What we call “normal” matters.

No worries, no insomnia!

No worries, no insomnia!

Is it “normal” to feel hungrier some days than other?  How about feeling in control of eating one day and feeling unable to emotionally driven to junk food the next?  How we react to varying physical and emotional needs – and whether or not we even consider varying needs “normal” – matters . . . a lot.

Let me state clearly that human needs – all of them – vary, from one person to another and from day to day for the same person.  To expect that this is not true, that it is not normal to have inconsistent physical and emotional hunger, is a set-up for disappointment, worry, frustration, guilt, and shame.  It is not a formula for attaining and maintaining a healthy weight.

I had a recent reminder of this, not related to eating, but instead having to do with sleep.  I met with a behavioral sleep specialist a few months ago, after deciding that I was tired of spending hours staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night.  I expected to need months of weekly meetings and lots of journaling in the process of learning new thought patterns for better sleep.

In reality, I met only 3 times with the therapist.  While talking through the details of my problem, I had an important lightbulb moment.  My issues had everything to do with what I considered “normal sleep.”

As someone who never had any trouble sleeping for most of my life, I began having trouble during a stressful time.  One night of difficulty turned into a week, then a month, and continued long after the stress had eased.  The habit of worrying about falling asleep and staying asleep had taken hold and I worried about it all day long.  I now realize that I didn’t look at my trouble sleeping as a normal stress symptom, so I didn’t see it as temporary and expect it to resolve when the stress did.  I looked at it as a problem on its own, something due to hormones, or my one cup of coffee in the morning, or my one glass of wine at night, or . . . .

I looked for solutions in supplements (melatonin, calcium/magnesium), elimination of coffee and wine, staying away from my computer after 5pm, . . . .  I will admit to becoming a little (a lot?) obsessive about my sleep hygiene.  I followed every bit of advice I could find and feared that if I didn’t, I would not sleep.

None of that worked, but once I could see that varying sleep quality and quantity is normal, everything began to get better quickly.  I could see that it is not only normal to have a rough night every now and then, but it is also normal to wake up in the middle of the night (even 2 or 3 times), and that needn’t cause trouble if I can fall back asleep right away, in other words if I don’t label it a problem.  In short, variations are normal.  The trouble for me stemmed from my reaction – worry, frustration, etc. – to any little blips in a perfect sleep pattern.

I began to take a more laid back attitude about the whole situation.  Even when I was awake in the middle of the night, I just stopped caring so much about it.  “No problem.  If I can’t sleep, I can’t sleep.  I will just relax and accept that.”  Ahhhh.  What a relief!

It’s not a big stretch to see the connection to eating and dieting struggles.  Following a strict inflexible eating plan is just not realistic, because it doesn’t take into account the normal fluctuations of appetite and human emotions.  Variations will happen!  Treating that as “normal” will take a lot of the emotion out of these moments, allowing a much healthier overall eating style to develop.  This is also a much more effective weight management strategy, one that will not blow apart when life throw’s the inevitable curveball.



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