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Overcome Emotional Stress to Lose Weight

Get past emotional eating and anxiety to lose weight successfully

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Updated August 06, 2014

stressed woman

Manage stress to lose weight

J.A. Bracchi/Stone/Getty Images

Having trouble losing weight? The solution might not be in the kitchen or the gym, but in your head and in your heart. Emotions and weight loss go hand in hand.  If you can manage emotions, losing weight may become easier.

If you simply can't shed the pounds, and you know that there are no medical causes or environmental barriers that are standing in the way, take some time to think about how your feelings might affect your eating habits. Getting past emotional barriers might be the key to your weight loss success.

3 Emotional Barriers to Weight Loss

  1. 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 emotional eating doesn't result in weight gain for everyone, it can be a cause of obesity in some.

    In a study about the eating and exercise habits of obese mothers, researchers found that stressful experiences triggered overeating and prevented the women from practicing healthier habits. Of course, isolated cases of overeating won't cause long-term weight gain, but researchers in other studies have found that for some people, overeating can become a chronic coping mechanism for managing life's stressors.

    Avoiding stress is not always possible. But relaxation techniques can be a healthy alternative for managing emotions during stressful times. In a published study about using relaxation training with obese women, study participants received relaxation techniques under the guidance of a licensed mental health professional. A specific type of relaxation technique, guided imagery, helped them reach weight loss success.

    Even if you are not working with a therapist, 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.

  2. Depression. The link between depression and weight loss is a hazy one, and researchers are not sure of their exact relationship. For example, some studies have found that depression can be a cause of obesity, while others have not.

    In a review of obesity literature, one group of researchers identified several ways in which depression may cause obesity. Some commonly prescribed antidepressants can cause weight gain. The researchers also noted that lack of sleep, a common symptom of depression, is also a risk factor for obesity. Inactivity, another common symptom, can spark increased weight.

    If you find yourself battling obesity or if you simply can't lose weight, getting screened for depression may be a reasonable step to take. Consider speaking to your primary care physician about getting a referral to a mental health professional. He or she will be able to investigate further and determine whether you have depression and give you reasonable strategies for moving forward.

  3. 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.

    According to one published report, researchers speculated that weight gain can be used as an emotionally protective "solution" for survivors of abuse. The study was conducted by a group of California physicians affiliated with the Positive Choice Weight Loss Program in San Diego. The researchers noted that the sexual, physical and social protective benefits of being obese were hard for many non-obese individuals to accept or understand.

    If you have experienced emotional trauma, it could be affecting your eating habits and your weight. It might be worth your time to find a behavioral health specialist who is skilled at treating the underlying emotional causes of overeating and weight gain. Your primary-care 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 you are struggling unsuccessfully to lose weight, there may be more than one factor that is contributing to your battle. Try to consider all of the underlying causes to find out which barriers stand in the way of reaching a healthy weight.

Sources:

António L Palmeira, David A Markland, Marlene N Silva, Teresa L Branco, Sandra C Martins, Cláudia S Minderico, Paulo N Vieira, José T Barata, Sidónio O Serpa, Luis B Sardinha and Pedro J Teixeira. "Reciprocal effects among changes in weight, body image, and other psychological factors during behavioral obesity treatment: a mediation analysis." International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2009, 6:9 .

Chang MW, Nitzke S, Guilford E, Adair CH, Hazard DL. " Motivators and Barriers to Healthful Eating and Physical Activity among Low-Income Overweight and Obese Mothers." Journal of the American Dietetic Association 2008 Jun;108(6):1023-8..

Floriana S. Luppino, MD; Leonore M. de Wit, MS; Paul F. Bouvy, MD, PhD; Theo Stijnen, PhD; Pim Cuijpers, PhD; Brenda W. J. H. Penninx, PhD; Frans G. Zitman, MD, PhD. "Overweight, Obesity, and Depression, A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Longitudinal Studies" Archives of General Psychiatry 2010;67(3):220-229.

Gian Mauro Manzoni, Francesco Pagnini, Alessandra Gorini, Alessandra Preziosa, Gianluca Castelnuovo, Enrico Molinari, Giuseppe Riva. " Can Relaxation Training Reduce Emotional Eating in Women with Obesity? An Exploratory Study with 3 Months of Follow-Up." Journal of the American Dietetic Association August 2009.

Gregory E. Simon, Evette J. Ludman, Jennifer A. Linde, Belinda H. Operskalski, Laura Ichikawa, Paul Rohde, Emily A. Finch, Robert W. Jeffery. " Association between obesity and depression in middle-aged women." General Hospital PsychiatryJanuary 2008.

Kinzl JF. " Change in body image and psychological well-being during behavioral obesity treatment: Associations with weight loss and maintenance." Eating and Weight Disorders 2010 Dec;15(4):e275-80.

M. S. Faith, M. Butryn, T. A. Wadden, A. Fabricatore, A. M. Nguyen, S. B. Heymsfield. " Evidence for prospective associations among depression and obesity in population-based studies." Obesity ReviewsMay 2011.

Sanjay R. Patel and Frank B. Hu. "Short Sleep Duration and Weight Gain: A Systematic Review." Obesity January 2008.

Vincent J Felitti, MD, FACP, Kathy Jakstis, Victoria Pepper, MS, and Albert Ray, MD. " Obesity: Problem, Solution, or Both?" The Permanente Journal 2010 Spring; 14(1): 24-3.

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