What are your triggers?

triggersIt is interesting to see how many things we do, not because we want to do them, but because something else has triggered a desire within us. Anyone who does counseling learns to help people identify the triggers which tempt them to negative behavior.

Among men the problems caused by pornography addiction can be quite destructive—damaging relationships, and hurting the women who love these men. I have seen more than my share of marriages in trouble because of a husband’s inability to control this. Just like all addictions there are triggers which can lead a man, even one determined not to stray, to seek comfort in glossy photos and downloaded images. For some men it is arguments with their wife, trouble with their boss or their finances, and even a simple sense of being out of control that can trigger these behaviors.

Smoking is another addiction that has triggers. I used to smoke five packs a day and for me almost everything was a trigger. Some triggers for cigarettes can be arguments, stressful relationships, food, sex, exertion, worry, drinking. Many who have smoked for a long time may find the initial quitting easy, but finding themselves assailed by temptations caused by a trigger event—like an argument with a spouse. Once when my wife and I both tried to quit smoking, we started arguing and about three hours into quitting I said, “I’m going to go buy a pack of cigarettes before we kill each other!” Did the cigarette stop the fight or fix the problem? No. The most it did was relieve some of the agitation making us sensitive and ready to fight. The fighting was a trigger—and like most triggers, offered an easy excuse.

Unhealthy foods, as a source of comfort, can also have triggers. Have you ever noticed that these comfort foods never seem to be fruit, vegetables or other healthy options? It is the unhealthy foods we turn to when triggered. Some of this can be blamed on childhood memories. For many of us food was offered to comfort. Perhaps we were given ice cream when sad. We may have been given candy when we scraped our knee. Most of our memories about holidays and childhood happiness involve large meals of fatty, high carb, very sweet foods—the fattest cuts of meat, the gravy, the sweet tea, the multiple deserts, etc. When we think of childhood pleasure and happy times, these are often central.

But is there anything wrong with such foods, for special events? Of course not! This becomes a problem when I seek to replicate the fond memories and good feelings through the foods of that time rather than through the atmosphere. It is also a problem when such actions endanger my life rather than enriching it. When I am heavy and unhealthy and get into a stressful situation I can handle the stress in a healthy way or in an unhealthy way. Perhaps I could choose to go ride my bike, or go for a walk. Perhaps some time meditating, praying, listening to music or doing something creative could relieve the stress. I could also choose to medicate the stress and bad feelings with food, fooling my body into thinking it is feeling better for a brief time and fooling my mind into recalling happier times eating those comfort foods. However, after such a meal, the old stress comes back and is likely compounded with feelings of guilt for making an unhealthy choice and feelings of ill health as blood sugar spikes and falls, with various systems of my body trying to make up for my bad choice.

The trigger happens, but we must still choose. When we sense such triggers we have three options. We can ignore the trigger and try to knuckle through. This can be hard with the most ingrained and deepest seated of triggers. Some triggers have been experienced for so long and the response has been so steady that one has developed almost a muscle memory habit. You see this when a trigger occurs and the next thing you know you find yourself eating (or doing other behavior) and never really thought about doing it—you were almost on automatic pilot. However, in time
and with practice, some triggers can be overcome (for more on the role of habit in addiction see Kent Dunnington’s Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the models of disease and choice.). Our other options are to respond to the trigger. One can choose to respond in a healthy fashion or an unhealthy.

Earlier I mentioned that many men struggle with pornography. A negative response to the triggers in this would be to turn to porn and risk hurting a beloved and faithful spouse. What positive options are there for such a husband when facing this choice? One option I have recommended to such men is to carry a picture of their wife. I have my computer set, so that when I log on, the first thing I see is a picture of my wife smiling at me. I also recommend that such men, when fantasies creep in, turn their thoughts and fantasize about their wife. Believe me guys, no woman minds learning that her husband of ten, fifteen or more years still fantasizes about her. Remember the thoughts about her that filled your mind when you were dating—if you are male you had these thoughts; she had them too but is less likely to admit it. I don’t care if you have been married for thirty years—you should still have fantasized about your wife. And men, you will find that such a practice in directing your thoughts will quickly change your feelings about your wife.

