How to Overcome 5 Psychological Blocks to Weight Loss

overcome emotional stress for weight loss
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If you've tried every diet and exercise plan and can't slim down, there may be a psychological block in your way. Weight loss is an uphill battle for anyone, but those dealing with emotional struggles may have a harder time reaching their goal.

The first step to a healthy resolution is identifying the issue. You may find that there is more than one roadblock to address. The good news is, however, that these hurdles are surmountable. 

Emotions and Weight Loss

Most of us have good intentions when it comes to eating right and exercising more often. And most of us know the basics of what to eat and what to avoid. But even with the best of intentions, we often end up derailing our progress when we feel tired, or stressed, or bored, or frustrated. And let's face it...these emotions pop up often.

We are all creatures of habit. We find comfort in routine. So if your routine includes food and activity patterns that have lead to an unhealthy weight, it is normal that you seek out those comfortable habits when times get tough. These habits relieve discomfort—at least in the short term.

What's worse, is that you likely have strong rationalization skills to support the continuation of the unhealthy habits. After all, why would you discontinue a practice that provides relief and comfort? In the case of food habits, it is particularly difficult to change our habits. Our bodies are designed to eat. And we feel better when we do.

But all is not lost if you want to change your habits for weight loss. The psychology of weight loss works against you in some ways, but it can work for you in others. In order to get past your roadblock, you'll first need to figure out specifically, what that roadblock is.

Common Psychological Blocks

These are the most common emotional issues that come into play when people struggle to slim down. Scan the list to see if any of them look familiar.

All-or-Nothing Thinking

If you find yourself walking a thin line between sticking to your food plan perfectly or falling off the wagon completely you may be experiencing a cognitive distortion called all-or-nothing thinking. Psychologists use the term "cognitive distortion" to refer to persistent exaggerated thoughts that are not in line with what is actually going on in the real world.

People who experience all-or-nothing while trying to lose weight believe that they are either a complete success or a total failure based on their food choices. Studies have shown that an all-or-nothing thinking style is closely linked to a perceived lack of control over eating and an inability to maintain a healthy weight. Some researchers have even likened this lack of control to Jekyll and Hyde-type behavior.

If you practice all-or-nothing thinking, you probably struggle to return to a healthy eating pattern after enjoying a small indulgence. Instead, you are likely to throw in the towel and overeat based on the assumption that your diet is a complete failure.

Negative Body Image

If you are trying to change your body size and body shape, it is possible that you are less than satisfied with the way it looks in its current state. Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to improve your health or your appearance. But if your body image is too negative it can hinder the weight loss process.

Researchers have shown that body dissatisfaction is more common in those that are obese than it is in those that are normal weight. In addition, a negative body image is linked to unhealthy eating patterns and other problems. For example, those experiencing distressing preoccupations about weight and shape may also experience embarrassment in public, avoidance of activity due to self-consciousness, and excessive feelings of fatness after eating, say study authors.

It is not clear if a negative body image leads to unhealthy eating or if unhealthy eating precipitates a negative body image. What is clear is that feeling a strong dissatisfaction with your body can stand in the way of reaching a healthy weight.

Stress

There is a good reason that comfort food got its name. For most people, eating feels good. And in times of stress, some people use food as the best way to calm their emotions. While this occasional strategy is not uncommon in people of all body shapes and sizes, it can create problems if you are trying to lose weight.

Studies have found that overeating can become a chronic coping mechanism for managing life's stressors. The strategy may be more common among those who are already overweight.

And it's not just overeating that can be problematic. Your food choices are likely to change when you feel more anxious. A study published in Physiology and Behavior determined that not only do we eat more when stressed, but the foods consumed are foods that are normally avoided for weight-loss or health reasons.

Depression

Researchers are not clear if depression causes weight gain or if depression prevents weight loss. but many scientists believe that there is a link. And even among normal-weight people, depression can be problematic as it relates to weight. Research has suggested simply the perception of being overweight increases psychological distress and may lead to depression.

Depression-related symptoms like sleeplessness or inactivity can make weight loss more difficult. And some commonly prescribed antidepressants can cause you to gain weight as well.

