You’ve probably heard a lot about mindfulness these days, but what exactly is mindfulness? Can mindfulness apply to our relationship with food? What is mindful eating? Think about it: When was the last time you sat down and ate a meal with no distractions? Not while driving in your car, walking to the train, working at your desk, watching TV, scrolling through social media, reading the paper, or trying to feed the kids before inhaling something – anything! – while rushing to the next thing? For many of us, it might be hard to think of the last time we enjoyed a meal or a snack with a sense of calm, a sense of presence, and a sense of awareness. Just like the rush and “busyness” of daily life is instrumental in perpetuating disconnection from others, so too does it form the foundation for our disconnection from food, from our bodies, and from our underlying emotional worlds.
What is Mindful Eating?
Exploring, understanding, and appreciating the nuances of our relationship with food is instrumental to exploring, understanding, and appreciating our relationship with our physical, mental, and emotional selves. No matter how we grew up, we all were raised with certain subtle and overt messages around food and mealtime, messages that were sometimes at odds with our natural bodily cues. A prime example is the “clean plate club” message many children receive from their parents, which had the unintentional impact of encouraging eating past the point of satiation. Because our relationship with food is complex, and because food is essential to our survival on a daily basis, developing a healthy relationship with food, including a present-oriented mindset while eating, can be a transformative experience that impacts a number of different and perhaps unexpected areas of our lives.
The Evolution of Eating
Historically speaking, the pursuit and consumption of food has been an inherently social experience, one in which the presence of others was both inter-personally enriching and necessary for survival, particularly in the context of nomadic hunter-gatherer societies. Journalist and author Michael Pollan, who writes about the intersection of food and culture, has often noted that Americans are spending less and less time cooking their own meals and enjoying food together either as a family unit or with friends. Additionally, in 2015 the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that of all developed countries, Americans cook the least and eat the fastest, with lack of available time being cited as the underlying reason. Naturally, it makes sense that with a cultural shift towards busier lives, our meals have become both quick and increasingly isolated. However, by saving time through grab-and-go meals, aren’t we also sacrificing deep connection with the food we eat, with our bodies, with each other, and even with ourselves? Taken to an extreme, this disconnection from the mental, emotional, physical, and social aspects of food consumption may perpetuate patterns of overeating by laying the foundation for mindless consumption, even going so far as to perpetuate the unconscious use of food as a coping mechanism or numbing agent for challenging emotional states.
Physician and mindful-eating speaker Michelle May, MD, outlines a framework for better understanding one way in which our relationship with food can derail. In her books and workshops, Dr. May outlines what she calls the Eat – Repent – Repeat cycle. In this paradigm, mindless overeating leads to negative emotional states, which lead to vows to change eating behaviors, which then over time and without concrete strategies for change leads to a repetition of mindless overeating behaviors.
Eating is a Sensory Experience
Just like our moods and emotions, eating is a sensory activity. By tuning into all five of your senses as well as your thoughts and feelings while eating, you can learn to incorporate a present-oriented mindset into your mealtimes, thus enhancing your enjoyment of and appreciation for the foods you eat, even going so far as to connecting more deeply with yourself on an emotional level. The following exercise will take you through some questions aimed at engaging your senses, thoughts, and feelings, in order to promote mindful eating:
Mindful Eating Exercises
Explore Your Senses
What does my food look like? What are the colors and textures present on my plate?
What does the environment around me look like? Did I clear the table before eating and set myself a place? Am I sitting amidst clutter? How does my physical environment impact my enjoyment of my meal or snack?
Are there any sounds in my environment as I’m eating? Do these sounds in any way enhance or detract from enjoying my meal? If so, how?
As I take a bite and begin chewing, what does it sound like? Does my food sound crunchy or is it quieter because it’s soft? Can I hear my teeth, tongue, and saliva as I bite and chew?
What does my food smell like? Are there any sense-memories being triggered by these aromas?
