It's been a long week. I've felt the pinch of doing a lot: working, working outside of work, and putting a lot of physical demands on my body and my mind. Let's be honest, I never really let my mind be at rest, but like anyone, that's something I claim 'I'm working on'.
But if I really want to change that habit, you have to make intentional effort to work on changing the habit, and that takes work, discipline, time, and effort. So today I wanted to take some moments to talk about something that influences our ability and willingness to adjust our scheduling due to others needs', our own needs, or something else that may be taking up mental space. This is the idea of Cognitive Flexibility, or the ability to be adaptable.
Cognitive Flexibility is understood to be the idea that an individual is able to switch their 'train of thought' depending on the demands of a given stimuli. Now we can use examples from almost any facet of life, but I want to relate this back to our relationship with food. So remember that throughout this post I'll be using examples on how in our modern society we can very easily have a disordered relationship with food which we've 'normalized', and having introspective awareness to increase our cognitive flexibility allows us to not be hindered by our food choices or our bodies.
Below I am going to explore different aspects within cognitive flexibility and how you can help those who may have a disordered relationship with food and/or their body:
Transitional Thoughts: This is probably the most 'baseline' idea of cognitive flexibility. Are you able to transition between one thought to another? Let's look at an example. So if you're pre-occupied with the thoughts of food (calories, fat content, how much sugar is in a product, how much oil was used, etc.) and/or your body (how you look in your clothes, your body size, whether you'll be able to exercise later, etc.), and you're in a group of friends and everyone is talking about dieting, and food, and your bodies', and somebody tries to re-direct the conversation to what the latest movie was about, but you're unable to get past talking about food and/or your body, you lack cognitive flexibility. The ability to transition from one thought to another without rumination/dwelling is showing cognitive flexibility. The best way to work on improving your cognitive flexibility in this scenario is to work on body acceptance and creating neutral thoughts around food. To work on body acceptance, consider journaling about your body in a loving way, what are things that you love about your body? A gentle reminder in regards to comparison, is that we all have an 'unrealistic' standard we are looking to achieve in regards to body aesthetics. In reality, everyone is really only worried about how their body looks compared to the unrealistic standard and then comparison to each other in that standard. When we work on redefining the standard, we can accept all the things that our body does for us, rather than let comparison steal our joy. There are better things to focus on in our lives then our bodies' anyways. In regards to food, remind yourself of what food is and what it does for you. Food is energy, and energy is absolutely critical to get through the rigorous grind of daily activities. Work on being able to see food as vital to achieving your aspirations and ultimately living the life you know you deserve to have, unhindered by fear, guilt, or shame around food.
Updating Ones' Thoughts & Beliefs: This is the ability to adapt your thoughts based on the exposure to new information. I would call this the 'AHA Moment'. IF you've only ever experienced body shaming/bullying, feelings of low self-worth, been 'trapped' in the dieting cycle then this may seem impossible. Many times I hear individuals' say they feel like a lost cause. They feel no hope. And ultimately don't feel like they have the ability to change because their thoughts feel far too deep to be reversed. That's the notion of cognitive inflexibility. I like to look at it this way, it may take twice as long to reverse thoughts that you have experienced for the majority of your life, but it just takes time, patience, and grace. We merely don't give ourselves enough grace in the process of reframing our thoughts. If you're feeling trapped in the dieting cycle here would be a few of my recommendations to update your thoughts and beliefs about yourself: (1) throw out any diet-centered magazines, remove any social media accounts that you may be following that condone dieting, post 'diet-friendly' meals, make you feel poorly about your body, showcase unhealthy eating/exercise habits, or post before/after photos; (2) Take time to make a list with positive affirmations on both physical and core values you know are true about yourself. I mention physical affirmations for the fact that if you have been belittling and beating yourself up, physically, for a long time, then in order to gain body acceptance, or even body neutrality, you have to find your body as beautiful for functionality and appearance (ie: i have strong legs that take me all the places I need to go or I have beautiful blue eyes that are as deep as the ocean).
**IF your looking for amazing reads in regards to reframing thoughts about food or your body I recommend: Intuitive Eating by: Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole and
Embody by: Connie Sobczak
Deconstructing Thoughts: Sometimes we can see a really BIG task and feel almost as if it is absolutely impossible to complete. Cognitive Flexibility allows us to look at a large and daunting task and break it up into 'manageable' smaller tasks. If you're suffering with an eating disorder, it may seem like recovery isn't possible, but that's merely appearance of cognitive inflexibility. You once lived your life where you were not gripped by the thoughts and fears around food and your body, and that place still lives somewhere inside you. It's never too far to be found again. It just takes a lot of hard work to re-wire and restructure your thoughts to seeing things objectively. Some aspects to work on deconstructing thoughts in recovery is working on separating food from feelings. Food is necessary for life, and is not correlated to life events. Focusing on one meal at a time. One of my favorite phrases to use is 'Next Right Thing' because inevitably its never a failure to fall short in challenging thoughts towards food or your body. You skipped a meal, eat the next one. If you overexercised to compensate, eat your next meal, or take the initiative to restrict your own exercise participation in order to heal your relationship to exercise as something fun and beneficial for your body to experience. I will say that this is not easy, and I don't want to make it out to be that it is. Recovery takes a lot of introspective awareness, challenging thoughts around food and your body, and realizing that when taken in small steps, it is possible, because IT IS!!
Expanded Awareness: I consider this aspect of Cognitive Flexibility to be an extremely critical piece: Overall Broad Awareness. Are you Introspectively aware? Are you outwardly aware? IF you chose to diet, are you aware there is another option? Here, education is key. Dieting is an endless cycle, which leads only to more dieting, more feelings of low-self worth, and ultimately an endless cycle of striving. Educate yourself on the belief that when you interact with food in a way in which you eat the foods you enjoy (even the cakes, cookies, donuts, burgers, fries, ice cream, sodas, etc.), without compensation, and engage in physical activity in a way that you enjoy, then weight and body size take care of itself. IF you believe that there is only one 'right' type of body can you expand your mind to body neutrality, understanding that if you are in a larger or a smaller body that neither is preferable, but rather both are equally amazing and beautiful and serve purposes similar and uniquely different to a given individual? IF you believe that there is a 'right/wrong' way of eating, can you expand your mind into knowing that all foods have a place in ones' specific diet? This is possessing Cognitive Flexibility.
Wrapping up, Do you possess the ability to be flexible in your thinking around food, your body, and your life? No doubt that this is hard work. We live in a society that is submerged in 'Diet Culture', which means that we are going to be constantly be bombarded with the thoughts that there are 'good/bad foods' (which there's not), that we need to 'strive' for something because we aren't enough as we already are (which you are). Ultimately the power is within your control, and ultimately introspective awareness and capturing your thoughts and harnessing the power to control what you give life to will change your life.
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Tess M Patterson MS RD LD