You can find authentic health with the right changes. Dr Gus Vickery and I discuss his new book, Authentic Health: The Definitive Guide to Losing Weight, Feeling Better, Mastering Stress.
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Allan (0:55): Dr. Vickery, welcome to 40+ Fitness.
Dr. Gus Vickery (0:59): Thanks so much, Allan. I’m really excited to be here.
Allan (1:02): Your book, which I really enjoyed, is called Authentic Health: The Definitive Guide to Losing Weight, Feeling Better, Mastering Stress. It took me to that last word before you really had me engaged and saying, “I’m going to read this book.” That is in my mind, one of the big missing elements that so many people skip, and I know I skipped it myself. So, 2018 was a beginning of a distress for me, and now in 2019 I’m going to try to watershed stress. In the book you’re pretty clear that if we’re not dealing with our stress, we’re missing a big piece.
Dr. Gus Vickery (1:44): Absolutely. And there’s both the direct and indirect effect on health. This became apparent to me over the 14 years I’ve practiced clinical medicine and seeing people in a family practice setting. A lot of people, as you know, are struggling with obesity or being overweight, poor energy, mental health issues, diabetes, etcetera. And of course there’s information to help them. You can improve your nutrition, you can get exercise. These are all things that we have a lot of information out there, but I would realize that I could give them information until the cows came home, but it was so often inaccessible to them in terms of being able to turn that information into action. So I started trying to figure out what’s keeping people from taking action? I just told them if they do these few things, they can reverse a disease and feel better. Why is it not happening? And of course you study it for your own self. So you begin to study the mind and stress responses and what occurs, and you quickly realize that when people are overwhelmed by stress, that a part of their mind – I call it the “higher mind” – I know it’s an oversimplification that helps them make choices and align with their desires, make plans, envision the future – it’s inhibited. It’s turned off, because they’re cranking out adrenaline and a fight or flight state all of the time, so not only can they not think from that capacity, but at the same time they’re in desperate need of something to feel better, a fix. And our society has made it very easy to get your fix, whether it’s this food you choose, the nicotine, alcohol, what have you. And so, if you don’t get control of the stress, you can’t put the rest of it into action.
Allan (3:20): Right. I’m going to admit right now you got me in trouble. I have a good diversity of friends on Facebook and throughout my life, and we don’t always agree on things. So it’s a pretty regular thing if I go onto Facebook, someone’s going to post something I’m not going to agree with. I’ll be really kind to say I’m not agreeing with them. But I realized as I was going through your book, that was just something that I was allowing to happen to me as I was going through my day. I check my Facebook probably two or three times a day because part of my business does run through the Internet, so I’m on. I said, “I’m just going to turn all that stuff off and I’m going to finish reading your book and I’m not going to worry with that.” Unfortunately, what ended up happening was, I forgot that it was Tuesday and thought it was Wednesday and I missed a call that was supposed to be on Tuesday night. So, I’m going to have to blame you for that a little bit because you got me to turn that stuff off so that I could in a sense distress, or at least keep some stressors out of my life for a period of time. I’ve got to learn the practice of still remembering what day of the week it is when I’m going through that practice.
Dr. Gus Vickery (4:46): That’s right. I’m glad you were able to take that action. For somebody like yourself, so tuned into health, so tuned into what needs to be done to improve health, you realize every single one of us needs this. We’ve all got our little things that we need to be doing.
Allan (5:02): At the time I was like, “I’m going to try this – turn Facebook off, turn the newsfeeds off.” I put my phone away; completely forgot what day of the week it was, which was great, except for when I woke up the next morning and remembered it was Wednesday and I was supposed to be on a call last night. I had some people to apologize to. Now, you brought up something in the book, which I think has probably been used a good bit in maybe more the scientific and the doctoral area. It’s not a term that I had actually seen in a health book before, which is kind of odd because I’ve read well over 200 of them just for this podcast. I’m going to screw it up when I say it – biopsychosocial model. Can you go through that, because I think it wraps this all together to give us a bubble of understanding that our body is not just one system, one thing, a simple rule, calories in, calories out? We want those simple rules, but this wraps it all together and says you really have to look at yourself holistically to understand what’s going on in your life.
