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When the Going Gets Tough: 10 Tips for Surviving a Rough Spot

Paleo and Stress

Sticking to Paleo is hard enough on an ordinary day. But every so often, life just goes above and beyond to rain on your parade. Sometimes it’s a family emergency that leaves you dashing from work straight to the hospital every day with no chance to even think about cooking healthy food. Sometimes it’s as simple as a monster project at work or a hectic finals week. And sometimes it’s the unique form of nutritional hell that is air travel. But one way or another, it’s going to happen to all of us, and the common factor is stress.

Stressful times in your life are when your body needs the most nourishment, but they’re also the times when that nourishment is hardest to get. The good news is that a rough spot doesn’t have to derail all your efforts to keep yourself healthy, especially not if you plan for it in advance, and don’t wait until the crisis actually hits.

Anatomy of a Rough Spot

Think of your decision-making process as a pair of scales. On one side are all the things that support a healthy lifestyle, both internal (the desire to lose weight, to be healthy and fit, to have more energy) and external (good food being available and affordable). On the other side of the scale are all the things that tempt you to make unhealthy choices, both internal (cravings, desire for comfort food) and external (the lack of anything healthy to eat, the cost of good food, lack of time to sleep or work out). Just like any scale, whichever side is “heavier” wins out – that’s the decision you’re ultimately going to make.

Rough spots in your life all take weight off the “healthy” side of the scale and add it to the “unhealthy” side. Internally, they’re usually accompanied by all kinds of negative emotions like fear, grief, and loneliness. This can make you lose track of your long-term health goals, and leave you craving sugary “comfort foods.”

Externally, rough spots are often a perfect storm of circumstances that can defeat even the best of intentions. Sometimes, you don’t have a lot of control over your own food (think of getting stuck in a hospital or an airport). You’re often time crunched, and even smart people make bad decisions when they’re rushed. Money is another factor; eating well on a budget is possible, but it’s hard to learn at first.

A Word about Playing Superhero: Don’t. 

In the middle of all these internal and external problems, the temptation to play the superhero is very enticing: “I’ve had 6 hours of sleep in the past 3 days, and I’m an emotional wreck from the car accident yesterday that sent my daughter to the ER with three broken ribs, but I’m still getting up at 5am to squeeze in a workout before my 10-hour shift, and if there’s nothing Paleo to eat during the hospital visiting hours afterwards, I’ll just have another caffeine pill and tough it out. I have to be strong enough. Everyone is counting on me.”

As absurd as it sounds, this is extremely compelling in the moment. You’re needed. You’re important. You’re that indispensable person who’s holding the world together. Deciding to singlehandedly take on the impossible and win gives you a crazy adrenaline rush, and sometimes, that’s the only good feeling around.

The “scale model” of making decisions in the middle of a rough spot should clearly show why this approach is a bad idea. Many different things can weigh down the healthy side of the scale; willpower is only one of them. Trusting to willpower alone is weakening your response to the situation, because it’s an artificial limit, (and as discussed in the article on willpower, it isn’t likely to work anyway). That frantic burst of energy fades fast; it won’t power you through the long term.

Looking at willpower as just one of the many weights on the scale gives you a valuable distance from the tendency to blame yourself for every imperfection, because you can see all the other factors involved. If you’re struggling to make healthy choices during a hard time in your life, it’s not because you’re weak, stupid, lazy, or unmotivated. It’s a simple mathematical calculation: the weight on the “unhealthy” side of the scale is heavier than the weight on the “healthy” side. So don’t waste time and energy beating yourself up; it’s not helpful anyway. Instead, use that time and energy to re-balance all the different weights on the scale.

10 Paleo Tips for When the Going Gets Tough

10. Ask for help. Most people love the chance to be someone else’s hero, but they can’t help you if they don’t know you need it. Make it clear that they can say no if they’re too busy, but there’s no harm in asking. Some little favors that can make a big difference:

9. Reshuffle your resources. All rough spots give you a “crunch” in at least one area – time, money, energy, patience, environment (lack of access to good food), or something else. All of these “crunches” are weights on the unhealthy side of the scale. But not all crises crunch you in everything simultaneously. Sometimes, you can use what you have to make up for what you don’t.

In particular, you can often exchange time or energy for money. You can either pay someone for the convenience of buying your food pre-made, or take the time to make it yourself for less. So if you’re broke but not busy, use your time to look up the cheapest recipes you can find and cook all your food at home (here’s a list of money-saving tips to get you started). On the other hand, if you’re busy or exhausted but you have extra cash, consider getting your groceries delivered, buying a bunch of pre-cut vegetables and rotisserie chicken for dinner, or otherwise paying someone to save your precious minutes.

