Trick or Treat?

Trick or Treat?

With Halloween just around the corner, no doubt many of you will soon be visited by children playing Trick or Treat.  Those of you with young children might even be supervising Trick or Treat outings of your own!  I thought I would get into the Halloween spirit myself by using Trick or Treat as the theme for this month’s blog post.

According to Google’s English Dictionary, provided by Oxford Languages, a trick can be defined as an illusion, or a cunning act or scheme intended to deceive or outwit someone.  A treat can be defined as an event or item that is out of the ordinary and gives great pleasure.  We could think of a trick as something with a misleading first impression that generates an unexpected outcome.  Although this might be positive, as in magic tricks or artistic illusions, in everyday life the word more usually implies a somewhat negative conclusion.  A treat on the other hand should generate an overwhelmingly positive result. 

Those of us with chronic health issues like interstitial cystitis, overactive bladder, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, eczema, migraines, and numerous other conditions often manage our symptoms in part through dietary changes and lifestyle modifications.  These can bring about huge improvements, sometimes to such an extent that we experience significant periods of time largely untroubled by our symptoms.  Logic would dictate that when our quality of life has been diminished by uncomfortable, embarrassing, painful, or distressing ailments, it should be easy to stick to whatever regime reliably offers us relief.  Unfortunately real life is not always logical!   

I want you to think for a moment about some of the things you consider treats.  Regardless of any dietary requirements you might have and the lifestyle you predominantly lead for health reasons, I imagine that if you’re an adult living in the West, some of the following will be on your list:

  • A glass/bottle of wine after a hard week
  • A few drinks on a night out with friends
  • Coffee and cake during a day out
  • Meeting friends for lunch/dinner
  • A decadent dessert after a good meal
  • Chocolate
  • Crisps
  • A pizza with a film
  • Ice cream with a film
  • A takeaway after a hard day
  • A cheeseboard
  • A hot chocolate with cream
  • Shopping

I also want you to consider some of the things that you use to treat your children, if you have them.  Perhaps some of these are on the list:

  • Ice cream
  • Fizzy drinks
  • Sweets
  • A visit to a fast food chain restaurant

The obvious things that link several of the items on these lists are:

  • They are pretty much synonymous in most people’s minds with reward and pleasure
  • They can cause flares of interstitial cystitis and irritable bowel syndrome
  • They contain ingredients to which many people are intolerant
  • They are almost all damaging to health (unless used in extreme moderation by those who do not have health conditions made worse by consuming them) 

It is fascinating that we are able to consider as treats things that we know will damage our health or trigger unpleasant symptoms.  And yet don’t we all do it?! 

One of the things that helped me to adhere to my own dietary restrictions on a more reliable basis was to rethink my idea of what constituted a treat.  If I drink a hot chocolate with cream, experience ten minutes of pleasure, and then three days of stomach upset, nausea and anxiety, is it actually a treat?  Or is it in fact a trick – an illusion with a very negative outcome?  If someone with interstitial cystitis enjoys a couple of glasses of wine and then experiences two days of bladder pain, frequency and burning, is it such a great treat?  Perhaps it’s actually more of a trick. 

When I started to think about the true definition of a treat and began to apply this to my diet and lifestyle choices, it became much easier to make decisions that served my health.  My thought process might go something like this:  I have been so good recently and I deserve to treat myself.  I really fancy some chocolate cake.  If I eat the cake, it will taste great… but then I will get bloated and I’ll feel very sick.  Later on I will have an upset tummy which, along with the nausea, will last all day tomorrow as well.  I might even have a panic attack.  That actually seems like a ridiculous idea for a treat.  Why would I want to reward myself by making myself ill?  I think I’ll dip some raspberries in a little melted dark chocolate instead.