Dr. Gus Vickery (6:15): Once you get your mind around it, it’s just common sense too. Intuitively it immediately resonates when you think about our mind, our body, our social environments and our cultural environment, and how all of those inform our health, our experience of health, our experience of whatever weight we’re experiencing. In med school, this has been around. When I was in medical school back in the ‘90s, we were being taught the biopsychosocial model. It was part of the curriculum to say it’s not just biology, it’s not just biochemistry, molecular biology and physiology, but how people feel about things is important for their health. What resources they have around them is important for their health. Now that seems obvious and I point that out, the initial theory of learning medicine is, you’ll honor all of that when you approach another human being to try and help them achieve their best state of health or reverse a disease. And then of course I allude to the idea that the modern healthcare delivery environment doesn’t allow any honoring. But the mind and how we feel and how we think has very quick and direct effects on our physiology and our experience of health, and our biology. What we take in from nutrients, how we move our body, whether we honored circadian rhythm – it informs our thinking and feeling centers in our brain and changes those aspects. And then again, cultural environment: What are the belief systems that we’re immersed in and how has that informed our habits, most of which we didn’t consciously choose – that’s determining our health as well.
Allan (7:46): Right. I was thinking through that concept because I didn’t go to medical school, but it was a brilliant concept. I’m like, “Yeah, of course that’s the way we would do it.” And the reason we know that’s the way we should do it is, there are things we know and respect, like the placebo effect. When I was much younger, I was in a club called the Positive Mental Attitude Flub. We would meet for breakfast on Tuesdays every week, someone would speak, someone would be responsible for putting together a little speech and then we’d have our breakfast together. Those were all things that we did to improve our lives in general, but what I found was most people that are doing those types of things actually are improving their health along the way. It’s not just one thing – it’s not just their business getting better or they just happened to be nicer people. Everything’s working better because they set their mindset.
Dr. Gus Vickery (8:48): That’s exactly right, which is why I started on the mindset and the desire and how you’re thinking before you get to just about anything else in the book, because that’s foundational. Part of the tension I felt as a physician – people come to us with their complaints: “I’m not feeling good”, or for a checkup or whatever. And then you’re sitting and you’re trying to help them figure out what’s the source and what’s the solution to these complaints, how to help them feel better. And the typical medical encounter in traditional medicine, the tools you’ve been given are medicines, prescriptions. I can help your stomach acid problem with a prescription. I can help your mood with a prescription. I can lower your blood pressure. And there is a role for those tools. I am a medical doctor, I prescribe medications. But when I found myself primarily using only that tool to try and solve problems that had much deeper roots, I realized this is ineffective, this is going nowhere. And of course eventually people didn’t continue to feel better. But what I also realized is, if they’re not bringing their own desire for health in the room with them, then there’s really not much I can do. For many of my encounters I had to back up and really start with, “What do you want? What is it you really want to experience?” “Of course, I want to feel good.” And I’m like, “Okay, let’s talk about what it means to feel good then, and how you’re going to get there.”
Allan (10:02): Me as a coach, for 95% of the people that call me or want to work with me, it’s weight loss. And I can coach them. I’m going to hold them accountable, we’re going to hang out. You had a program which allows you to structure test a lot of the concepts that you now have in this book. But I liked the fact that you recognize that weight gain is a cycle, and once we get on that cycle, the cycle fights us tooth and nail all the way. So many people will sit there and blame themselves and say, “I’m just lazy.” I did it myself – I called myself “the fat bastard”, and it was because I had not figured out a way to really break that cycle. It was just getting worse and worse every year and it still took me a long time to figure out what you succinctly put in this book. So, someone that’s feeling that way – whether they’re designating themselves “the fat bastard” or something else – what are the things they need to do right now, today, to start to break that cycle?
Dr. Gus Vickery (11:32): Several key things. One is understanding – understanding that you probably didn’t choose this problem for yourself. It’s something that happened to you. Yes, we’re making choices. Yes, there’s personal responsibility. And yes, you’re the only person who can make new choices. But more than likely if you’ve developed a weight problem, meaning an excessive amount of body weight that’s causing you to be unhealthy, it started at very young ages of your life based on exposures that were beyond your control and that you didn’t understand. So blaming yourself, bringing shame and guilt and saying you don’t have what it takes, is not going to help the situation. It’s just going to create stress, which is going to undermine your efforts to get healthy. So, understand the situation you’re dealing with is number one. And even though you can’t do it overnight, begin to let go of this blame. We don’t have the time for me to get into all of the mechanisms of how that happened – the epigenetics, physiology and hormones, but we both know that’s what happens, that’s what creates chronic weight gain.