What does my food or eating utensil feel like in my hands? What textures and temperatures are present in my food as I begin biting and chewing?
Engage the five main tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami/savory. What flavors are present in my food, and where on my tongue to I notice them? Do the flavors change as I continue chewing?
Engage Your Thoughts
As I eat, is my mind preoccupied? Am I thinking of past conversations or tasks, or planning what will come once I’m done with my meal or snack?
Does the food itself remind me of another time, place, event, or interaction? Am I recalling fond (or not so fond) memories?
If my mind has strayed, am I able to acknowledge these thoughts and gently remind myself to return to the sensory experience of my food?
Tune Into Your Feelings
Do I feel excited about the meal or snack I am about to eat? Am I proud about making healthy choices? Do I feel ashamed for indulging in less healthy options? Am I eager to enjoy something that’s a treat? Where in my body do I experience these feelings, and what sensations do I notice?
As I eat, what am I feeling? Am I present and enjoying the sensory experience of my food? Am I bored or restless? Do I feel pulled to turn on the TV, read a magazine, check my email, or scroll through social media to distract myself?
If I’m feeling pulled to distract myself, what is the discomfort lying beneath this? Are there painful experiences, judgmental thoughts, anxiety, or shame about what I am eating? Do I feel awkward or uneasy?
If pain, judgment, anxiety, or shame arises, how can I navigate these challenging experiences with awareness and self-compassion? What might I need either from myself or from someone else to help with this?
You might be surprised by what comes up as you pose these questions and challenge yourself to encounter mealtime with intentionality and increased mental/emotional awareness. True, it may be difficult at first to resist the pull towards habitual distractibility, and the space created through mindful self-awareness may feel uncomfortable. But creating this space allows the richness of the present moment to unfold, complete with robust sensations as well as increased emotional connection with our loved ones and with ourselves. And remember, if you find yourself or someone you love struggling at this intersection of food and emotions, mindfulness-based psychotherapy can help unpack this complex relationship so you can start building skills to improve your connection with food and ultimately with yourself. All of the therapists at Bergen Counseling Center are trained in mindfulness techniques, fill out the contact form on the right sidebar to learn more about how we can help you incorporate mindfulness into your daily life.
The most commonly quoted statistics on marital satisfaction put it bluntly: marital satisfaction decreases after the first child is born. The birth of your first child is major milestone in many relationships, and the built-up anticipation of the moment can make it all the more exciting when the baby is finally born. And indeed, the experience is a uniquely memorable one; having a child changes one’s identity by creating an entirely new dimension to who they are and the roles they hold as an individual, a partner, and now, a parent. Adopting this new role means facing new challenges, some we expect, but it can be surprising how many relationship problems arise after having a baby. Parenting causes an increase in conflict simply because there are now hundreds of decisions almost daily which are mutual and involve compromise and negotiation between partners. Both partners are highly emotionally invested in their little bundle of joy and balancing the demands of work, family, and life all while functioning on minimal sleep. It’s easy to understand how things can go bad fast in a relationship under these conditions. How can so much joy bring so much conflict? Well, because…
Parenting is Hard
Becoming a parent means facing a whole new series of hurdles—some of which are common to any new child, but many of which may be unexpected. Dealing with the challenges that come up only gets easier when you can approach them as a team. Communication about the division of labor is crucial to setting your team up for success. Make no assumptions about who will get up in the middle of the night when the little one wakes up at 4:00 a.m., or who will take off work for that upcoming doctor’s appointment. Having an open dialogue about the allocation of responsibilities can not only ease the friction that this added stress can bring, but on some level, can even bring the couple closer by encouraging collaboration and reinforcing of being mindful of not only the child’s needs, but each other’s.
