HA Recovery diaries #1 My story and perceived stress

Is it normal to lose your period? Is it ok?

For a long time I thought the answer to both of those questions was yes. Now it is a resounding NO!!

In my second blog post “How I got Veganized”, I shared some photos of my weight journey throughout the years. What I didn’t share was the intense struggle with food and exercise that was behind those changes. At the time I was quite embarrassed about it I suppose but now I know just how many people are going through similar issues that I think it’s something I need to speak about. It is definitely the reason behind my absent periods and the hell I have been through over the last 12 months (please see my previous blog for background if you haven’t already).

Since high school I have been what I would call “body conscious”. I was about 14 when I first started to really look at my body and I didn’t like what I saw. I thought I should be thinner, more toned yet more “womanly” (small goals hey). Being the determined, driven person that I am I took it upon myself to change that so I joined a gym and started eating less. At first it was healthy and I felt good but it quickly spiralled and within 12 months I was spending several hours a day at the gym and meticulously counting calories. I had no idea about nutrition or how the body works and I thought well calories in=calories out so I tried to balance what I ate with what I burnt off through exercise. I didn’t know at the time that our bodies need calories just to run normal functions!

Anyway, to cut a long story short I eventually lost my period. I had been on the birth control pill and when I stopped taking it after a year my cycles never returned. I was told by doctors that this was fine and normal and that it would take a while for my body to settle out. 12 months later.. still no period. I was told by doctors that it was fine and normal for active women and not to worry if I wasn’t trying to get pregnant. So I accepted that and carried on with my life.

I tried to keep up my diet and exercise regime but after a while my body started to fight back with EXTREME HUNGER. I still had my goal in mind though so I carried on working out and restricting my calories. But I would keep having these full on crazy binge eating episodes. I didn’t know what was going on. Seriously. I felt like something was invading my mind and forcing me to eat everything in sight! Then afterwards I would feel guilty and vow to eat less and exercise more the next day. Always frustrated, angry at my body for not conforming to the size and shape I had decided it should be. Every time I binged there was “something wrong with me” and I worked hard to make my body pay for its mistake.  And so the cycle continued..

This graphic from Deanna Schober sums it up pretty well.

br-cycle

I carried on in this confusing, agonising cycle for years and years. I went to university and definitely calmed down a bit, I was eating more and exercising less but the desire to change my body never left. I never fully let go and carried on trying to control my body through diet and exercise. The periods of binge eating kept cropping up meaning that my weight remained stable. Everyone around me thought I looked great and some even envied my discipline around food and working out. So many times I just wanted to scream about just how much pain I was going through to keep the body I had. And the funny thing was I still hated my body. I couldn’t see that I was slim already. I always thought I needed to do MORE to make myself LESS.

When I left university my life totally changed. I had started to notice my health declining and decided I needed to fix things. Around this time I discovered the plant based lifestyle which literally saved me! I won’t go into too much detail here but becoming vegan made me realise that there was so much more to my food choices than how many calories it contained. My focus switched to eating food that was good for the planet and for myself and my eyes were opened to the suffering caused by animal agriculture. People often ask my do I feel restricted on a vegan diet but honestly, after coming from a background of self- imposed restrictions around all sorts of foods I found it so liberating to just EAT.

Things changed dramatically in a few short months. I started to feed my body properly and my mind was in a much better place. I had gained about 15lbs by this point though which I really wasn’t happy with. I had lost the desire to be skinny but now I wanted to be toned. I was still working out most days, often going swimming before work and the gym after work. I was eating more YES but not enough to gain weight. I was just teetering on the edge and stayed that way for about 12 months.

At the time I thought that I had “recovered”. I was in a place where many women live their entire lives. Maintaining my weight but always anxious around food, always controlling. Scared to eat one biscuit in case I ate the whole pack (which happened many times..). Always ordering what the “skinny bitch” voice in my head told me to in a restaurant rather than what I actually wanted. Pushing myself further and further in my workouts, chasing that body ideal and the perceived high that comes with it. I have to say that compared to where I had come from this place felt GREAT.

Once I made it my goal to get my period back though, things changed again. This time the shift was in my mind. I started researching like crazy and found out the effects of all this restriction on the hypothalamus – the control centre in our brain for many of our hormones. It’s weird, even though I kind of knew before that under eating and too much exercise can cause our periods to stop, I just couldn’t relate to it. Because I was a healthy weight, eating plenty and exercising what is considered by most people to be a healthy amount I just thought that couldn’t possibly be what was happening. But what I hadn’t realised was the effect of perceived stress on the body.

I started to learn that the energy behind my choices made all the difference. An action performed in the same way but with a different mindset can have hugely different effects on the body. For example, take these two situations:

  1. “I am going swimming tomorrow before work. I will go before my breakfast so I can burn some fat as I really could do with losing some! I only have 30 minutes though so I had better push myself hard and get my heart rate up”
  2. “I am going swimming before work. I don’t have much time but I can just do 30 minutes. Swimming wakes me up and refreshes me and makes me feel great!”

Both cases involve swimming for 30 minutes but the perceived stress on the body would be much less in situation b. The same goes for food choices. I learned about something called cognitive dietary restraint which is basically perceived restriction around food. Again, for example, imagine being at a party and being offered a slice of cake.

  1. “Ooh cake! Thanks!” Person A eats the cake and enjoys it and carries on with the party not thinking about it again.
  2. “Ooh I’m not sure, I am trying to eat healthy. Oh ok go on..” Person B has a mental dilemma about whether to eat the cake or not. Wanting to eat it but agonising over the calories or the fat content. They eat the cake but spend the rest of the party worrying about it and planning how they will make up for it later.

Both people ate the cake. But the perceived stress in Person B would be so much higher. This basically summed up my relationship with food and exercise. Even though I was making healthy choices my mindset was not healthy and this made all the difference. Even though I was eating more I was still making my body feel restricted by setting a limit. I had moved the calorie bar higher but what I needed to do was remove the bar all together!

This was a hugely scary realisation at first. I was terrified that if I just let go I would lose all control and eat everything in sight. And I have to admit, sometimes that does happen. It is a work in progress to get back to eating what my body wants and needs rather than what my mind thinks it should have. And I have to accept that after feeling restricted for so long it is only natural for my body to ask for more. But now the work is to accept that, focus on nourishing my body at every opportunity and cultivating a feeling of abundance and liberation that I haven’t had for a very long time.

I can’t say for sure whether this change will help me to get my period back but after connecting with recovered women online it seems to be the right path. I don’t know how long it will take but I trust the process and will keep going.

Can you relate to this? Do you feel restricted or liberated? Please leave any comments I would love to hear your thoughts 🙂

Amy x

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