Two – understand what actually solves the problem. We know that daily reduced calorie diets and just increasing exercise do not solve this problem. We have copious evidence that low calorie diets and exercise plans do not lead to sustained weight loss. Yes, you’ll lose some weight, but you want to sustain it. So what’s actually creating the weight gain? It can be many different things, but for most people it is going to be, they’re probably eating excessively, because our foods are calorie-dense and nutrient-poor. They’re probably eating too frequently. I listened to one of your recent podcasts and you talked about fasting for a good bit of time, and it was great. It’s one of the foundational principles in my book. Eating too frequently will continue to create a hormonal response that favors fat storage, no matter what you’re eating. If you’re eating too frequently, you will stay in a cycle of, hold onto your energy, don’t use your energy. Then it’s inflammation and bad quality foods. If you’re choosing foods that trigger direct inflammatory responses in the body and they create increased oxidative stress, you are creating an internal physiological need that favors weight gain. In order to actually stop this cycle and allow your body to reset… And there’s hope here, because this actually works. It’s been proven to work and to allow the area of your brain that regulates your body weight, apart from your choices, to begin to reset your weight down. You have to honor your body’s design for eating, and that’s pretty simple. Our bodies adapted over millennia upon millennia to eating whole natural foods as close to their natural state as possible. That can include carbohydrates – you know I talk about ketogenics and things in the book. It’s a program that could be used, but people don’t have to be ketogenic. If they’re eating high fiber, nutrient-dense whole foods, then those will naturally begin to control appetite, correct energy balance and allow that area of the brain called the lipostat to begin to reset back down. And by eliminating the foods that trigger the human reward system, binge eating and dysregulation of normal satiety function and satiation function, you naturally correct the eating behavior. The problem just goes away when you do that, and then you balance feeding and fasting. You basically stop eating at such a frequent basis and you begin to allow periods for your body to use the energy that you put into it. So, natural foods, balanced feeding and fasting. There’s more to it – circadian rhythm, function, move, breathe, all that. But those two things.
Allan (15:13): The book goes into great detail on the hormone side of it, all the rest of it, which is really, really cool. Now, of course the “calorie in, calorie out” model pretty much requires you to eat all the time. I tried to go pescatarian. I was mostly vegetarian with some fish. I tried it and what I found was I couldn’t get enough sustenance to get myself to the next meal. So, I carried food with me. I became obsessed about food – I had food in my truck, I had food in my office. I pretty much feel like if I wasn’t showering, brushing my teeth or asleep, I was eating. So, I actually put on weight. I know that I did it wrong because every time I got hungry, I ran for the berries, I ran for the nuts. Those were my go-to snacks because they were convenient to carry, and abundant, because I can go to the grocery store anytime. But when I really started breaking down why I’m gaining weight, why this is not working for me – my ancestors would not have had access to berries and nuts like that, and probably not even at the same time, because nuts typically come in the fall, berries typically come in the spring. I feel better when I can fast, so I’m eating more fat and less carbohydrates and I feel better. But for a lot of people to start the fasting, it’s scary word: “Am I going to get blood sugar?”, all these different things that they’re concerned are going to happen. I would say if you’re going to do any extended fasting, please talk to your doctor. If you’re on any kind of medication, particularly blood sugar lowering medication – please talk to your doctor before you change your eating. But you lay out in the book what I think is a really clear plan for someone that wants to start working with fasting, so that they can be successful and use this as a protocol to get healthy. Can you talk through your protocol for fasting?
Dr. Gus Vickery (17:23): I sure can. It’s very important to keep it easy. And in the book I did say, don’t get stressed about this. When you learn what fasting actually is, you’re going to be refreshingly liberated. It’s not that you have to go 24, 36 or 48 hours. There is a role for extended fast when you train your body to fast for health, if you want to do that. As an example, one of my patients who I was coaxing towards this because of high insulin, high body weight, metabolic syndrome – he realized fasting was three meals a day, no snacks, with a 12-hour overnight window. That for him was fasting because it was a significant deviation from his eating pattern before. And that’s a traditional way of eating three meals a day; that’s not that hard. And when he learned that, he was like, “I can do that.” And of course it wasn’t long before he was doing 14 and 16-hour fasts because his body developed the skill. So I tell people, first you’re going to take your time. This is a skill that your body has within it to use, unless you have certain medical conditions. We’re making that medical disclaimer. If you have true medical hypoglycemia based on metabolic conditions, then this isn’t for you. But for everybody else, just about, this will work. So first of all, recognize you’re going to be patient with yourself and that you’re trying to achieve a specific end, which is metabolic flexibility and freedom from food and eating behaviors, and other improvements in health.
