Psychological Stress and the Weight Loss Puzzle

What role does stress play when it comes to losing or gaining weight?  The basic premise of weight loss is relatively simple.  If we want to lose weight than we need to burn more calories than we take in to our bodies.  If it is this simple why is it so difficult to lose weight or maintain our optimal weight? 

Beyond this simple equation what are the factors which determine weather we lose or gain weight, and what role does stress play regarding our weight control goals and objectives:  Are there other issues which have an impact on our decisions regarding diet, nutrition, and are eating related behaviors?
Here are some questions that might be helpful for us to ask ourselves.

  • Is our own self-esteem an important component of our weight loss challenge?
  • Do we have the skill and ability to meet important emotional needs?
  • Do we feel some level of control in our personal and family relationships? 
  • Does food provide us with some degree of comfort when we feel powerless or when we can not exercise some control over various aspects of our lives?  
  • Are we dealing with conflicting emotions that underlie our challenges related to food and exercise?
  • Are family or personal relationships playing a role in our over-eating?
  • Is food a substitute for some other unmet need?

It might seem that most of the above questions are be related to some type of stress. What is this thing we call stress anyway and what can we do about it?  One simple explanation for stress might be the desire to get away from a difficult situation or a desire to confront a situation which presents a challenge for us.  We are wired to attack or run away when we are fearful or angry.  It is no surprise that many people eat excessively when they are facing emotional challenges and are anxious or angry.  Would better coping mechanisms to deal with stress improve our ability to make better choices regarding food?  We often may not succeed at achieving weight related goals because we do not effectively deal with the stress that underlies our poor eating choices.
One thought is that many people fail to improve their nutrition because they have not been successful at developing effective communication patterns that help them get their personal needs met.  They often feel they can not assert an effective level of control over their home environment or in their personal relationships. William Schutz: the author of “Joy” proposes that we all need to feel included, need intimacy, and need to feel some degree of control in our personal relationships. 
A second factor relates to the addictive impact of the foods that we frequently eat.  For this piece we might want to ask a different question.  How do people effectively deal with addiction related impulses and behaviors?
There is a third aspect of effective weight loss relates to our knowledge and decision making regarding exercise.  Often people are not well informed and do not understand what they need to do to take better care of their bodies physically.  The pieces related to exercise include aerobic activity, stretching, and weight training.  Often we become overwhelmed when they think about this and do not understand that we can keep things simple and create realistic goals.  We don’t always need to overwhelm ourselves.
A fourth piece is related to our relationship with ourselves and the expectations that we have of ourselves.  Not only do we have expectations of ourselves but we often internalize the expectations of others.  Being realistic regarding expectations for ourselves and reducing self-criticism are likely to be extremely helpful. Can we develop more tolerance for ourselves, self-understanding, and compassion? 
Fortunately or unfortunately there are several parts of this puzzle which seem to operate together and impact our personal choices related to weight loss.  One piece seems to impact the other as if they are interacting together. The unfortunate part is there are several pieces to the puzzle. The fortunate part is that if we understand these pieces we are in a better position to assert some control in our lives and make better choices regarding our health. Sometimes we can just use will power and stop doing what we don’t want to do.  At other times we need to understand what is going on inside of us that keep us doing the things we want or don’t want to do.

By Donald Recupido

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