I’ll tell you the circumstances that galvanised me into thinking this way more consistently.  It was Christmas and I had eaten, amongst other things, turkey sandwiches and a slice of cream cake.  I experienced all of the negative digestive and mental health effects that I had hoped not to and wound up in my mum’s bed crying.  I ate more conservatively for a day and then repeated the exact same thing the day after that.  Once again, I ended up in mum’s bed crying, afraid to move too suddenly in case I threw up, and feeling terrible (and very stupid!).  It was an appalling way to spend Christmas and in no way resembled a treat.  As discussed in a previous blog post, I realised I was like an addict, doing things I knew were bad for me in the hope that this time I’d get all of the reward with none of the negative effects.  The whole episode was so grim and so obviously self-inflicted that it finally galvanised me into thinking about the concept of treating myself differently. 

If you have interstitial cystitis or some sort of inflammatory bowel condition that is made worse by certain foods, I’m sure you will be able to identify with my sorry tale.  No doubt it is one you’ve experienced yourself at some stage!  If you’re a long term sufferer, you probably eventually came to the same conclusion that I did and now fall off the wagon less often than you used to.  If you’ve only recently started to make dietary changes though, you might be finding them difficult and be looking forward to ‘treating’ yourself again soon. 

I’d like you to take some time to think about something that represents a treat to you personally.  Not an idealised treat or something you think should be a treat – the thing that first springs to mind if you consider a pleasant experience or a reward.  Now I’d like you to ask yourself:

  • How much time do you spend ‘earning’ this thing?  Do you strictly adhere to your dietary restrictions or lifestyle modifications for two weeks beforehand in order to justify it?  One week?  Three days? 
  • How long does the treat itself last?  An hour?  Half an hour?  Ten minutes? 
  • How much do you enjoy the treat while it is happening?  Is it everything you hope it will be or do you feel a bit guilty or stupid even as it is happening?  Is it an anti-climax?  Do you experience any kind of negative effects during the experience itself?
  • Do you suffer any side effects or negative consequences in the two hours after the treat?  What about four hours?  Six hours? 
  • How severe do any negative consequences tend to be?  How long do they last?  Do they affect only you, or do they impact on other people?
  • Other than the immediate enjoyment, does the treat yield any other positive effects?  Does it, for example, help you to achieve something, get something, or leave some sort of positive lasting legacy? 
  • Ignoring for a moment any health conditions or dietary requirements you might have, is the treat conducive with long term wellbeing?  If someone regularly partook of this treat, would it contribute to a strong immune system, good cardiovascular health, positive moods, glowing skin, or other markers of optimum health? 
  • On the whole, is the positive experience you gain from the treat greater than any negative consequences that come with it? 

On closer examination, it could be that the thing you use to treat yourself is actually a big fat trick.  If you have anything in your life that offers a brief period of reward, but then has a longer lasting negative impact on your wellbeing, it is not a treat, but a trick. 

Wine or coffee that make your interstitial cystitis flare up for days?  Trick!

Ice cream when you’re intolerant to dairy and will have diarrhoea for days?  Trick! 

Normal bread dipped in gravy when you know gluten makes your ulcerative colitis flare up?  Trick!

A whole bag of sweets when you know sugar gives you a bad throat?  Trick! 

It’s funny, but when you get into the habit of asking yourself, “Is this really a treat?” only to discover that it’s actually a trick, the subject in question becomes much less appealing.  I might have a fleeting fancy for hot chocolate fudge cake with whipped cream, but once I remember that I’ll feel nauseous, will have a raw tummy, will have an upset tummy, will feel anxious, and will very probably have a sore throat, the fancy fades fast!  It is not a treat, it’s a trick!  Of course it is easier said than done and to begin with you won’t really believe it.  Eventually though, negative experiences and practice pay dividends and you start to make healthier choices without them feeling so much like sacrifices. 

With that being said, treats are important, so if your old treats turn out to be tricks, what do you do?  Option 1 is to live a joyless life with no treats, no rewards and nothing to look forward to ever.  Option 2 is to carry on with the old treats and feel rubbish.  Option 3 is to find new treats that really do have an overall positive effect.  My own preference is Option 3 (though I confess I got to it via Options 1 and 2)! 