Personal or Childhood Trauma

Some researchers have found that people who were exposed to physical abuse, sexual abuse, or peer bullying are at higher risk for obesity. Those who have experienced emotional trauma may adapt their eating habits to the point that it affects their weight. Some scientists believe that weight gain can be used as an emotionally protective "solution" for survivors of abuse. 

Of course, not every person who experiences personal or childhood trauma struggles to maintain a healthy weight. But if you experienced abuse, neglect, or bullying there may be a connection.

Tips to Overcome Barriers

You may have found that one or several of the common psychological barriers to weight loss look familiar to you. It is not unusual to experience multiple hurdles on your journey to a healthy weight. But these roadblocks don't need to prevent your success.

Each of the tips and suggestions below can address multiple barriers. These suggestions are also healthy strategies for lifelong wellness that carry no side effects and are almost all completely free. Consider giving one or more of these solutions a try.

Keep a Journal

Avoiding stress is not always possible. But you can identify stress triggers and do your best to avoid certain situations or people that undermine your success. Keeping a food journal may be helpful in the process. In fact, limited research has indicated that keeping a food journal can double your weight loss results.

Do you overeat or eat unhealthy foods when you are in certain environments or around certain people? Can you identify certain situations that make you feel out of control and in need of comfort? A journal can help you to identify those circumstances so that you can limit your exposure or avoid them completely.

Make Small Changes

If all-or-nothing thinking is preventing you from sticking your food plan, consider taking small steps and setting short-term goals.

First, identify one specific healthy change that is reasonable and attainable. Perhaps you can choose to walk for 15 minutes after dinner each day. Set a goal to focus on that target for a week. If you keep a food journal, jot down notes each day about different ways that you have been successful in keeping that goal front-of-mind.

Remind yourself that perfection is not the goal, but rather any attempt to nudge yourself in the right direction is progress that you should be proud of.

Listen to Self-Talk

Do you pay attention to the messages you send to yourself throughout the day? These pervasive thoughts may be building a roadblock to weight loss success.

Those who are prone to a negative body image may find themselves repeating negative messages about their body throughout the day. Phrases like "I'm so fat" or "I'm so out of shape" said out loud or in your head can undermine your ability to take a healthy step when the opportunity presents itself.

Take a week or two to listen to your inner dialogue. Identify one or two messages that may be encouraging a negative self-image. Replace these messages with a powerful mantra. Phrases such as "my body is strong," "I am enough" or "I have come a long way" are mantras that are commonly used to boost confidence.

Learn Relaxation Techniques

If you can't avoid the people or places that cause stress, relaxation techniques can be a healthy alternative for managing emotions during stressful times.

Scientists have found that a specific type of relaxation technique, called guided imagery, can help with weight loss. You can work with a therapist to learn guided imagery, but it's possible to learn guided imagery on your own. It takes some time to master, but guided imagery may be the most effective technique for weight loss if your emotions are causing you to eat during stressful times.

Prioritize Sleep

Researchers have repeatedly found that there is a link between sleep habits and stress, depression, and unhealthy eating behaviors. So, one of the easiest and most relaxing steps you can take to overcome psychological barriers is to improve your bedtime habits.

Make your bedroom a sanctuary for sleep. Remove electronics (television, computer, cell phone charger) and do as much as you can to reduce noise. Get light blocking drapes or buy an inexpensive sleep mask so that you experience total darkness at night. Some people also lower the thermostat to promote restful sleep. Try to go to bed at the same time each night and rise at the same time each morning.

Seek Help

There are many experts who are specially trained to deal with depression, past trauma and other issues that may be standing in the way of weight loss success. You can find a​ behavioral health specialist who is skilled at treating the underlying emotional causes of overeating and weight gain.

Your healthcare provider may be able to provide a referral. If not, there are other ways to find a therapist. The American Psychological Association provides resources to help consumers get the help they need, including a locator service to find practitioners in your area.

If your circumstances prevent you from seeing a behavioral health specialist, consider using one of the newly developed apps or tech tools that provide mental health counseling via text, Skype, or Facetime. These therapy services often offer relief for much less money than face-to-face counseling.

A Word From Verywell

If you are struggling unsuccessfully to lose weight, Any one of these mental barriers to weight loss may be to blame. So use the psychology of weight loss for you, rather than against you. Think about why your roadblock or "wall" is in place and then take steps to get the help you need to reach and maintain a healthy weight. 

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