The Emotional Side of Weight Loss

In my opinion and experience, one dramatic reason it is so difficult for people to lose weight and maintain it is that there is always an emotional component to weight loss and maintenance. Yet this aspect is rarely addressed and most people are not aware of their own emotional roadblocks.

The possible emotional issues and explanations for them are infinite. Each person has her own unique history with food, exercise and body image. The story behind each of these issues often lurks in your unconscious and was created long ago by your experiences growing up and colored by your parents and households relationship to each of these arenas. These stories stay tucked away and all you may experience is “I can’t lose weight” or “I always put it right back on.” The reason may be that something is driving your need to eat, your difficulty exercising or your comfort having a normal weight body.

Below are some examples, but remember that your own personal story will be more nuanced and individualized. Once you can address the emotional component of weight management, your ability to diet and maintain a healthy weight will be easier.

  • Anxiety. Many people have fears, worries and nervousness that drives their eating. When they are afraid of something, rather than working to figure out what that something is and how they are going to deal with their anxiety about it, many people try to comfort themselves with food. Food may have always been their families’s and their own way of finding comfort. And at that moment of anxiety, the food does distract you and make you feel comforted, so you set up a system of positive reinforcement for eating. You begin to associate eating as a way to calm anxiety. But in the long run, the food does not address what makes you nervous, so you just keep eating, and you start packing on the pounds while still experiencing the anxiety. Figuring out what’s bothering you and why and how you can realistically deal with it is important to break the cycle.
  • Depression. Again many people struggle with sadness and it is unpleasant. They try to “cheer up” by eating food that makes them feel soothed and nurtured. They feel that yummy food makes them feel taken care of, like mom’s pie or mac and cheese. Using food to comfort and distract yourself from feeling blue may be the most common reason people fall off their diets. Many people have memories of food being used at home to cheer them up — have an ice cream, don’t cry, here is a lollypop. Again, this becomes cyclical because, at the moment, it does cheer you up, but in the long term it is more depressing and hence you eat more. Figuring out what’s at the root of your sadness and finding other ways to cope with it can interrupt the cycle.
  • Exercise phobic. This is the person whose story tells them that exercise is very, very unpleasant. It may be they think they are totally un-athletic and therefore find it defeating and embarrassing to exercise. They think that they should be more competent at sports and other physical activities so they avoid doing exercise to not feel like a failure. Another common exercise avoidance issue is pushing endurance. Many people feel that being out of breath, sore or very tired is scary. Some even find that sweating is anxiety-producing and a major turnoff. Understanding why you avoid exercise can help you debunk the story that keeps you from doing it.
  • Body image fears. Some people, particularly women, are afraid to lose weight because they are afraid of being sexy and attractive. It sounds strange, I know, but I see many of these women in my private practice. They struggle with being afraid of sex, or men in general, and are really frightened of themselves should they lose weight and no longer have that insulation as protection against men’s attention and their own sexual urges. Some women fear they will lose control and be too sexually wanton. Others have a fear of the sexual act. And still others are afraid that men will hurt them. Women who have been sexual abused in their past may particularly struggle with this. Understanding this fear and working on that will free you to lose the weight and address the real — and perhaps even more important — issue.
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