8. Reward yourself.  You are making a series of difficult choices under extremely tough circumstances. Little rewards make you feel better, reducing the desire for comfort foods to mask the pain (taking weight off the “unhealthy choices” side of the scale).

“Rewarding” yourself with unhealthy food is obviously counterproductive, but what about a new bottle of nail polish, a desktop toy, or a trip to the movies? If you don’t have time for anything in the moment, make a plan for a reward you can enjoy when the rough spot is over, so you’ll have something to look forward to.

It doesn’t have to cost money, either. Rewards can be as simple as taking 30 seconds to congratulate yourself on a job well done. Humans crave praise: think of the way a kid’s eyes light up at a sincere compliment from a parent or a coach. Adults need that affirmation just as much; we’re just better at hiding it. Even if you feel a little silly, take the time to celebrate yourself for getting through an especially tough day. You deserve it.

7. Learn to triage. The triage system was developed as an efficient and useful way of distributing medical resources under the brutally stressful conditions of a military hospital. It sorts patients into 3 groups:

The first group gets put on a waitlist. The second group gets some strong painkillers and a quiet bed if they’re lucky. The third group gets the bulk of the available medical resources, because that’s where those resources will do the most good.

How does this have anything to do with Paleo? Going through a rough spot in your life is like being a doctor on a battlefield: too many demands, and not enough resources. So you need to divide the demands into three groups:

Leave the first group alone for now; you can deal with them when you’re through the rough spot. Let the second group go because there’s nothing you can do so there’s no point wasting time and energy on them. Focus on the third group, the areas where your time, energy, and other resources can actually help.

This helps you apply your resources most effectively. Thinking back to the scale, if you have a decision that’s too heavily weighted against you from the start, don’t waste your resources uselessly weighing down the healthy end. It just drains you of time, energy, and money that you could have used more effectively somewhere else.

6. Prioritize. Closely related to triaging is the art of setting priorities. This means ranking the items in the 3rd triage category (areas where acting right now can actually help) in order of how important they are. Some things in this category are urgent (immediately demanding attention, like a new Facebook notification), but they just aren’t important (related to your long-term goals and values, like spending time with your family). Setting priorities helps you stay focused on what really matters.

Sit down with a pen and paper and plan out your schedule, your budget, or whatever it is that’s stressing you out. First, write out your priorities, from most to least important.  Then, start at the top, and write down how much of your scarce resources you’ll need to dedicate to each priority.

To prevent getting distracted by urgent-but-not-important things, it helps to post the priority list somewhere very visible, or use it to make a detailed daily outline of how you’re going to spend your resources (time, money, energy, or whatever else it is), and then stick to it.

This process can be brutal. It’s very difficult to accept that you just don’t have enough resources for all the things that are important to you. Here especially, there’s that temptation to play the superhero, to temporarily avoid the pain of trimming down your expectations by declaring against all reason that you can squeeze 30 hours of work into a 24-hour day.

But the reality is that you aren’t that superhero, and you have 24 hours to work with just like the rest of us. You cannot win a one-(wo)man war with reality. Acknowledge the existence of your limits and direct your resources into what’s truly important (not just urgent): you’ll ultimately have more control over your own life and fewer regrets. You’ll have to pick your battles, but you’re much more likely to win the ones you do choose to fight.

Like triaging, setting priorities helps you decide where you can best use the weights at your disposal, and where you’ll have to compromise to make sure the important things get done. (And as a side note, it’s okay and normal for your priorities to change along the way. In fact, it’s good to re-evaluate every time your life takes a major change. The list is a tool to help you live, not a set of ironclad rules that you need to follow.)

5. Inspire yourself. Psyching yourself up to play the superhero by doing everything at once is counterproductive. But once you’ve made a logical decision about what you can and can’t take on (using the priorities/triage system above), there’s definitely a time to give your emotional motivation a boost by hunting down some inspirational or motivating resources (adding more weight to the “healthy” side of the scale).

Read a new health-related book, or re-read an old favorite. Watch an inspirational movie. Think of a quote that always makes you feel like you’re ready to take on the world, and post it somewhere visible. If you always struggle with Paleo when you’re travelling, paperclip it to your passport. Other good places include the background of your phone or computer, the inside of a cupboard door, or the inside of your wallet. Some ideas to get you started:

Alternately, you could do the same thing with pictures that remind you of your priorities. The point is just to throw more weight onto that side of the scale, in whatever way is most compelling to you.