The first easiest way to do this is to even look at it as a 12-hour window as a fast. You can use any 12-hour window, but one of the easiest is just to use your overnight window. You basically allow yourself to not snack after dinner and go to bed, and simply not eat the next morning until it’s been 12 hours from when you finished. Almost everybody can do that without much of a difficulty. The challenge for some will be that they were having ice cream at night. That’s not an issue with your ability to manage the hunger. That’s a craving. I think you want to talk about that in a little bit. So first of all, just extend your evening fast as skipping breakfast. You can start with a fast after breakfast or lunch if it works better for you. You could go from lunch to breakfast the next morning, but just consider a 12-hour window. Try to eat two or three meals a day and eliminate snacking. For some people just eliminating the snacking can be the beginning of fasting. When you get really good at this, you might want to go for 24, 36-hour fasts, especially if you’re trying to reverse weight issues, but don’t do that until you can do 16 or 18 comfortably.
Now, don’t force fasting into your life when conditions don’t favor fasting. Don’t fast for your spouse’s birthday party. Don’t fast for Thanksgiving feast. Fast when it’s suitable for you, when it’s going to work socially. My fasting days are my work days, when all I really want to do is stay focused and productive and I don’t want to have to take time to eat. And then I can stop and really enjoy it with my family. Stay well hydrated while fasting. Most people fail because they become thirsty and dehydrated and they mistake dehydration for hypoglycemia. So they think they have lower blood sugar, but actually they’re just dehydrated. Drink plenty of water. Don’t overeat when you break your fast. When you first start to eat again, just eat a smaller meal. Give your body some food and give it a chance to digest. People have this mythological view that if you fast, you’re always going to end up becoming too hungry and then you’re going to overeat, you’re going to binge eat, and that’s going to create this yo-yo impact, but that’s just not true. Studies don’t bear that out. We tend to not eat as much when we’re actually breaking a fast. You have to expect to experience hunger. You are going to experience it. That’s part of what we’re on a mission to do here, is to begin to experience hunger and not always have to give into it. You’re going to have some physical and emotional discomfort, so you have to be prepared for this and you have to be in your mind determined to work through that. You know hunger is going to come for you, it’s going to come in waves and you have to know that you’re going to drink some water, redirect yourself, do some breathing, do some jumping jacks, something to turn that hunger off.
Now, if you’re experiencing severe hunger, weakness, dizziness, nausea, sweating, just feeling terrible, brain-foggy – eat. You’re not being forced to do this. Just give yourself something to eat – eat some nuts, eat a small meal if you need to, and then just pick up from where you left off. That is not failure; it’s okay. Your body is leading you and sending you signals. On your non-fasting days, eat normally. Don’t undereat. That is a mistake I see people make because fasting becomes so powerful for people, they can use it to lose weight quickly, because you can use this interrupted calorie deprivation schedule to actually allow yourself to begin to create energy balance that favors weight loss without triggering the area of your brain to go, “Uh-oh. Let’s stop the process.” So it can be very effective. But if you undereat after a prolonged fast, all you’re going to do is the same thing as a reduced calorie diet. You’re not going to get the result you want. So eat normally on non-fasting days. In fact, eat robustly. Enjoy eating, because you’re balancing feasting with fasting. And then kind of vary the rhythm of it. Sometimes it’s 12 hours, sometimes it’s 16. You’re having a great day, you feel good – go 18 hours. But let your body lead you. Don’t try to force yourself through those hard stop moments where your body is actually going into a stress response, because that’s not going to get the result you want. Mostly, just make it a lifelong habit. It doesn’t have to be a 6-week program, a 12-week program. Make this a permanent habit. Don’t fast on your vacations, but then fast when you come back. There are a lot of great books out there on fasting. I like them, I read them, I geek out on this stuff and the physiology, but for most people it’s pretty simple – you’re just not eating. You don’t have to go and have a 90-day program written for you. Just give yourself permission to have longer windows without eating.
Allan (23:32): The core of it, I’ll say, and you say this in the book very well as an addition – if you’re going to keep eating garbage, processed foods, fasting is not going to work for you. Your body’s never going to listen to the signals you give it, that you’re trying to train it to do, because it is not going to understand what you’re eating is food. It’s not going to be properly nutritioned. As a whole, if you’re not eating high quality food, then don’t try fasting. That’s not your solution yet. Start with the high quality food, and then the fasting is where you step it up and say, “Now I’m in control. I’m going to train my body to actually give me the signals it’s supposed to give me, enjoy the food that I want to enjoy, get the nutrition that I need and my body will tell me when it’s time to eat.” And now you’re not locked into this, “I have to eat now because it’s 5:00 or 6:00 in the evening. It’s dinnertime.” It’s like, if you’re just not hungry when you know you’ve gotten the nutrition you need, don’t eat or have a small meal if you feel like you just need to make it through the night. But in a general sense, your body will start to actually say, “You’re hungry; go get some nutrition. You’re full; stop eating.” You train your body to do those things. You’ll understand what actual hunger feels like, and when you start to understand it, it’s not that scary. We have this abundance of food. And there is an initial, “Oh my gosh, I’m hungry. I need to eat”, but then you realize there’s food everywhere. I’m not going to not have food, unless we’re going through some kind of zombie apocalypse, but we’re not anywhere near that right now. And fasting will actually make you better in a zombie apocalypse.
