The Emotional Side of Weight Loss

How to Make Mindfulness the Key to Your Success
The psychological + emotional side of weight loss is complicated, but learning how to cope in a healthy way doesn't have to be.
emotional eating

How many times have you hit the gym and made a commitment to healthy eating, only to wind up right where you were before after a few months?

Dozens, right?

If losing weight were as simple as going to the gym, I’d StairMaster myself into the perfect size six.

Over my years of starts and re-starts on my weight loss journey, I’ve learned there’s much more to the weight loss game than exercise. I could make a list that runs to the yoga studio and back again on the myriad components to getting fit and staying there.

However, one of those factors may have nothing to do with our bodies at all, but rather what goes on in our minds: psychology has a big impact on weight loss, and it starts with how we cope with life. In other words, our coping skills (or lack thereof) can play a huge role in our success.

When asked, most people say they’re good at coping with the stress activators in their life. They think they handle things well.

But, what does handling things well mean when it comes to weight loss? Sure, I don’t beat someone up when they hurt my feelings, but I might reach for a cold bowl of dairy goodness. That’s not so good either. While eating comfort food may have started as an occasional way to soothe myself, it has definitely become a habit. In other words, my coping skills kinda suck. So after years of sugary sweets and an increasing bootie, I wanted to understand why we make the choices we make, what role our emotions play in those choices, and how the heck to break that habit loop! If trainers can give us a routine to follow at the gym, we might just need a routine for our heads, too.

Alicia McArthur, MA, Licensed Professional Counselor explained a process for coping with feelings in a healthy way that doesn’t involve turning to food.

1. IDENTIFY

The first step is to identify the underlying issues. Maybe this means keeping a journal for a while. Write down when you get upset, what happened, and what you do next. You can also look at the bigger picture. “We look for patterns,” explained McArthur “like family history or multiple failed relationships. Is there an anniversary of something that’s come up? Something you haven’t resolved?”

It’s not just identifying the problems, it’s understanding we are all different and accepting that. “Some of us are wired differently,” McArthur says. “Some people just innately handle life and stress better than others. Sure, how you grew up plays a big role, but part of coping effectively is accepting your past. You are who you are and these are the cards you were dealt and that’s ok.”

Okay, so I am who I am. I’ve got my Popeye mojo going, but how do I make the change from these bad decisions to the better ones? It can’t just be about will power, because we’ve all tried that. Which leads us to Step 2…

2. BE MINDFUL

Let’s get practical here. Maybe some of us didn’t learn the best way to deal with stress. But that doesn’t mean we’re doomed to an eternity of ice cream and mozzarella sticks when life gets sticky.

mindful journaling

“Mindfulness is the practice of learning how to be in the present moment,” says McArthur. “But it’s also the way of learning how to notice what’s going on with you. People come to me and they’re often just reacting to their life. They don’t understand what’s triggering their actions.”

“You have to be able to sit and observe what’s happening on the inside. Notice what your feelings are telling you about your needs or what’s important to you.” Then, concludes McArthur, fill in the dotted lines between the two observations. Recognize the trigger. “When this (event) shows up for me I tend to react this way. Once you understand your triggers, you can begin to heal and be aware. Next time, you can make a different choice.”

3. TAKE INVENTORY

Going hand-in-hand with mindfulness is self-inventory. We sort of keep a list in our heads of the important stuff, however being very deliberate about it and making it concrete can be very helpful. Take time out and give this some thought. Sometimes, the action of writing things down makes them more real and can give you a new perspective. What values are the most important to you? What keeps you grounded? This is the stuff of substance you return to over and over again. This is how you make decisions and this is where your motivation comes from. In times when life throws a curveball your way, you can return to these core values before you make a decision on how to act.

4. PRACTICE YOUR NEW COPING SKILLS

This is where the real change starts. You understand what motivates you. You understand that while your past may not be perfect, it’s alright. It’s your past. And you understand why you have handled things the way you have before. But how to proceed? You make the decision. You stop and think and then you choose to go for a bike ride, or go relax outside under a shade tree with a good book, or nurture yourself by getting a pedicure every week. If that makes you feel amazing, then do it. Make the choice to truly nurture yourself instead of pushing stress down with food or whatever crutch you have used before.

And when it’s still difficult?

“Having support around you and having healthy people in your life is essential,” McArthur told me. “If it’s important to you, evaluate the eating or the nutrition portion of your journey and put some accountability in place as well. If there are other people out there who have expertise in these areas and they are willing and able to support you, then enlist their help too!”

While McArthur asserts these steps can help on the road to change, she maintains one point to be the most important: “Acknowledge you aren’t always going to be flawless! It’s about learning to accept yourself and giving yourself enough grace to have moments of imperfection during a process where you are growing as an individual. Growth is never a linear route. It’s like a compass. You aren’t always going to be headed straight north, but as long as you’re headed in that general direction well, that’s the whole point, right?”

Make it WayBetter

After you take inventory, put your list of priorities somewhere that you'll see frequently, and continue to check back with it and update as needed. Keeping your core values front-of-mind will make it easier to stay on track!