My “Freshman Fifteen”

‘Tis the season for the start of the academic year so I thought it would be worthwhile doing a short blog on the weight gain that many college freshman experience…also known as “The Freshman Fifteen.”

Many moons ago, as a freshman at Middlebury College, I developed a very bad habit of consuming two glazed doughnuts every evening at around 10PM!  An enterprising fellow student made the doughnut rounds in the dormitory and I found them to be an irresistible and soothing tonic to the stress and anxiety brought upon by the first semester in college and a demanding premedical curriculum. My nocturnal habit of regularly downing these gooey, sticky, sugary treats contributed towards my gaining 20 lbs or so by winter break.

The following is a breakdown of the behavioral chain of events in psychological terms: The prompt to eat was stress, the impulse to eat led to the act of the doughnut consumption and the compensation was the stress relief derived. Fortunately, I was ultimately able to give up this seemingly innocent but pernicious behavioral pattern that was not doing me nor my waistline any good at all. I came up with the following thought process: doughnuts have more than 500 calories; they make me feel disgusting; my weight gain, which I find abhorrent, is in a large part on the basis of these late-at-night unnecessary calories; my tight pants repulse me; I went jogging in Florida with my brother over winter break and could not keep up with him because I was so out of shape. This is opposed to the following lines of thought that goaded me to consumption: doughnuts taste great and are something to look forward to after the tedium of studying for hours on end; they soothe, calm and sedate me; I owe myself this reward because of my hard work; I do not wish to deprive myself.

Mindfulness is a useful tool when applied to figuring out what drives internal prompts and how to deal with them in an appropriate and healthy manner.  So, the concept of mindfulness disrupted what had become an ingrained pattern of behavior. Essentially, in psycho-speak, mindfulness functioned to de-condition the link between the compensation and the prompt, to disrupt the cycle.  Both the internal prompt of stress/anxiety and the external prompt of seeing the tray of doughnuts being paraded around the dormitory helped drive my behavioral pattern.  The stress and anxiety from the change of life of moving away from home and starting college, as well as the intensity of studying, etc., drove the desire for “compensation.” As we all have to adapt in response to changes in our environment, so would I adjust to this new life, and I would need to learn to deal with my emotions in a healthier and more appropriate fashion. I substituted swimming for the doughnut habit, a much more suitable activity! Once again, it came down to the mindfulness of swapping an alternative behavior—exercise—equally effective as a doughnut or two in terms of dealing with stress and anxiety, believe it or not. An additional effective tool is that in knowing how we may succumb to our weaknesses, we can limit our exposure to such external prompts, which in my case was by purposely avoiding the doughnut vendor.

Whether the prompt is “managed” by comfort foods or exercise, the same “cocktail” of internal chemicals, including endorphins, is released into our bloodstreams, resulting in compensatory relief of the altered emotional state. We are all stressed to some extent, and one thing for sure is that stress is unlikely to disappear any time soon.  If it is not one source of stress, it will be another. So when the root cause is not necessarily remediable, the next best bet is to deal with it in a healthy way—healthy in terms of psychological, emotional and physical health. So why not seek relief with the more appropriate and healthy means? I could also have had the mindfulness to trade the doughnut consumption for a healthy replacement food item such as an apple.

I realized that by giving in to my impulses, I merely received the benefits of a short-term and temporary reward that did not truly address the problem at hand. In psychological terms, this enabled and facilitated a vicious cycle and a dysfunctional habit and thus the creation of a secondary problem . . . .now I faced stress over school as well as new stress over my unseemly weight gain. By actively not indulging my impulses, I managed to weaken the behavioral pattern that had been established, helping to break the cycle. I did lose those 20 lbs., but by no means was that an easy feat.

Andrew Siegel

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