Tend to Your Foundation as a Couple
Communication about responsibilities and the “divide and conquer” conversation of who will tend to what responsibility is important, but even more important is remembering to make time to have other conversations. Given the time and resolve required to tend to the many needs and obligations of parenthood, it’s easy to approach the work with a business-like efficiency. Playful conversations over dinner become checking off to-do lists, and questions about each other’s day become questions about this or that task was completed. Remember that you relationship with your partner existed before you were parents, and while your relationship is changing (and will continue to evolve), the foundation of your partnership is still very much there. So much in the same way that children need care and attention, this foundation must be nurtured in order to continue to grow and thrive. Gestures of affection and gratitude go a long way to preserving and enhancing happiness in relationships. Indeed, it’s often these smaller gestures of appreciation that can make more of a difference than large romantic displays.
Intimacy is Critical to a Happy Partnership
Another big change comes in intimacy and in sexual satisfaction. The spontaneous passion that might have existed between partners before children became part of the picture may not be feasible or realistic anymore. You’re both tired; by the time the little one falls asleep, both partners are often so tired that “going to bed” means falling asleep before heads hit pillows. The hours spent lying in bed together become abbreviated, as time is precious—time for sleeping, doubly so. Because of this, it becomes all the more important to appreciate the little moments that the two of you do have. Being mindful and intentional about squeezing in a hug or a kiss before work may not be the same as spending an evening together, but the act (and the sentiment behind it) can go a long way between date nights. Flirtatious text messages or a written note slipped into a briefcase before work can help to inspire and retain some of the same playfulness that it can be so easy to lose.
That being said, date nights should be prioritized. The social pressure on new parents to display or demonstrate their competency or investment in their children can often give rise to the idea that sacrificing everything for one’s children is a good thing, when in fact, this poses a number of threats to our own mental health as parents. It may feel forced or ritualistic or even like another obligation on the long list of things to do, but getting into the habit of regularly allocating one evening or afternoon or even one morning every 2-3 weeks or even a month as time exclusively for you and your significant other can not only help prioritize and maintain romance and intimacy in your relationship, but can give the two of you something to look forward to.
Exercise Your Right to Say “No”
Another effect of this social pressure on new parents is that parents often feel compelled to take very active roles in all aspects of their child’s life—the pressure is high (whether perceived pressure from other parents or pressure that we put on ourselves) to volunteer to bring snacks to school or to help organize this or that after school event. This issue comes up often with kids who are very involved in sports—many parents may want to attend our child’s games and support them by watching and cheering them on. The research says this is good—kids like it when parents attend their games. However, when we begin to feel compelled to attend these games or events, or guilty when we can’t, it’s time to cut ourselves some slack. It’s great to attend events when possible, but missing these things here and there is not only OK and understandable, but it’s highly likely. Perfect attendance is the exception, not the rule. And while kids do tend enjoy having their parents in attendance, this is also not always the case; in some instances, children may begin to feel as though they are playing for their parents rather than for themselves.
Engage in Self-Care & Support Your Partner’s Self-Care Needs
Relationships do change when kids become a part of the picture—there’s no way around that. The joy and excitement that comes with being a new parent typically outweighs the frustration or disappointment. However, the relationship tension that often comes up under this added stress cannot be ignored. Similarly, the focus on the newest member of the family should add and not detract from the partnership that preceded it; nurturing the new child is critically important, but it isn’t selfish to tend to your own needs, too. Good parents aren’t necessarily the ones that sacrifice themselves entirely for their child, but rather the ones that know they can’t pour from an empty cup, and as such, work to balance their own needs with that of their child in order to provide the very best for their little one.
If you are experiencing damaging conflict or distance in your relationship after having children, couples therapy may be a beneficial option. All of the therapists at Bergen Counseling Center have extensive training and expertise helping couples communicate, maintain or regain intimacy, and grow together after having children. Call or fill out the contact form on the right sidebar to learn more or schedule an appointment.
