By Chris Sandel
During the Vietnam War, the number of soldiers using opiate products on a regular basis was worryingly high. In the earlier stages of the war marijuana use was fairly common but from about 1969 onwards heroin and opium became more of an issue. It was estimated in 1971 that half of US soldiers had tried opiates and a report from the same year claimed that 15% of the troops were addicted. The U.S. government was concerned when the war ended that there would be a steep rise in the number of addicts in America as these soldiers returned home.
There are conspiracy theories that comment these numbers were hugely over estimated. In 1971 Nixon declared his War on Drugs and obviously it would be an easier sell if the numbers looked higher. But whatever the truth, there is no denying that the use of opiates by US soldiers was high during the war.
What was interesting was that the vast majority returned home and immediately ceased opium use and mostly without any noticeable withdrawal symptoms. Obviously availability played a role in this. But by returning from a high stress environment (a war zone a in a foreign country) to the low stress environment (jubilation of being home) it eliminated the need for the regular high and would have created its own high.
In 1971, the same year Nixon created the war on drugs and when opiate use was increasing in Vietnam, Stanford University ran an experiment that was to become famous. Known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, 24 participations were arbitrarily split into two groups, with 12 role-playing prisoners and 12 role-playing guards. The experiment was to last 2 weeks and was going to investigate the mental and emotional changes that a person goes through when they are a prisoner.
The experiment is explained in great detail in the book The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo. It is a rather harrowing read; in very little time what started out as role-playing became real life. The guards took to their new positions with brutality and mental and physical abuse was rife. The prisoners became insular and it was like an accelerated course in learned helplessness. They either became robots blindly following the guard’s requests or began to rebel – trying to escape or going on a hunger strike.
The experiment was meant to last for two weeks but was stopped after six days when three prisoners had been released early due to mental breakdowns.
All participants, whether they ended up being prisoners or guards, considered themselves pacifists and non-violent types, your quintessential hippies. But the setting and the situation changed all of this in a very short space of time. The book goes on to review the situation at Abu Ghraib prison, where prisoners were tortured and photos were taken showing the depraved behaviour. It was like history repeating itself but without someone pulling the plug after six days.
Courtney E Martin wrote one of my favourite books on food issues, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters. Martin developed an eating disorder (an addiction in a sense) while at college and decided to she wanted to prevent others from going down the same path. A modern day feminist, she wanted to help women feel empowered rather than a slave to the desire to be thin at all costs. The book looks at food issues for an array of angles and a lot of it is based on the thousands of interviews that she did with guys and girls ranging from 8-9 years of age and upwards.
One of the themes of the book is how many women develop eating disorders when they go off to college. While a lot of the women already had some tendencies toward food issues, it was going off to college that caused it to become a major, full-blown issue.
She identified the change in environment as a huge factor. Girls who were previously living at home and being looked after by their parents were now off in a new city having to fend for themselves. And not only a new city, but with no familiar friends or support network. Being alone and uncertain, the desire to fit in and be one of the ‘cool kids’ was big. (Even if you don’t want to be a cool kid, at the very least you want to be accepted). At 18, no one is cooler than a thin girl. Under her mentorship you to can learn how to be thin too, all it takes is a regimen of endurance exercise and low-calorie eating. Courtney had this mentorship and it seems so did lots of the women she interviewed.
The drug use during the Vietnam War, the Stanford Prison Experiment, and eating disorders among college girls all share one commonality. In all cases, situational or environmental factors directly impacted behaviour.
While I believe each individual has control of the feelings they choose to feel, what they choose to focus on and the stories they tell themselves, there is no denying that situational factors have an impact. The environment that you grow up in and surround yourself with matters hugely when it comes to the results you get.
Your values or beliefs are directly impacted on by your family and circle of friends. You are, on average, as successful as the people you hang around with. And this is using success in a broad sense of the word. Whether you are talking about money, relationships, world-experience, body shape, whatever. Your results are generally reflective of your environment and situation.
So how can you create a situation that is going to support your health goals and dreams?
I think one of the best ways is to model someone who has achieved what you want to achieve, to model excellence. Now you want to be wary here when picking the right person or people, modeling the thin girl at college who has an eating disorder is merely going to create more of the same. Find someone who has achieved what you want, making sure to take into account all angles. I know personally how much Matt Stone has had a positive impact on my health, beliefs about diet, and a whole host of other areas. You could do a lot worse than following his advice.
Look for triggers that lead to your unwanted behaviour. Places, situations, thoughts or people can create strong emotions that can lead you down the path of despair and poor food choices. While ultimately you are in control of your decisions, these situations make you feel powerless or worse still, they are so imbedded in your subconscious mind that you don’t even realise you made a decision.
My advice is to sit down with a piece of paper and make a list of your current issues – whether it is binge eating, dieting, excessive drinking etc. Now write down the situational factors that lead to or are associated with these problems; places, situations, thoughts or people.
For example you might want to stop dieting. When you reflect on this you always feel a strong desire to diet after you have…
- Stepped on the scales
- Read a certain magazine
- Met up with a certain friend who is always dieting
- Eaten a salad
- Watched the biggest loser or extreme makeover on TV
- Started saying certain phrases to yourself in a certain tone i.e. why am I so fat, why can’t I lose this belly, etc.
With this information you can start to avoid this behaviour or catch yourself when it starts happening and change it. By identifying a handful of the most important situational factors that lead to your issues, you can give yourself the best chance of making changes and having them stick.
My final tip is to create a compelling future but accept where you are now. Too often people know what they don’t want (i.e. I don’t want to be fat, I don’t want to feel like this) but don’t have a strong clear vision of what they do want. It is important to have goals and a sense of where you want to end up.
Sometimes people will create a strong goal of where they want to be and try to spur themselves on with negative feelings about their current situation. It is one thing to have a desire to make changes and another to despise your current body and health. If you hate yourself when you are fat, you are going to hate yourself when you are thin. You need to accept yourself for who you are or no change in aesthetics is ever going to make you happy in the way you think it will. Matt’s previous article on 1811 Eastlake Ave gives a good insight into this.
I really believe it is important to become aware of your environmental and situational factors and how they affect your behaviour so you can make the most of them. Rather than being a slave to the surroundings, understand their importance and make the shift so they support rather than hinder your progress.
Chris Sandel is a London-based nutritional therapist, consultant to individuals and corporations, and blogger at www.seven-health.com