If you’ve tried every diet and exercise plan and can’t lose weight, you may have a psychological blockage getting in your way. Weight loss is an uphill struggle for everyone, but those struggling with emotional struggles may have greater difficulty achieving their goal.
The first step to a healthy solution is to identify the problem. You may find that there is more than one roadblock to fix. The good news, however, is that these hurdles can be overcome.
Frequent psychological blocks
The psychology of weight loss works against you in some ways, but it can work for you in other ways. In order to get past your roadblock, you must first figure out exactly what that roadblock is.
All or nothing thinking
When you find yourself walking a fine line between following your eating plan perfectly or abandoning it altogether, 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 inconsistent with what is actually going on in the real world. People who think all or nothing when it comes to losing weight believe that their diet choices will make them either a complete success or a complete failure.
Studies have shown that an all-or-nothing style of thinking is closely linked to a perceived lack of control over eating and an inability to maintain a healthy weight.1 Some researchers have even linked this lack of control to the type of behavior Jekyll and Hyde compared.
If you practice all-or-nothing thinking, you may find it difficult to return to healthy eating habits after a small indulgence. Instead, you’ll likely throw in the towel and overeat based on the assumption that your diet is a complete failure.
Negative body image
If you try to change your height and shape, you may not be happy with how it looks in its current state. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to improve your health or your looks. But when your body image is negative, it can hinder your progress and damage your self-esteem.
For some people, a negative body image is linked to self-worth. They may think their worth is determined by their body, shape, size, or the food they eat.
This can stand in the way of success when trying to develop healthy eating habits or achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Additionally, negative body image is linked to unhealthy eating habits and other problems.
Those who agonize over weight and shape may also be embarrassed in public, avoid activities due to embarrassment, and be overweight after meals. They can focus on low-calorie rather than nutrient-dense foods and label foods as “good” or “bad.”23
When to seek help
It’s important that you consult a qualified mental health specialist if you have persistent negative thoughts about your body. Trying to control your body with diet and exercise can have a profound negative impact on your relationship with food and physical activity, both of which should contribute to overall well-being beyond a number on the scale.
It is not clear whether negative body image leads to unhealthy eating or whether unhealthy eating leads to negative body image. What is clear is that feeling intensely dissatisfied with your body can get in the way of achieving a healthy weight and, more importantly, it can damage your mental health and self-esteem.
Food feels good to most people. And in times of stress, some people turn to food as the best way to calm their emotions. While this casual strategy isn’t uncommon in people of all body shapes and sizes, it can cause problems when you’re trying to lose weight or when food is your only way of dealing with stress.
And it’s not just overeating that can be problematic. Your eating habits are likely to change as you feel more anxious. Not only do you tend to eat more when you’re stressed, but the foods you consume are foods that are typically avoided for weight loss or health reasons (foods that typically contain more calories and more sugar).5
Finally, when you are stressed, your body produces more cortisol, which can lead to weight gain.6 Many people who are trying to lose weight but are stressed may not notice a change in weight that is entirely independent of their efforts, but rather our response body to stress. Stress can be a major obstacle for people trying to lose weight or become healthier.
Researchers aren’t sure if depression causes weight gain or if depression prevents weight loss, but many scientists believe there is a link. And even in people of normal weight, depression can be problematic in relation to weight.
In some people, depression can lead to loss of appetite and weight loss. Research has shown that just the perception of being overweight increases psychological distress and can lead to depression.
Depression-related symptoms, such as insomnia or fatigue, can make weight loss difficult. And some commonly prescribed antidepressants can also lead to weight gain. If you’re suffering from depression, it’s important to talk to your doctor or mental health professional. There is much more urgency to addressing your mental health than losing weight.
Tips for overcoming barriers
You may have found that one or more of the common psychological barriers to weight loss seem familiar to you. It’s not uncommon to face multiple hurdles on the way to a healthy weight. But these obstacles don’t have to prevent your success.
Each of the following tips and suggestions can remove several obstacles. These suggestions are also healthy lifelong wellness strategies that have no side effects and almost all are completely free. Consider trying one or more of these solutions.
Keep a diary
Avoiding stress is not always possible. But you can identify stress triggers and try to avoid certain situations or people that are undermining your success. Keeping a diary can be helpful. In fact, research has shown that keeping a journal can double your weight loss results.
There are several ways to use a journal. For example, you can log your food intake with a diary. You can also use it to write down your thoughts and identify stress triggers. Use the journal to keep track of any situation or food that feels triggering to you.
Make small changes
If all-or-nothing thinking is preventing you from sticking to your eating plan, consider taking small steps and setting short-term goals. First, identify a specific healthy change that makes sense and is achievable. Remember that perfection is not the goal, rather an attempt to nudge yourself in the right direction is progress to be proud of.
Maybe you can go for a 15-minute walk every day after dinner. Set a goal to focus on that goal for a week. If you keep a journal, make notes each day about how you managed to keep that goal in mind. And honor yourself. Remember that taking a small step is better than doing nothing.
Taking small steps can also help you avoid making too many changes at once. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed when you’re doing too much at once and then lose motivation. On the other hand, if you can successfully make a small change, you will feel a sense of accomplishment that will motivate you to keep going.
Listen to self-talk
Do you pay attention to the messages you send yourself throughout the day? These ever-present thoughts can get in the way of your well-being.
Those prone to negative body image may repeat negative messages about their bodies 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.
Self-talk is another way that all-or-nothing thinking can come into play. For example, you might find yourself beating yourself up for meeting unreasonably high standards or goals you set for yourself.
Take a week or two to listen to your inner dialogue. Identify a message or two that might foster a negative self-image and write them down. Phrases like “My body is strong”, “I am enough” or “I’ve come a long way” are mantras that are often used to boost self-confidence.
Learn relaxation techniques
If you can’t avoid the people or places that cause stress, relaxation techniques can be a healthy alternative for dealing with emotions during stressful times.
Scientists have found that a specific relaxation technique, guided imagery, can help you lose weight.7 You can work with a therapist to learn guided imagery, but it’s also possible to practice it on your own. It takes some time to master, but guided imagery can be the most effective weight loss technique when your emotions are driving you to eat during stressful times.
Researchers have repeatedly found a link between sleep habits, weight gain, and unhealthy eating habits.8 So one of the easiest and most relaxing steps to breaking down psychological barriers is to improve your sleep habits.
Try to go to bed at the same time every night, get up at the same time every morning, and make your bedroom a haven for sleeping. Remove electronic devices (TVs, computers, cell phone chargers) and do whatever you can to reduce noise.
Get light-blocking curtains or buy an inexpensive sleep mask so you experience total darkness at night. Some people also lower the thermostat to promote restful sleep.
Searching for help
Many professionals are specially trained to deal with depression, past trauma, and other issues that can stand in the way of weight loss success. You can find a behavioral medicine specialist who is knowledgeable in treating the underlying emotional causes of overeating and weight gain.
If not, there are other ways to find a therapist. The American Psychological Association offers resources to help consumers get the help they need, including a locator service to find practitioners in your area.