In recent years, the concept of mindfulness has been a hot topic for not only psychologists, but for anyone from business executives to basketball players alike. Despite its recent surge in interest, mindfulness is not a new concept; it stems from ideas rooted in a variety of Eastern traditions, especially Buddhism. Concepts central to the practice of mindfulness and meditation have been put to use by many in recent years because of the vast number of benefits that have been shown to follow this type of practice. But does it actually mean? First, let’s start with some common misconceptions.
Mindfulness vs. Meditation: Is There a Difference?
Mindfulness is often associated with meditation. We think of “being mindful” and we imagine a dark room with candles and a pillow, crossed legs and gentle new age music. Is this mindfulness? It can be, sure. Meditation is one way in which many people choose to practice a form of mindfulness, but it certainly isn’t the only way. You can practice being mindful while working at the office, while eating at the breakfast table, or while taking a walk outside.
Some people may be hesitant to engage in mindfulness because of its connection with spirituality or religion. Indeed, for many, mindfulness and meditation can involve a spiritual sense of connection. And while it may have roots that can be traced back to religious practices (as well as nonreligious practices), mindfulness is not necessarily a spiritual practice. Rather, mindfulness is a part of the human experience—one that has the capacity to enhance a religious or spiritual practice, or simply to heighten our sense of awareness in our day to day life.
In short, mindfulness is what you make of it. For some, it’s a taking a deep breath before a speech or presentation and reconnecting with themselves before beginning, while for others it can describe a way of being within the world. The New York Times has a running series on mindfulness, entitled “Meditation for Real Life” which offers short, simple guiding prompts for common moments in life that allow for us to practice being mindful in a variety of contexts—whether sitting alone at our desk at work, or even surrounded by others at the dinner table. But what actually is mindfulness?
What is Mindfulness ?
Traditionally, the term mindfulness simply describes a way of attending to the present moment. It involves noticing those things that we might otherwise take for granted—stopping to smell the roses, so to speak. There’s an intentionality to it; by deliberately remaining present, we develop an awareness that captures both internal and external experiences. To practice mindfulness is to strive to notice and appreciate these experiences in the present moment with compassion—not to judge or attempt to change, but to simply notice.
Take a moment to pause what you’re doing. Notice the restless shifting in your seat or the tapping of your leg, and find some stillness instead. Notice your breathing, and take a slow, deep breath for a count of four, holding it briefly, then slowly exhaling for a count of six. Repeat this, paying attention to your breath and noticing the way it feels as you breathe deep into your stomach, and the way that your body relaxes further with each exhale. This is an exercise designed to help us breathe mindfully—taking us off autopilot and increasing our awareness of our breath. Continue this for a minute longer and notice changes to your body or your mood. Most commonly, people report feeling more relaxed, as though the tension were flooding out of their muscles with each prolonged exhale. If this exercise felt good, consider trying it for three minutes, or even five.
What are the Benefits of Mindfulness?
The benefits of mindfulness have been gathering evidence for many years now. Given that this is largely a mental exercise, people are often surprised to hear of its many physical benefits. Better immune functioning, better sleep, and what is perhaps the most obvious benefit, a significant decrease in stress levels; indeed, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has become a widely used set of techniques that implements mindfulness exercises as a way of decreasing stress and anxiety. Mindfulness and meditation tend to invite a sense of calmness and peace into our experience, in part simply because we are slowing down and remaining present, rather than letting our minds run on a loop or continue worrying about the next thing on our agenda. One of the most powerful aspects of mindfulness is that you don’t need any special equipment, a guru, or a lot of money to practice it. You just need a willingness to ask yourself questions and a quietness to hear the answers.
Many of the benefits of mindfulness are mental and emotional in nature. Awareness and understanding is often the first step in promoting change in just about anything, so improving our awareness of our internal worlds can be a powerful way of effecting change within ourselves. One major misconception about mindfulness is that it requires shutting off or controlling our thoughts. When I talk with my clients about mindfulness, it usually involves some discussion around thoughts, reactions, behaviors, or experiences that are flying under our radar and thus contributing to our feelings of sadness, anxiety, frustration, or other feelings that we might prefer to avoid. In doing so, clients often go on to ask about the point at which they can begin to control or shut off these feelings altogether. And understandably so—to be able to do this could keep us from experiencing the discomfort that accompanies these feelings.