4. Let go of perfection. Recognize that Paleo won’t always be at the top of your priority list. It might be time to make the best choices that align with your current priorities, and commit to rearranging your priorities when the crisis is over.

This sounds like defeatism. It’s not. It’s not about totally throwing your diet to the winds. It’s not about gorging on junk food “while you can,” on the theory that helping an elderly parent through palliative care will somehow be less heartbreaking if you singlehandedly keep Ben & Jerry’s in business. It’s about eating well when it doesn’t conflict with your higher priorities, and letting go of guilt and judgment when you can’t do everything at once.

Freeing yourself from the pressure to stay perfectly on track can actually help in the long run, because one late-night run to IHOP when nothing else is open doesn’t lead to a slippery slope of “well, I failed; might as well give up the whole thing.” In other words, it actually takes a huge weight of negative emotions off the “unhealthy” side of the scale. When the crisis is over, you won’t have to pull yourself out of a hole of self-hatred and feelings of failure, because the period of less-than-perfect food quality was all part of the plan.

3. Break it up. If thinking about the next six months is overwhelming, think about the next week. If that’s overwhelming, think about the upcoming day. If even that’s overwhelming, just think about the next hour, or the next 5 minutes. Your mind and body are screaming for chocolate-chip cookies, but can you grit your teeth and hold out for 5 more minutes? There are 300 seconds in 5 minutes; count them one by one. Name all the states you can, alphabetically or geographically. Go through your phone and delete all your old text messages. Sing the most inane pop song you can remember (in your head or out loud). Memorize your driver’s license number. Clean the toilet.

This sounds ridiculous, but here’s the kicker: when you commit to the next 5 minutes, you’re tapping into the incredible motivational power of setting specific, realistic, measurable goals. Achieving a goal sets off a powerful chemical response in your brain, a flood of dopamine that sets off the exact same reward pathways that the cookies would have, only without the stomachache. If you can just power through that first 5 minutes, you’ll get an instant energy boost to help you keep it up.

2. Practice stress management. Stress (from any source) has a sneaky way of overwhelming all the willpower and good intentions in the world. Some people feel the overpowering urge to mask the stress with comfort food; others unintentionally starve themselves of nutrients because they’re just too stressed to eat. And who has energy for cooking dinner or going to the gym after a night spent lying awake and worrying?

Productive stress management techniques (that actually address the problem, instead of just covering it up) are much more effective than trying to force through this kind of resistance on willpower alone. Again, don’t try to play the superhero. Look for better ways to tip the scale in your favor:

1. Plan ahead. Planning ahead gets the number 1 spot because it’s the easiest and most effective method – and also the one most of us are least likely to actually do. Human beings are chronically bad at planning for problems that aren’t right in front of our noses (think of the huge number of people who have a new car every two years, but no retirement savings). And then we’re chronically getting blindsided by crazy emergencies that randomly crop up when we least expect them.

You can’t plan for specific emergencies in advance, but you can make an all-purpose grab-and-go Paleo SOS kit that will power you through the day if your routine gets thrown off, giving an unexpected crisis much less power to throw you off your Paleo game.

Here’s a sample Paleo SOS kit for one person:

Food

Other Stuff

Health vs Junk

This gives you more resources to work with. In terms of the scale analogy above, you’ve just radically changed your entire food environment to put more weight on the “healthy” side. You don’t have to use willpower as much because you don’t have as many hoops to jump through just to make good choices about what to put in your body.

The hardest part about this is just getting up and doing it before the crisis happens. You probably even have most of these things in your house right now, and it only takes a few minutes to get them together – go do it!

Conclusion

Even with the most careful preparation and planning, rough spots are bound to be nerve-wracking and stressful. Otherwise they wouldn’t be rough spots. Realistically, your efforts to maintain a healthy lifestyle might take a hit during these times.

Instead of trying to play the superhero, accept that you’ll have to compromise a little, and work out your most important priorities so you know where to really dig in and fight. Break the day down into manageable amounts of time, even if it’s just 5 minutes. Shore up your emotional reserves by managing stress, asking for help and rewarding yourself for small victories. Change your environment to shift weight from the “unhealthy” to the “healthy” side of the scale. And before the emergency hits, take 20 minutes to throw together an SOS kit so you’re better prepared when it happens.

Approaching the rough spots realistically won’t earn you a starring role in any summer blockbusters, but it will help you keep the most important parts of your healthy diet and lifestyle on track for the long run.