Here are some ideas for treats that really do have a net positive effect:

  • Get some really special tea and a nice little teapot.  I think those teapots that sit on top of the teacup are quite fun!  I once received a selection box of fruit and herbal teas, which was exciting even though I’m not massively keen on tea – lots of teas have health benefits too.  Instead of an unhealthy drink, make yourself a fancy tea in your special teapot and take some time to savour it. 
  • Get yourself a fancy candle in a pot and only light it when you’ve been good and are going to enjoy some ‘me time’.  Incorporate a meditation session for extra positive vibes! 
  • Get yourself a puzzle book (Sudoku, crosswords, spot-the-difference, etc.) and give yourself half an hour to enjoy solving some of them! 
  • Get yourself a jigsaw and take some time out to do that when you need a reward.
  • Do a nice foot soak with scented salts or bubble bath – this is good for people with interstitial cystitis who aren’t able to use fragranced products in the bath. 
  • Read, draw, paint, colour, sew, knit, crochet, do woodwork, play with building bricks – do whatever you enjoy for a little while. 
  • Meet a friend and don’t eat junk food with them!

Go ahead and make your own list of positive things you could do to treat yourself.  You’ll notice that on the list above I didn’t include any expensive treats, but if you have a bit more disposable income to spare, you could also consider things like: 

  • Getting a facial or manicure
  • Buying yourself some flowers
  • Buying yourself some nice perfume or aftershave
  • Going to a restaurant that serves very healthy food
  • Starting lessons in something like singing, dancing, golf or horse riding

One thing I would caution against is routinely using shopping as a reward.  If you frequently buy yourself clothes, household items, handbags, cars, or material things to get a rush of reward, this can easily turn into a trick situation.  Things like puzzle books and candles do last quite a while, so they bring a lot of treat for a small investment, but be careful not to regularly buy items where the investment is large and the reward doesn’t last long. 

Now that we’ve thought differently about treats, we might as well do the same for tricks.  I realise that sometimes it can feel like a punishment going without things like alcohol, cakes, coffee, or takeaway food.  The kinds of events where those things are on offer can also feel less like a social outing and more like a test of willpower than they used to.  Sometimes we miss our old life and how much easier things seemed when we could eat anything anywhere!  Let’s take a moment to examine this more closely though. 

If you adhere to a strict diet and lifestyle to manage chronic health symptoms, chances are this will have a knock-on effect on your health in general.  As you reduce your consumption of sugary foods, alcohol and processed food, so you reduce your risk factors for things like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.  As you incorporate more fruit, vegetables, quality meat, and home cooked meals into your life, you might find that your skin looks better, your moods become more stable, or you succumb to colds and infections less frequently.  As spending time in pubs, cafes and restaurants loses some of its appeal, you might naturally spend more time walking, meditating, exercising, gardening, or pursuing hobbies.  This could bring a greater sense of mental wellbeing, or facilitate unexpected achievements.  If a chronic health condition forces you to consistently eat healthily and perhaps carry out particular exercises, you will find it easier to maintain a healthy body weight. 

It took a long time for me to feel this way, but I actually consider myself very lucky that my body takes such a zero-tolerance approach to me eating badly, because I don’t have to rely on willpower alone to keep me in shape and reasonably healthy!  I’m less robust than I’d like to be, but much more robust than I used to be and I’m sure as I get older the gap in general health between myself and others of my age bracket will start to widen.  Yes, I have health issues that require ongoing management, but this management doesn’t just keep one set of symptoms at bay – it supports vitality in general.  I’m not saying I never get ill, but I certainly don’t get four or five colds a year, or endless ear infections, like I used to in the worst of my younger years.  In this way, the sometimes tedious routines that I follow and the sacrifices I make to maintain my health are not tricks after all – they are treats! 

Why don’t you make a list of some of the things you do or don’t do that sometimes feel tedious and consider some of the less obvious ways they contribute positively to your life?  Maybe they mean you never lose Sunday to a hangover, help you to save money, taught you to be a great cook, or mean you learned to do the splits at 60!  Get creative and think of both short term and long term effects. 

Right, well I think I have squeezed all that I can out of the Trick or Treat theme for now!  I hope you will have found it thought provoking and I wish you a very happy Halloween! 

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