Sometimes we don’t know even what questions to ask at all. In these instances, it can be helpful to seek out the support of a therapist who provide guidance, helping us lead more mindful lives and truly get in touch with our inner selves. All of the therapists at Bergen Counseling Center are trained in mindfulness and can help you develop a personalized plan of mindfulness to incorporate into your daily life.
If you are interested in learning more, fill out the contact form below or call us at (773) 512-4992.
This article is part 1 of a 2 part series on mindfulness. Part 1 defines mindfulness and part 2 will focus on how to practice mindfulness in your daily life. Stay up to date by signing up for our newsletter and get alerts when new content is published.
How often have you felt lonely in the last month? How often have you felt lonely in the past year? We all experience loneliness in some form. Humans are social creatures. We crave connection—whether on a large scale or a small one—and have certain social needs that require satisfaction. When those needs for connection, intimacy, and friendship with others go unmet, we often begin to feel isolated, disconnected, and alone. We feel lonely. So how do we overcome loneliness?
Regardless of your age, gender, background, or even your relationship status, feelings of loneliness are common to many around the world. The implications of this are huge; feelings of loneliness are often not only painful on their own, but exacerbate the course of many mental health concerns. In contrast, social support has been shown to be a powerful mitigating factor of everything from stress and poor sleep patterns, to suicidality and schizophrenia. For these reasons, feelings of loneliness and isolation are important to consider when think of our overall mental health.
“Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone.”
– Paul Tillich
Loneliness vs. Being Alone
However, it’s important to distinguish between being alone and being lonely; one does not always mean the other. For many, having time alone may feel relaxing and rejuvenating rather than isolating. The difference between being alone and being lonely is very often the story that we tell ourselves. Those who view themselves as being alone because they’ve been rejected or are somehow unworthy of the company of others are going to feel inherently worse than those who view their solitude as a choice. Occasional time on our own allows for reflection, and for the development of a more intimate relationship with ourselves. Choosing to embrace being alone is a drastically different approach than the fear of being alone that often accompanies loneliness, but doesn’t really look all that different in terms of the actual situation—it simply means a) acknowledging that you aren’t alone because of your shortcomings or because of some personal flaws, and b) using the time alone differently.
There are plenty of ways to be alone that don’t promote loneliness: taking up a DIY project around the house, or going to the movie theater on your own. Going to the gym is a great way to spend some of your alone time improving your mood, since exercise is such a great way of ameliorating feelings of anxiety or depression. Many tout reading a book as a good way of spending time alone, and this is a good suggestion, but I also encourage readers to try getting out of the house to read. Sometimes being out and around others at the local coffee shop or park feels drastically different from reading at home in bed. However, too much time alone with ourselves can be difficult for even the most introverted person. In times likes those, it’s often best to actively experiment with something new.
Connect with Others
Think for a moment about the way the patterns in your life contribute to the degree to which you are connected with others. Are you the person who makes a habit of talking to someone new at parties? Or do you stick to the familiar faces with whom you feel most comfortable? Do you wear headphones at the coffee shop? Or do you make conversation the person in line in front of you? We often fall into patterns like these that may lead to a consistent, stable lifestyle, even when that consistent lifestyle contains problems. Men, for example, are often particularly susceptible to feelings of depression because of our tendency to have more difficulty than women in intimately connecting with new friends. Another example is social media—the ever-prevalent influence of social media is seen in lives of many lonely teenagers and young adults who endorse feeling envious of the lives of others they see portrayed on Facebook.
Sometimes, the patterns we fall into stop being useful for us, and it comes time to form new habits. This is easier said than done, however; how do we know what sort of patterns in our lives will make us happier? Simply put, we don’t. We can’t possibly know until we try. Sometimes this means experimenting with a new way of being, trying it on to see how it fits, then keeping the parts that work and discarding those that don’t.