Dr. Gus Vickery (25:22): That’s right. It is an essential survival skill. Our bodies are well designed for it, but you’re exactly right about the “eat real food” first. I think I’m very emphatic in that point throughout the book. A couple of times I actually equate it to smoking cigarettes, and some people might think that’s extreme. I don’t think it is, when you look at what cigarettes do versus what junk foods do to the body.
Allan (25:45): More people are dying of type two diabetes and obesity than lung cancer. So I think the math is there.
Dr. Gus Vickery (25:54): The math is there. Basically low quality foods don’t provide you nutrients, they directly trigger inflammatory and stress responses in the body, they are disease-causing agents, and they have been engineered to trigger the reward system and be addictive. It’s not that different than a processed cigarette with nicotine. So, people have to get their mind around that, just like a smoker has to quit smoking. I don’t judge them. If they were introduced at a young age to tobacco, it’s very hard. But I can’t stop their lung disease if they don’t stop smoking. If someone is metabolically sick because of the foods they eat, until they can actually get away from those foods, they’re going to stay sick.
Allan (26:33): When I first got into this journey, my first step in was Paleo, which is going to the whole food thing, and I said I’m not going to bread. And I’m not going to lie, I actually had dreams about bread. I would wake up in the morning like I could smell fresh cooked bread coming off of that dream. I was actually dreaming about being in a bakery, eating all the bread. When I first woke up, I’d just want some bread. But I didn’t have any bread in the house because I knew who I was and I knew if I have bread in the house, I’m going to have a craving for it and I’m going to run in there and start eating bread. When someone feels themselves being drawn in to a craving, what are some strategies, what are some things that we can do to get past that, to not fold to that creating?
Dr. Gus Vickery (27:31): I have an entire chapter trying to explain that craving loop and at least giving a couple of solutions for it, because it’s so important. When you’re dealing with craving, you’re not dealing with true hunger for whatever it is you’re creating. What you’re dealing with is a very strong central nervous system-based feeling. It’s a feeling. Craving isn’t a thought, it’s a feeling. And feelings are more powerful than thoughts. We know that. We act and behave based on our feelings, not our thoughts. I thoughts do inform our feelings over time. With craving, we tend to look at it through the lens of willpower: “I have to overcome that.” One of your recent podcast guests talked about how you’re not going to win the fight with willpower. That’s exactly right. Willpower is an important skill and it should be cultivated, and there are ways to cultivate it. It’s an executive function skill and we should cultivate it, but you can’t rely on it to overcome powerful feelings based on deep desires. In order to understand that craving, you have to understand a little bit about the human reward system. I won’t go that deep into it, but it’s a more primitive system in our brain. It works off of a euphoria signal to reproduce behaviors that would be consistent with survival. Of course, in our modern times now, we’re able to concentrate certain elements that have a powerful effect on the human reward system in a very unnatural way. They hyperstimulate the reward system. So we get this kind of overwhelming euphoric response, but it’s very brief, it’s short lived, and then we have an immediate need to get back and get that euphoria again.
What we know is that the more sense of wellbeing you have… And our wellbeing is not euphoria. It’s associated with pleasure, but it’s different. Wellbeing are positive emotions like gratitude, contentment, peace, joy, etcetera. The more wellbeing we have, the less susceptible we are to the need for the euphoric response, the less susceptible we are to have to smoke a cigarette or drink too many drinks or take a drug or whatever it is that gets us. So, one strategy is cultivate wellbeing – cultivate gratitude, peace and joy, which is done through the activities that we know honor our ancestral design. Exercise, social engagement, faith-type spiritual exercises, meditation and breathing, listening to music, playing games – all the things that we love to do naturally. That gives us wellbeing, which reduces the need for a more primitive, “I’ve got to have a little fixed-type response.” But now let’s go ahead and say, “I know that when I encounter foods concentrated in salt, sugar and fat, I’m going to have a strong craving. And not only that, I don’t have to encounter them. I could be sleeping and already have that craving.” So, the craving exists apart from whether it’s even in our environment, but we know that it’s there, so we have that understanding. We’re not dealing with just a thought construct. You can’t just think your way out of this. You know you don’t want to give in, but you can’t seem to control that. You’re dealing with a strong feeling.
