My brother-in-law was talking with friends when one of them said: “I haven’t felt well since 1985!” After chortling over this comment, I suddenly thought: “hang on, when was the last time I actually felt 100% well?” I realised that I hadn’t been living a balanced lifestyle for some time.
We live in a world of extremes, where moderation can seem dull and boring. We seem to oscillate between strict discipline and overindulgence. In my early twenties, I was overweight and constantly on a diet. Some days were more successful than others. On those “unsuccessful days” I fell into the trap of finishing the whole packet of donuts, with the intention of starting afresh the next day. I wasn’t aware at the time, but this phenomenon is referred to as the “last supper syndrome”. It describes a tendency to binge-eat before starting, or resuming, a diet.1 A similar attitude may be observed in our drinking behaviour. Take the overindulgence of Christmas, followed by the austere “Dry January.” This pattern of excess followed by temperance does not engender the heathiest relationship with alcohol.2
Recently, I found myself in the trap of exercising hard for an hour or so 3-4 times a week and then sitting for long periods at work. I guess I thought: I’ve done a hard workout, so it doesn’t matter if I’m inactive for the rest of the day. This approach worked for a while, until I developed leg problems and was strongly advised by my physiotherapist to move around at regular periods throughout the day. Indeed, research now suggests that limited spurts of exercise are not sufficient to maintain health if we remain sedentary for most of our day.3 On the flip side, high impact exercise for long durations can also be detrimental.4
Financially speaking, I have also struggled to maintain a balance. In my carefree days I used to be a spendthrift, and did not even consider having savings. After going back to college and gaining a sizeable student debt, I was forced to take a more frugal approach to my finances. With my debt behind me, I have finally developed a system of saving regularly, which I reluctantly attribute to my partner’s positive influence. I now make sure I also factor in some “treats,” so I don’t experience feelings of deprivation, which inevitably lead to a financial blowout.
The psychology behind our extreme behaviours
What causes these extremes of behaviour?
Cognitive distortions occur when we default to automatic thought patterns. When this happens, our brain sends “lies” to our conscious mind. Perfectionists are especially prone to cognitive distortions such as personalisation or overgeneralisation. 5
All-or-nothing-thinking is a cognitive distortion especially salient to extreme or binge-type behaviours. For example, you may think: “if my diet is not perfect today, I may as well eat everything in my sight and start again tomorrow.” This pretty much described my thought process (or lack of!) prior to devouring a whole pack of donuts. An all-or-nothing view can also undermine your exercise regime. Have you ever missed a work out mid-week and then thought: I may as well wait till next Monday before I restart my fitness programme?
Clinical psychologists believe that we engage in a range of binge behaviours (e.g. eating, spending, drinking) to help us deal with our negative emotions.6 Excessive drinking can help us cope with social anxiety. Binge eating may be driven by feelings of depression, helping to temporarily numb the pain and promote feelings of pleasure (thanks to our brain releasing dopamine).
In the longer-term, these behaviours represent a maladaptive way of regulating emotion. The pain and guilt that follows an eating-binge, for example, can trigger depression, which then leads to more binges. Those of us who regularly ruminate (i.e. repetitively think) about our negative emotions are especially likely to become entrapped in a cycle of negative effect followed by dysregulated behaviours.7
Societal expectations to be thin, own the latest gadget, or be the life and soul of the party can exacerbate anxiety and increase risk of binge-behaviour.6 The temptation to overspend is everywhere. Social media encourages social comparison, which can increase our desire to acquire possessions.8 Online stores, such as Ebay, provide us with a platform for instant gratification any time of the day,9 while we are constantly bombarded with personally tailored adverts.
Tips for taking a balanced approach to your life
- Cut yourself some slack: Acknowledge that you don’t need to have a perfect diet or exercise regime. Certainly, it is good to follow some basic guidelines such as regular cardiovascular exercise, drinking 8 glasses of water a day, eating 5 fruit or vegetables, and limiting your alcohol and sugar intake. However, maintaining a healthy diet doesn’t preclude the odd bar of chocolate or glass of wine if generally you follow a balanced approach.