Deal with Social Anxiety
So let’s revisit the same party as before. You’ve found yourself alone in a crowded room, and are scanning the faces for someone familiar to talk to. However, maybe just this once, you step outside your comfort zone and strike up a conversation with someone nearby that you haven’t met yet:
“I don’t think we’ve met; I’m ______. How do you know ______?”
That’s step one: a simple enough line that often opens up the conversation for more common ground and can be the beginning of an interesting conversation, depending on the route it takes.
But what if the conversation dies out? What if it doesn’t go anywhere?
Then you’re no worse off than when you started. Not every experiment works out, and not every person you meet is the right person to connect with. It’s ok if your conversation fizzles out or if you find you have absolutely nothing in common with the person you’re chatting with. Rather than feeling like a failure, let yourself feel proud that a) you made the effort to try something new (which isn’t easy!), and b) you’re developing skills to better be an active participant in the world around you.
Create New Connections
Sometimes the issue is one of context. We don’t have the party to attend, much less someone there to talk to. For those still in school, clubs and other extracurricular groups can be a great way of meeting those with common interests. Those who may not have this option might be able to make use of sites like Meetup.com that offer a variety of different location-based interest groups so that whatever your hobby, you can find like-minded individuals with whom to easily connect. Regardless of where or how you encounter these groups, however, the responsibility still ultimately falls on you to remain an active participant in your world and assertively seek out those with whom you’d like to connect—to start the conversation and see where it leads. If the suggestions in the preceding paragraph sound absolutely miserable, you aren’t alone. It’s important to remember that these events and new situations are often the most difficult before we engage in them. How many times have you looked toward a party or event with dread only to come away from the experience feeling positive and glad you went?
It’s important to remember that you aren’t alone in feeling lonely. It’s been estimated that , which means that at any given gathering, you aren’t the only person in the room feeling lonely. This is a common issue with which more and more people struggle—it’s one reason that sites like Meetup.com are so popular! So while feelings of loneliness can leave you feeling alone and disconnected from those around you, remember that we all feel lonely from time to time; by reaching out to talk to someone new, you might just make their day better, too.
Do Your Parents Affect Your Adult Relationships?
Bergen Counseling Center co-owner, Dr. Rebecca Bergen, was recently interviewed by www.mydomaine.com for an article series on relationships. The premise of the article asks the question, “How does our childhood relationship with our parents affect our romantic relationships as adults?” Dr. Bergen breaks down how our parents become models for our adult relationships in both healthy and unhealthy ways. In the interview, she explains the influences that our parents relationship with us as children and with each other as parents contributes to our expectations, communication patterns, conflict-styles, and expressions of affection in our adult romantic relationships.
From the article:
“MyDomaine: Is there one parent who impacts this experience more than the other? For example, I read that the relationship you have with your opposite-sex parent predicts the kind of relationships you’ll have with boyfriends or girlfriends in adulthood. Can you explain/elaborate on this idea?
Dr. Bergen: I believe they affect us in different ways. Same-sex parents serve as a model for our own behavior and opposite sex parents are projected into potential partners. This also works in reverse, in the sense that we may search for the opposite of a father who was stoic and uninvolved. Another example, a person may be hyper vigilant to criticism and argue frequently with partners because their same-sex parent had difficulty advocating for themselves and became a “doormat” in the relationship. We tend to want to emulate our parent’s relationship when it is perceived as healthy and positive.“
Read the full article on www.mydomaine.com to learn more about how childhood relationships with our parents influence our adult relationships and even how we pass along those patterns to our own children. All of the therapists at Bergen Counseling Center have experience and training to provide couples counseling in Chicago and are also skilled in exploring family of origin issues. If you are interested in learning more about how we can help, complete the contact form below and one of our therapists will reach out to you personally.