There is a mindfulness-based approach that was proven, it was used. It became what’s called the 4–step UCLA method for people with OCD who have strong urges they can’t control. And what it involved was, one, detection or awareness – you have to understand what it is you’re dealing with. And then you have to actually label it correctly. Instead of assigning negative value to yourself, because you struggle with this behavior: “I’m going to binge eat. I feel terrible about myself. I have no self-control. I’m a fat bastard”, as you said earlier, you actually have to begin to depersonalize it. You’ve got to get all of that emotion out of there. So you basically see it for what it is and you recognize that it’s just a rogue circuit in your brain that you probably didn’t even choose for yourself. At some point you got exposed to elements you were susceptible to that trigger this hyper response, and it’s been happening for years, if not decades, and of course it’s going to keep happening. It has nothing to do with you. It’s kind of in control. So, you depersonalize it and you relabel it. It is not you; it’s just this rogue brain circuit. But then you have to take the next step. What we just did is we used our cognitive powers over the situation, but now we have to use a new power. You have to refocus, and this is where in response to that craving, you substitute a new behavior. The main pushback I get from people is that this sounds too simple to them, like, “How could it be as simple as when I crave bread that I go work in my garden, or I start writing? It couldn’t be that simple. I would’ve figured that out on my own.” Actually it’s simple but it’s not easy, because what you’re doing is you’re creating a new brain circuit, an actual new automated habit response to the original craving or urge you’re experiencing. When you do that, you pick an activity that gives you wellbeing, that’s familiar to you, that you already know you enjoy and that’s easy for you to do. So a binge eater, for example, one, they don’t have the stuff in the home. They start to feel that strong 5:00 craving, and as soon as they feel it, they don’t react to it, they don’t get emotional. They simply go take a walk with their dog. They go for 15 minutes, give themselves 15 minutes of space to walk with their dog in the woods. And for the vast majority of people that craving will have already reduced by 90%.
Allan (32:48): That’s exactly what I did. I didn’t have it in the house, so I would just put my headphones on, listen to some music that’s uplifting, and start walking. I would just go for my walk. And my walks started out fairly short, but after a while sometimes they would be a two-hour walk, depending on what I was going to do that day. But I got so much joy out of the walk that when I got back, bread was the last thing on my mind. I wasn’t thinking about bread anymore. I got out of bed and I was like, “Okay, get your stuff on. Get your headphones on and head out the door.” It does works. But you’ve got to break that cycle by, like you said, seeing it for what it is and then setting a different intention that’s going to benefit yourself and your wellness. You use a very similar approach to stress management. Can you talk about your approach to stress management? I’ve spent a lot of time in the last two years really focused on that one core thing for myself, because that was I think the last piece that I needed to put in place for myself and then realized how important it was when I actually started doing some work on it. Can you go through that model with the stress management?
Dr. Gus Vickery (34:08): Yeah. As we discussed earlier, stress is very powerful and it’s all around us. I use the term “stress mastery” instead of “management” because I wanted something more than we’re just going to manage our stress. I wanted us to become masters of stress response.
Allan (34:20): Bingo! I like that.
Dr. Gus Vickery (34:22): Exactly. I want to make sure we’re clear, we’re focused on chronic bad stress. We’re not talking about the good stressors and the occasional challenges in life that we’re well suited to, but the stress that’s making us sick and effecting us emotionally. Once again, you have to use your cognitive powers. Your ability to think and reason and understand is a very important piece of this. When you apply cognitive power to change thoughts, feelings, emotions, behaviors, you’re talking about something called “cognitive restructuring”, which is foundational to cognitive behavioral therapy, which can help with anxiety, panic and depression. Cognitive restructuring works pretty well for any condition where you actually can begin to change outcomes just based on your understanding. Stress is actually one of those that it works well for. Cravings, because of the strong feelings associated with them, you have to apply other things besides just cognitive restructuring.