I share this because it is related to the choices faced by one whose triggers lead to a desire to eat. The person can choose to eat the unhealthy foods and suffer the consequences. The person can also choose a healthy option, or may even choose to eat nothing for a time to try to knuckle through the trigger and overcome it.  One thing I have resolved to do while on my program is to set a timer for every three hours telling me to eat something. I make it a practice to not eat anything between these times. When I desire something strongly in between I do a self-check. Is it hunger or has something triggered a desire for comfort manifesting as a desire for food? I find that when I argue with my wife, worry about finances or stress over my job, there is a strong desire to eat something. However, knowing this is a trigger I know the desire is not real. It has no true power over me, beyond my own power to choose to surrender or resist. In such cases it is not that I truly want food, it is comfort that I want. I then try to find out how to get that comfort in a healthier way. One thing I want to do over this next year on program is to reprogram myself to not seek comfort from food but find it in more constructive and healthy places.

Why is it, many of us knowing the bad we will reap from giving in to temptations still do so? Why are we willing to accept a tomorrow with poor health as the cost of a today filled with momentary pleasures and comfort? One cause of this can be assumptions having little to do with the food itself. When the trigger is something another person does, we can feel like, “I’ll show her!” This is why many men struggling with porn will turn to it when fighting with their wife. When the trigger is a feeling of being out of control, we can seek control in the bad behavior—“I have no choice in that, but this makes me feel in control.” Another problem can be feelings of hopelessness, “Why am I trying to lose weight, if nothing is going to change?”

We need to come to grips with these and realize that when we seek control through eating unhealthy foods we are actually losing more and more actual control as our body succumbs to ill health. We also should not be losing weight or getting healthy because we expect it to change others. It will not! We must do it because of the impact it has on our own lives, on our own experiences, on our own body. My losing weight it not going to make my wife’s personality or my bosses personality change. My losing weight is not going to make the world a rosier place where everyone is happy. However, my losing weight will make me better at my job (which may improve the relationship with a boss), more emotionally stable for dealing with others (which could improve the relationship with a spouse) and healthier so that I can finally make choices from a position of health rather than being forced into courses of action by illness (which gives a sense of true control).

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Up and Moving, Lump No More

couchpotatoThis last Friday, after posting my weekly weight, I decided to ride my bike to get a bit of exercise. In the past I would have been pretty tired after a ride, but this time I rode farther than ever and felt less tired.

Later, while sitting down to my office work I decided to take a few minutes to complete a little honey-do project my wife wanted done. I work out of my house so it is easy to take a few minutes off from my day, here and there, to get things done around home. From that choice the rest of the day got weird—at least weird for me. The weirdness came from the amount of energy I had. I much more energy than I’ve had in years. I’ll try to describe what it was like. The next bit of this post may seem a bit frenzied and hard to follow but that is intentional.

“Bye honey! Have a nice day at work!

“Before I get to work I better hook that TV up in the other room for my wife; I have to clean up that space for it; that belongs in this drawer; this drawer is a mess, I’d better straighten it out; no, I better rearrange all of these drawers to get them straight; why are those in here they should be in the closet? The closet has all these things we will never use; I better clear them out; I’ll make a pile of things for the Salvation Army and a pile of sentimental things to box up; now that everything is cleared out I should put these boxes up into the attic; hey, the attic is a mess! I’d better straighten it up. Now I should run those boxes over to donate; while I’m out I should run to the store for batteries for that old flashlight I found. I really should stop by Lowes to pick up a new doorbell to fix ours and take my wife’s watch to the jeweler for a new battery; I also need to head to the office store to order new cards; nope, I don’t like their selections so I’ll order some online; I should install the new door bell, etc.

“Oh, hi honey! You’re home! Guess what I did all day.”