- Think of small ways of increasing the amount of exercise you do: Research suggests that little and often is a very effective approach. Some of us cannot get by without the rush of endorphins following a hard workout, but a good level of activity throughout the day is equally as important. The first step is becoming more aware of your day-to-day movements. You can then increase as necessary. Housework, gardening, and taking a regular stroll around your place of work or neighbourhood are great ways of increasing your activity. They also reap mental health benefits.
- Adopt a mindful attitude: Being mindful is an effective way of challenging all-or-nothing thoughts and behaviours. If you tend to binge eat, engaging in mindful eating can increase your awareness of when you are full, and enhance your self-regulatory control.10 When you eat (or drink) mindfully you slow down and savour every mouthful. There are many tools out there for developing mindfulness including books with exercises, mindfulness apps, and meditation classes. I love the meditation resource – Calm. It is available online and as an App which you can try for free. You may also find it helpful to use a mood monitoring diary or app. Becoming more aware of your emotions can reduce stress and anxiety, thus counteracting your urge to binge.
- If you struggle with impulse spending, try the 30-day rule: Write down what you want to buy, where you saw it, and the date. Put this note somewhere visible, and for the next 30 days think about whether you really want this item. If you still want the item at the end of this period, go ahead and buy. The aim is not to deprive yourself of everything but to avoid those impulse buys.
- Take social media with a pinch of salt: I used Facebook daily for a while, but soon tired of the continual updates on what people were doing or consuming. I thought it would be a fun way to connect, but it didn’t take me long to realise that FB is just a bragging platform for many people.11
- Consider Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): If cognitive distortions are taking hold of your life, you need to tackle these maladaptive thoughts head on. CBT is a structured time-limited form of therapy, which helps you become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking. Once you are aware of your thought patterns you can develop more effective ways of viewing and responding to challenging situations. You can do CBT on your own using a self-help book or online resources. Alternatively, you may wish to see a therapist.12
- Cultivate higher self-esteem: Low self-esteem underpins a multitude of problems including perfectionism, vulnerability to social pressures, negative thought processes, depression, and anxiety.13 Improving self-esteem is a real work in progress for me. My personal favourite resource is Nathaniel Branden’s “Six Pillars of Self-Esteem,” which is packed full of information and exercises for improving your (and others’) self-esteem.
Further reading and references
- Gander, K. (2016). www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/last-supper-syndrome-new-year-diet-binge-eating-christmas-food-2017-healthy-restrictive-a7501151.html
- Pattenden, M. (2017). www.telegraph.co.uk/health-fitness/body/12-reasons-why-you-shouldnt-give-up-drinking-in-january/
- Schmid, D. (2014). Television Viewing and Time Spent Sedentary in Relation to Cancer Risk: A Meta-Analysis: https://academic.oup.com/jnci/article/106/7/dju098/1008529.
- Hodges, R. (2017). www.telegraph.co.uk/health-fitness/body/much-exercise-bad-gut-dangers-training/
- Kelly, J.D. (2015). Your Best Life: Perfectionism – The Bane of Happiness. Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research, 473, 3108-3111.
- English, N. (2013). The Science Behind Why We Binge (and What to Do About it) https://greatist.com/happiness/science-why-we-binge
- Selby, E.A. et al. (2008). Understanding the relationship between emotional and behavioural dysregulation. Emotional cascades. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 46, 593-611.
- Kim, H et al. (2017). Social comparison, personal relative deprivation, and materialism. British Journal of Social Psychology, 56, 373-392.
- Matthews, M et al. (2017). The double-edged sword: A mixed methods study of the interplay between bipolar disorder and technology use. Computers in Human Behaviour, 75, 288-300.
- Mason, A.E. et al. (2016). Reduced Reward-driven Eating Accounts for the Impact of a Mindfulness-Based Diet and Exercise Intervention on Weight Loss: Data from the SHINE Randomized Controlled Trial. Appetite, 100, 86-93.
- Rubin, D. (2013). What Bragging on Facebook Says About Us. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/danny-rubin/facebook-bragging_b_4123486.html
- Mind. Cognitive behavioural therapy. https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/drugs-and-treatments/cognitive-behavioural-therapy-cbt/cbt-sessions/#.WkPkJUx2t9A
- Baumeister, R.F et al. (2003). Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4, 1.