So the first thing you have to do is detect stress. You have to know how it shows up for you. Does it show up through a bodily symptom like muscle tightness, sweating, palpitation of the heart, headache, fuzzy vision? There are all kinds of different bodily symptoms, gastrointestinal symptoms. You might not have any emotional response to stress at all, but you may feel a whole lot of things in your body. You have to begin to recognize, “This is a stress response. This isn’t just a massive reflux or a sore neck. This is me responding to stress.” Or emotional responses – is it anger, irritability, impatience, melancholy, moodiness, whatever? Whatever your responses are – and it can be both body and mind – you have to detect it as quick as possible, because it’s kind of like getting lost in a forest. The further you go without realizing where you are, the harder it gets to find your way back out and the longer it takes to find your way back out. So those initial feelings are what are going to give you the clue, “I’m entering into a period where I’m starting to become overwhelmed by stress, even if I didn’t think I was.” That’s where you’re going stop and say, “I know how to detect it. I know what I’m dealing with.” And then you move into proper interpretation, because the vast majority of things – somebody arguing with you on Facebook about an issue that’s going to disappear – aren’t worth being stressed about. Whether it’s political, economic, whether it’s a situation of uncertainty you’re dealing with, you’re probably giving it more power over your life right now than it really has. So you have to begin to rightly interpret what is the stress issue. Most people immediately move down catastrophic thinking pathways. They become reactive, emotional, turn off their heart and mind. If there’s some insecurity in the company, they’re going to lose their job and their family is going to be destitute. Then they’re going to live on the street. Actually, there’s a good chance they won’t lose their job, but if they did, they’ll get another job, and even if they didn’t, the family probably won’t be on the street. Most of the negative outcomes we envision will never come to pass. Plus, it’s fruitless to spend our time living there, because we can’t do much about it.
So detect it, you interpret it properly, and then you reinterpret it properly, meaning you do have some power over whatever the circumstance is. But then you have to use something to turn off the stress response internally. You have to. And that’s where we get into the breathing and the meditation, which I speak about extensively in the book. The reason I do is because it’s a proven expedient pathway to turning off stress responses, to dampening down the sympathetic nervous system and activating the parasympathetic nervous system. So even if you’re going to continue to feel a little irritable or nervous about a situation, you can at least calm your heart rate down, stop sweating and feel more calm physically by simply paying attention to your breath. And even doing perhaps a positive visualization meditation, a form of mindfulness meditation, or something else where you begin to see everything good that you actually have – all the good things that are still surrounding you, regardless of this, which will actually give you a greater power because then you’ll have a positive feeling in your mind that really makes the stress response minimal. But you have to do this daily and you have to be on it, because right now the world as it is will be throwing stress bombs at you constantly.
Allan (38:26): Yes. What happens for me physically and mentally is my higher brain turns off. I can’t seem to think straight. I lose a little bit of me. And I’m not a flight person, I’m a fight, so I suddenly get this desire to just want to strike, to do something to fight my way out of it. It was something as simple as my boss calling me while we were going through three years of layoffs, and my phone rings and my boss wants me to come to his office. I’m immediately wanting to fight because I know this is not going to be a good day. It was not a good day and it’s about to get worse. I step on the elevator and I just start breathing. It was like, “All I can do right now is just breathe and get my mind straight, get myself ready. This is out of my control. Once I understand what he’s here to tell me that, then I’ll figure out what we can do, but it is what it is.” And understanding what I had control over, what I don’t have control over, and then understanding that in the end it was how I let this affect me that was going to have the biggest impact on my career. And then when I got the opportunity, when I was laid off, it was, “Do I really want to go back to that? Do I want to go back to being stressed all the time, to being all the things that go on in corporate life?” And I was like, “No, I’ll figure out something else. I’ll get clients, I’ll do what I want to do, the things that bring me pleasure.” I completely said, “Forget it. I don’t want that in my life.” And I’m blessed to have had that opportunity to say I’m going to walk away from that. But it took me a good long time to get to that point where I would sit down and detect that I was stressing too much and say, “Okay, turn it around. Breathe.” And meditation and breathing were huge, huge helps for me as I was going through that period of my life. And I still use them today – when I feel a little upset, I just go in the bathroom and breathe.
Dr. Gus Vickery (40:43): For some people I know meditation is a real challenge. It took me years of consistent practice to get where I can really love quiet meditation for 20, 40 minutes. But breathing is something everybody can do. Even if they don’t have yet the skill of thought observation, activating the witness and some of the spiritual elements of meditation, they can absolutely begin to control their breath and attend to their breath and calm stress responses.
Allan (41:08): I liked the approach you had in the book to go on to the box breathing and all of that. Those were some great techniques and well worth the purchase of the book just for the breathing techniques.
Dr. Gus Vickery (41:18): Thank you.
Allan (41:19): I define “wellness” as being the healthiest, fittest and happiest you can be. What are three strategies or tactics to get and stay well?
Dr. Gus Vickery (41:32): It’s a great question, and I like your definition. I’m always trying to get people’s definition of “health” because we’ve got to set a high bar for that definition if we want people to pursue it. I like your definition. Forgive me for this brief interlude, but I did think about this. I thought, “What a great question!” And I thought, “What are the usual answers?” And of course there are all kinds of answers. It’s nutritious food – we’ve already talked about that. Movement – we didn’t get into that as much. But you said being able to maintain; it’s like a perpetual getting this. I thought, “What would it be? What would I tell somebody that’s what I wanted them to have?” And I get back to what we’ve been talking about this whole time – mindfulness.
