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Mind Your Health

Use mindfulness strategies to make sustained healthy lifestyle changes

It can be easy to fall into unhealthy patterns — such as smoking, overeating or over-thinking — and difficult to pull ourselves out of them.

And sometimes it feels like all the messages we get our health care providers, our society and ourselves to lose weight, quit smoking, exercise more and eat healthier only add to the struggle. Caring for ourselves starts to feel like a chore if we're bogged down by strict commands and shamed when we don't "succeed."

"But shame and guilt can prevent people from getting medical care or having the discussions they need to have with their providers," explains Patricia Normand, PhD, director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at Rush University Medical Center.

Unfortunately, we aren't necessarily trained to be kind to ourselves. In fact, the opposite is often true: We get a lot of judgment from our peers, but many of us are our own worst critics. That's where mindfulness can help.

The benefits of being mindful

The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at Rush uses guided instruction, group dialogue and meditative practices to help patients pay attention to what is going on in their lives — without reacting or self-judging.

This kinder, gentler approach has the power to help us make sustained healthy lifestyle changes. Here, Normand explains how:

1. It makes you more aware of your mental habits.

Mindfulness allows you to think deliberately about a situation instead of reacting automatically. It also teaches you to be aware of self-judgment and stop judging.

Judgment is a mental habit, as opposed to a physical habit like smoking. And like any habit, the more you're aware of it, the more you can recognize a judgmental thought and put it aside. It's important to do this, because shame, guilt and blame are self-destructive emotions.

Take control: Self-compassion can be an antidote for judgment. Compassion means treating suffering with kindness, whether it's someone else's struggle or your own.

Self-compassion starts with noticing when you're not being kind to yourself and determining a caring approach to each moment.

For example, rather than thinking of a certain food — ice cream, for instance — as "good" or "bad," ask yourself if eating ice cream is kind or helpful to you. 

2. It increases your awareness about your behaviors.

When you're more aware moment to moment, you're more aware of when you’re doing something that may not be healthy. You might still do it occasionally, but you might also think to yourself, "This may not be the best thing to do for my health."

Eventually, that thought becomes more dominant and helps people change their habits.

Take control: Using words like "not" or "should" when trying to make a lifestyle change can create a big burden. It may be kinder to think, "What do I really want? What would be the kindest thing to do for myself in this moment?"

The best way to learn how to ask yourself those questions is to pay attention to your body. For example, are you really hungry, or are you rooting the fridge because you’re bored, upset or stressed? 

Let the past be the past. Make decisions based on the present moment rather than what happened at the last meal or yesterday.

3. It helps you forgive yourself for "slip-ups."

Your health is not "all or nothing." Sometimes people say to themselves, "Oh, I just ate this 'bad' thing, that's it for the rest of the day."

This can lead to a snowball effect, where you decide that since you "cheated" on Monday, you might as well just eat what you want the rest of the week and start fresh the following week.

Take control: Let the past be the past. Make decisions based on the present moment rather than what happened at the last meal or yesterday.

It's helpful to say to yourself, "I did the best I could in that moment. Now I can go on in this new moment."

Making choices moment to moment is actually much easier than trying to make a radical long-term change. For instance, don't vow to forgo pizza for a whole year; that will only make you think about it more, and beat yourself up if you have a few slices.

A good strategy is to create a "self-compassion arsenal" of at least six healthy activities that bring you pleasure. Then, you can choose from those options when you're trying to decide what to do in a given moment — instead of choosing the unhealthy behavior.
Here are some examples:

  • Take a bath
  • Listen to music
  • Take a walk
  • Play with your pets
  • Write in your journal

Just remember: Nobody is perfect. The key is to be aware of the choices you’re making — so you can start to consistently choose behaviors that are good for both your body and mind.

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