weekend, I had a heart-to-heart moment with myself.

I asked myself.

Chocolate was the first answer that came to mind, but then I dove a little deeper: I need a break. That's what I most want right now. I haven't been practicing what I preach. I've been pushing too hard, letting others overstep boundaries. I need time for myself – Time to unwind, time to be me, time in nature alone. After a week filled with meetings and grading, I need to give myself the gift of my own time.

So I did.

I took off at 4:30 Friday afternoon, sat outside and soaked up the sunshine for a while, and then went climbing with my man. A little physical activity to release the tension of the week. Just what my body needed. But I still had to care for my mind and my spirit. So I took off Saturday. I journaled, meditated, spent some time in nature alone.

I believe that every year we have a life theme, intentionally chosen or not. Last year my theme was discernment – learning to decide what was good for me and what was not good for me. This year my theme has been balance. Universe has tested me again and again, sending me continual reminders when I've gotten out of balance. 

Balance is an often talked about term, yet it remains elusive. What does being in balance actually mean? For me, it's a balance of masculine and feminine qualities. It's a balance of doing and being, giving and receiving. It's a balance of work and play. It's a balance of self-care and being of service. 

With our endless to do lists, it's so easy to forget that we should be on them. That we too are deserving of our own time and energy. It's so easy to fall out of balance. 

I have mastered the art of pushing, striving, doing. That's what I did for the first 40 years of my life. But in the last few years I've realized that it doesn't have to be that way. And I've been much happier for it. Yet, that balance I keep seeking still sometimes feels elusive.

I think I've finally realized why. I kept trying to “get there” – to that place of balance, desperately hoping that once I arrived there, I would somehow stay there. But that's an impossible task because balance is more of a flow or a feeling of rhythm than a consistent state you achieve. This flow of balance, like a river, is ever changing. Thus, being in flow, in balance, is a process of constantly checking in with yourself to make sure you still feel in the flow rather than in a state of doing or efforting. 

I understand that this goal may seem lofty. After all, we all have things we must “do” each day – make breakfast, go to work, shuttle the kids to soccer practice, etc. Sometimes our to-do lists require some amount of efforting, or doing things we don't necessarily enjoy. Yet, that in and of itself is an opportunity to play with this idea of balance. My colleagues and I like to make games out of grading so the task doesn't seem so onerous. I take frequent grading breaks to reward myself every X number of papers or minutes I’ve spent grading. Another of my colleagues treats herself to a good piece of chocolate or glass of wine after an evening of grading. It's about finding and returning to that space of flow even in the midst of chaos or efforting.

How do you know when you've gotten out of balance? For me, there are clear warning signs when I'm getting out of balance: feeling “out of sorts,” sleep deprivation, clenching my jaw during the day or while I sleep, forgetting to eat because I'm too busy, and finding myself short-tempered. Knowing your red flags is the first step to stop getting out of balance in the first place.

The question then remains: what do you do if you're already out of balance? First, don't beat yourself up. Even if you think you should've known better, or should've done something differently, there's no sense in beating yourself up. Life happens. Second, breathe, check in with yourself wherever you are. Third, ask yourself: what do I need right now in this moment? Allow the answer to bubble up from that heart space – not that ego mind with all of your to-do lists, but from your heart itself. What did you need to come back into balance? Fourth, go to that thing right now if possible, or if not, as soon as you can get to it. Make yourself a priority – and you'll find you fall out of balance a lot less often.

So I ask you:


Is Food Your Coping Mechanism?

By | Body Love, Wisdom Blog | No Comments

5262932_sHave you ever had the following thought? “Food is my best friend and my worst enemy.” A recent national survey found that half of Americans report more stressed than they felt five years ago and 43% use food to cope. Emotional eating is one of the hallmarks of hormonal imbalance for women in their mid-30s through mid-50s and nearly every woman I see experiences it at some level.

Why do women emotionally eat? Many women are chronically stressed; this means they suffer from higher levels of cortisol. Thanks to all that cortisol, when we’re under stress, we tend to crave foods that are high in sugar and fat as our bodies are trying to store calories to help us prepare to fight or flee. Of course the problem is that you usually can’t fight or flee from whatever your stressor is (e.g., lost keys, waiting for the cable repairman).

So when it comes down to it, we are biologically driven to eat foods that help us ‘cope’ in ineffective ways. We don’t realize this, though. All we know is that we want chocolate and we want it now.

From a psychological perspective, emotional eating usually falls into one of two categories: avoidant or emotion-focused coping. Avoidant coping is just what the name implies – you avoid dealing with the stressor. Eating when you are stressed so you don’t have to deal with the problem is an example of avoidant coping using food. As you might imagine, avoidant coping is rarely effective as the problem is still going to be there once you’ve stopped eating.

Emotion-focused coping using food can be equally ineffective. When we engage in emotion-focused coping, we are attempting to make ourselves feel better by addressing the emotions the stressor provoked rather than the stressor itself. So if you get in a fight with your significant other and, instead of talking it out, decide to comfort your hurt feelings by consuming a chocolate cake, that would be an example of emotion-focused coping using food. Again, not super helpful in this situation. While you might feel better after eating (or not – you might feel guilty if you ate something you have labeled as “bad” or eaten too much), you still haven’t fixed your problem.

You see where I’m going with this, right? Most of the time our problems are within our control to fix – cortisol, be damned – and eating is likely not going to help. Thus, what we should be doing is focusing on how to fix our problems. That’s where problem-focused coping comes in. As the name implies, the basic premise of problem-focused coping is this: “Have a problem? Fix it.” So if you have a fight with your significant other, wait a little bit to calm down and then go back and talk it out. Don’t turn to food to comfort yourself because that’s not actually addressing the problem.

I know, I know. That sounds great, but how can you make that change? I’m going to warn you: it’s not going to happen overnight. If you’ve been turning to food as your primary coping mechanism for 40 years, you can’t expect it to go away overnight. I wish it was that simple, but for most of us, it’s not. After all, we have biologically trained ourselves to crave our comfort foods.

So what should you do?

Step one : re-evaluate your response to stress. As I said earlier, most of our problems are fixable and most of them are within our control. So very first thing you need to do is Stop. Right when you begin to feel yourself getting stressed out, Stop for just one minute. Then ask yourself, “Is this going to kill me?” The answer to that question is likely no. Then you move onto the next question:  “What can I do about it?” That brings us to…

Step two: take a deep breath. Do it again. When our bodies are all wound up, it can be very hard to focus on what to do right now to fix your problem. It works best if you can stop that stress response in its tracks by giving your body the cues it needs that the stressor has passed (no stressor, no food cravings). As deep breathing is counteractive to gearing up to fight or flee, it can be an effective way to calm down enough that you can actually deal with the problem.

Step three: decide HOW to cope. Yes, it’s up to you. While it may seem like it happens automatically, it only happens this way if you don’t give yourself any other option other than to act in a way you’ve previously dealt with that stressor. In other words, if you’ve conditioned yourself to eat chocolate cake every time you fight with your spouse, the next time you fight with your spouse, guess what? You’re going to find yourself automatically reaching for that chocolate cake. Unless you give your body, and mind, permission to do something else. In the meantime, know that you DO have a choice in the matter.