I’m enjoying the new me. I enjoy wanting to get up and move. My wife is happier and often brags to people about the changes. Oh, and for any husbands considering losing weight, with all this energy, when I chase my wife, she’s easier to catch!

What do you have to live for?

2014-05-14 11.21.49-1Earlier this week my coach asked how I was doing and if my program has had any impact on my work life. I got to share with her some of my thoughts and now want to share them here.

I’ve noticed these few weeks on the program have improved my mental acuity and mood. When I was at my heaviest, I was convinced I was waiting to die. I am 47 years old, and this is about the age many in my family have their first (and on occasion final) heart attack. To be honest, at times I found myself wishing I could just get it over with. My beliefs help me not to fear death. What I feared was a long unhealthy miserable existence. I also feared being a burden to my family.

It took a long time to finally take to heart something that I had told many troubled couples over the years:

“You may think it is easier to just give up and move on, but your problems show a great deal of personal work is needed for you to have a healthy relationship. You can either do the work in this marriage or do it in the next one. Either way, the work will have to be done, so how many other lives will you wreck before you do the work?”

It finally clicked one day that this same advice applied to what was going on in my health. I was on the verge of altering the lives of my wife and kids with my bad choices. In enjoying the momentary pleasures of my bad choices I would be leaving them with major problems—my wife a widow and my children fatherless. I see death as nothing to be feared or even shunned. As far as I am concerned death is just going home. However, the same God who gave me this assurance also gave me a responsibility to be the best and do the best for my wife, family and church.

This latter is also important. Over the years I have gotten to where I no longer enjoyed being a pastor. I had no energy to go beyond the barest requirements of my job—and great effort was needed to even do those. I had little desire to do much of anything but sit in my office chair or on the couch. My weight and health had left me unfit for the service to which I was so committed. It left me only a shell of the servant I have been called to be. My prayer could have been, “I’d love to follow you Lord, but you will have to go slowly and only on the easiest road since I am so heavy and unhealthy.”

I have now been on program about a month. I have lost almost 40 pounds and my mind and body have undergone considerable changes from this time last month. I was shocked how much has changed with such a small difference in weight.

I am fitting into clothes that have been too tight for years. I will attach to this a picture of me wearing jeans that are baggy. Just about a month ago, I could barely close those jeans and the legs were as snug as spandex. A few years ago, I wore suits every day in a sales job. These suits have all been too small for about five years. I now find myself with a fairly nice wardrobe that I have “backed into.” Over the last few years I have taken to wearing shorts and sandals because tight pants are uncomfortable, and replacements at my size are expensive (Walmart does not carry 54W with a 32 inseam). It was cheaper to stock up on shorts, and blame my wardrobe on the heat of South Texas. Now I am back to wearing jeans and boots—now this is comfortable!

My mind has also changed. Since I am losing weight, I can see myself with a future and realize new opportunities are around the corner. I have energy to get out and work, to plan and to carry out. I had gotten to the point where I didn’t want to meet anyone new. Anyone who knows my personality knows this is out of character. I have always been that guy who got to know everyone, and if you acted as if you didn’t want to get to know me, I would find a way to make you. I find now that I have become more gregarious. Part of it—and we all have to admit we think this way—I think I look pretty good for a 47 year old fat redneck!

Finally, there is one more thing that excites me. I always loved preaching. I would jump at any opportunity to preach and was quite animated and passionate in the pulpit. Over the last few years the luster wore off and I found myself rambling and having a hard time concentrating. I have always preached without notes (or very minimal notes), so mental sharpness was essential. For a long time my mind has been cloudy and I would get out of breath. All of these impacted my preaching. Lately, I notice the old Ken (or at least a pretty close facsimile) in the pulpit. I am more animated. I find new illustrations, quotations and applications coming quicker. I find myself looking forward to stepping into the pulpit each week.

If you have given up and feel it is just easier to die—as I had—you are absolutely right. Death is the easy way. But how often is the easy way the right way? Is there anyone in your life for whom your death will be hard? Are there others who are going to suffer and be impacted either by your death or by extended health problems? Do others count on you but have to do without because you are not healthy enough to meet their needs? If you won’t change for yourself, change for them.