To me, the first and most important thing is actually you have to desire that. You actually have to start with a mindful deep desire for what you just described. “I want to be fit and feel good and be as happy as I can be every single day.” If you deeply desire that, you build that into your consciousness, then you’re going to naturally choose the foods that are giving that to you. You’re going to naturally get up and move because it feels good. So then you don’t have to have a lot of instructions. So number one would be, stop and meditate on that, and desire it. Stay on it until you have in your mind a vivid picture associated with feeling of, “That’s what I’m after. I want this every single day.” And then play the long game, not the short game. This isn’t, “In six weeks I’ll be the fittest and happiest, etcetera.” No, this is, “Every year I’m going to keep getting happier, healthier, fitter, until the day that my life is done.” So, the long game is that you are going to every single day apply this thinking to your habits, to your daily life. And you’ll do 1% better in each category per day, based on what you’re after. And I have to pick one final thing. So we’ve got mindful desire, the long game, not the short game – you’re on this for the long road. Honestly the final one is not quite so esoteric. If I had to pick one right now, it’s honor your circadian rhythm. Allow your body to actually restore circadian rhythm function, which is intrinsic to everything else that we’re experiencing, which means you have to sleep, and then when you’re awake throughout the day, get natural sunlight. Turn off the devices, turn off the screens, get out in nature and restore circadian rhythm, because often times that restores actual eating behavior and a lot of other factors.
Allan (44:04): Excellent. I actually have my family here for the holidays as we record this. So we are prerecording this, but I have my family here. So as soon as we get off of this call, I am shutting down these computers and I’m going to spend some time with my family and some friends. Dr. Vickery, it’s been so great to have you on the podcast. If someone wanted to learn more about you, learn more about the book Authentic Health, where would you like for me to send them?
Dr. Gus Vickery (44:30): They interface with our teaching, my blogs, etcetera, at www.HealthShepherds.com. That’s where I have my blogs, our videos, you can purchase the book. And of course the book is purchasable through any of the online book vendors as well.
Allan (44:48): You also have some 9-week programs and the whole bit out there. It’s a really good site; you should check it out. If you’re traveling, can’t write that down right now, this is episode 367. You can go to 40PlusFitnessPodcast.com/367, and I will make sure to have links there to your site. Dr. Vickery, thank you so much for being a part of 40+ Fitness.
Dr. Gus Vickery (45:12): Thank you so much, Allan. And I appreciate your audience taking the time to listen to this.
As this episode goes live, I have just celebrated my 53rd birthday, so thank you. If you would like to give me a birthday present, there is something special that you could do for me today. You can go to 40PlusFitnessPodcast.com/AAA, and that’s going to take you to a page for the Author Academy Awards. I’m up for an Academy Award in the “Health” category. So if you go to this page, it’s a little complicated, so just hear me out. You want to scroll down all the way to the bottom, because they allow the authors to submit on the same page that they allow to have the voting. So you want to scroll down to the bottom where you see “Voting”, and you’re going to be on page 1 of 15 for that first one. You’re going to want to click that arrow to go over to 6 of 15, and there you’re going to see the books in the “Health” category. You scroll down until you find my cover for The Wellness Roadmap. Go ahead and click on that cover, and that will secure your vote. So you can go to 40PlusFitnessPodcast.com/AAA. That’ll take you to the page, scroll to the bottom and vote for The Wellness Roadmap. Thank you.
Also, I would really appreciate it if you would consider becoming a patron for the 40+ Fitness podcast. Now that I’m moving down to Panama, I won’t have as much access to some of the resources that I have here in the United States, so things are going to be a little bit tight for me from a budget perspective. I really would appreciate if you could give just a few dollars a month to help out the 40+ Fitness podcast, help me cover the audio production and the show notes. There are full show notes, transcripts for each episode each week. It does cost to do a podcast, they’re not free, so I appreciate any help you can. You can go to 40PlusFitnessPodcast.com/Patreon. And anytime you go to the podcast websites, in the sidebar you’re going to see a button. So if you don’t remember this link, at least go to the website for 40PlusFitnessPodcast.com/Podcast, and on any of the podcast episodes you’ll see it at the bottom down. If it’s on your phone, it would be further down the screen, but you can find the button for Patreon. So, 40PlusFitnessPodcast.com/Patreon to help support the show. Thank you.
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