Choosing health involves more than diet

stressAs I spend the next year making my health a priority, I have to come to terms with other choices that have undermined my health and well-being. One of these is work habits. Since 1998, my work schedule has been mine to control. One of the great benefits of being a pastor of a small church is that no one is monitoring your schedule. So long as you are prepared for the public meetings and programs of the church everyone assumes you are doing your job. There is an old joke that pastors work on Sunday and fish the rest of the week. Well, I have never learned that trick—which is a myth, anyways. Besides having this free schedule, I also have my office at home. I like this arrangement because I waste little time commuting and, if I get a sudden inspiration, my office is right in the next room.

Many would assume this amount of freedom would lead to laziness. Actually the first thing pastors in such situations must learn is the discipline to do their jobs without supervision. Being passionate about your work helps, and years before becoming a pastor Theology, Philosophy and the study of the Word became my passions. This keeps me from being lazy, but also drives me to overwork—a tendency I’ve always had. Before being a pastor I ran my own contracting business and worked 14-16 hour days, 6 days a week and even worked between services on Sunday. My problem is not laziness. My problem is exactly the opposite. I usually get to my desk by 5:30 AM. My work day usually lasts until 4:30 PM, if not later. I eat at my desk, while working. On top of this, I have evening meetings. Monday is supposed to be my day off (it is the traditional pastor’s day-off). However, over the years my biggest lack of discipline been taking a day off or taking my vacations. I am supposed to have four weeks of vacation each year and have taken perhaps a total of eight weeks in the last six years. Funny thing is, I often end up working during my vacation as well.

One thing the workaholic never realizes is this behavior is counter-productive. Look at your own work practices, your productivity, and your efficiency. When you do not take days off, when you work more hours than you should and skip vacations, you actually become unproductive and inefficient during the days and hours you are supposed to be working. Then, to get things done you have to skip days off and work longer hours and forgo vacations. Everything comes full circle and what used to be done because you were passionate, now must be done to make up for the bad choices. Passion can quickly turn to frustration and the joy you once felt gets choked out.

When you get to the burnout stage you start to lay things aside, perhaps finding reasons to run an errand, or take an extended break. You reason that this will give you some time to refresh, but all it does is torpedo your efficiency, which increases frustration.

It is important to take a day off each week. We need a chance to refresh. We need a chance to regroup and get our mind off the frustrations, and reconnect with the joy we once received from our vocations. It is also important to take vacations. These times allow an extended rest and a chance to refresh over several days. The cobwebs can be swept out of our heads, the knots of pressure can be relieved and we can regain our energy and passion. By the end of vacation, if your job is what you should be doing, then you will be chomping at the bit to get back to the office.

These choices also manifest physically. One thing contributing to weight and health problems is stress and its impact on the endocrine system and from that to eating choices. As stress build your body alters its chemical profile to handle the stress. This throws everything else off as the body looks for energy sources. You eat to meet this need, but the stress encourages you to eat for stressed desertscomfort rather than for health. What foods do you go to for comfort? Chocolate? Potato chips? Stress leads to a cascading effect by chemically forcing you to need food, then encouraging you to make bad eating choices, further altering your chemistry, and making you need to eat, so on and so on.  Do you see the circle of bad choices this locks you into as you slowly spiral down to worse and worse health?

Since I am on a one year journey of healthy choices, it has become time to make another choice. I must refrain from all work (except for emergencies, of course) on my weekly day off—my people need me healthy all week. I must also start taking my vacations. Of course, this means taking an actual vacation—even if a “staycation”—meaning no office work during that time.

If you find yourself stressed at work; if you find yourself inefficient; if you find yourself eating unhealthy foods to feel better during the work day; if you find you have lost the joy and passion you once had then rethink your work habits. Take time off for yourself. Take time to refresh and regroup. Clear your head and think about something else for a time and come back fresh. This is an important choice to make for your own health.