As a health professional operating throughout the covid-19 pandemic, I had the chance to make some interesting and perplexing observations of both myself and my clients. I found the advent of social isolation and restrictions a fascinating study in human behaviour. For example: How many people have done the opposite to what they thought they would do, given more time away from work and other people’s influences, especially with health goals? How many have reverted to old habits or even established new ones that didn’t exist before e.g. having a sneaky drink every night to unwind or eating foods that they would normally avoid? From my observations, I would say the answer is ‘oodles of people’. One of the consequences we have seen is a surge of weight gain in the population, we even cheekily refer to it as the dreaded ‘covid-kilos.’ These reflections are not a judgement, but simply a prompt for further questions on why this is the case for so many people.
On pondering these questions, I have come up with two likely explanations:
- The lack of opportunity to forward plan and set goals undermines our capacity to stay focussed and on track. When our ‘goal posts’ are taken away, it begs the questions what do we aim for? What is the point if there is no measurable outcome or achievement to gauge the end point? Also, and possibly most importantly, why do it if I don’t need to, who will hold me accountable, who will even see me or notice? This leaves us with the proverbial ‘if a tree falls in the forest’ scenario, if there is no one there to perceive what has happened, it makes us question whether it really matters what choices we make for ourselves.
- Stress overrides all. The biological process of our stress response can have us going into survival mode for self-preservation and the protection of loved ones. The choices we make under these circumstances are often far different from ones that we would make in a privileged situation where we are purely aiming for optimal health. Furthermore, the psychological and mindset obstacles that exist within us will inevitably trip us up and hijack our efforts under stressful circumstances, if left unaddressed.
In an earlier blog, I outlined the many obstacles to weight loss. As we have noticed the ‘covid-kilos’ creep on, I thought it was a great time to expand the discussion on the psychological and mindset obstacles.
“Self-limiting thoughts, catastrophic thinking, emotional or situational triggers, lack of accurate education and lack of support to implement solutions are all very real obstacles to weight loss.”1,2
Self -limiting thoughts, could also be described as self-sabotage and putting mental restrictions around what you think you can achieve. Some examples of internal stories that people tell them themselves could be that: you are “destined to fail”, you “haven’t been able to maintain motivation before”, “nothing has worked in the past”, your health “is too complex”, you are “too far gone” or “in the too hard basket”, you are “not worthwhile focussing on”, you “do not have the time / resources / will to focus on your own health” and the story of “nurturer” who is so busy focussing on supporting everyone else rather than themselves.
Catastrophic thinking is the old chestnut that everyone has likely experienced, whereby if you make a poor choice for your own health, you’ll continue doing it (and worse) because you figure that you’ve ‘blown it’ anyway. This thought process might sound something like, “I have mucked up already, might as well make the most out of it and write off the rest of the day” (or week…or month). This catastrophic thinking could be in relation to food choices, but also other habits including alcohol consumption, smoking and other recreational drugs.
Emotional or situational triggers can often correlate with eating problems. Note that when I say ‘eating problems’ this includes eating disorders like bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa, but also includes disordered eating behaviours like deliberately skipping meals, lack of control over eating, binge eating, emotionally compensating with food and obsessive thoughts around food and exercise.3 Common triggers might be boredom, sadness, perceived stress, hormonal mood changes, certain times of the day, financial stress, family stress, trauma related stress, non-supportive people, but also social pressures like wanting to fit in with the group during celebrations, gatherings or eating times. People that have diagnosable mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and addiction disorders are likely to have additional challenges in implementing weight loss strategies.4,5 World renowned researcher, author and public speaker Doctor Pamela Peeke (MD) has stated that women that have had perceived trauma in their past have a 90% increased risk of an addictive eating pattern6,7 This is an extraordinary and compelling statement to contemplate. It is also backed by research studies that show people who present with disordered eating report a history of traumatic event/s in 80- 98% of cases8,9 , the likelihood of an eating disorder in adulthood also increases with the number of traumas a young person is exposed to.10 We seriously need to consider the impact of sexual abuse, physical abuse and/or the abuse of a close role model when assessing the difficulties and obstacles to achieving optimum health in both women and men. Also, to not discount the death of a significant person, dysfunctional family environments involving drug abuse, incarcerations, separation and divorce in people’s histories as a driving factor for dysfunctional eating behaviours. None of these traumatic events are easily overcome or dismissed. Self-destructive eating behaviours may only be the tip of the iceberg, symptomatic of a more significant underlying cause, requiring much greater support and acknowledgement than just the implementation lifestyle changes.11
If some of these psychological and mindset obstacles are starting to ring a bell for you, maybe it is worth considering that there is more to your issues than meets the eye. The psychological barriers are the ones that we often must overcome and keep working on over a lifetime to maintain any positive results that we have gained and not keep rebounding into old negative habits. Over my twenty plus years of being a Naturopath with a special and personal interest in weight maintenance, I have observed that the psychological aspects of people have been key contributors in compounding weight issues.
So how do we set health goals in the context of stress, lingering restrictions and future uncertainty? Sometimes it is just by putting one foot in front of the other and making some short-term goals as they appear, however small they are. Additionally, by inviting some routine back into life using gateway behaviours like exercising and establishing regular sleeping, eating and relaxation times, you would be opening up the pathway for better health outcomes. It is useful to support that process as needed with detailed professional advice and coaching, and of course mental and emotional assistance by health professionals that are qualified to do so. Getting the additional professional support that you require is a key to success because it:
- provides a way to gain clear information and guidelines, plus external acknowledgement, accountability and feedback for you to define your particular issues and aims
- helps to monitor your progress in achieving short-term and longer-term goals through standardised assessments
- helps refer you to other services that are more specialised for your needs
- helps you to reassess your goals along the way using realistic timeframes, so you can continue to do well.
While motivation and focus may have waned across the board recently, now is the time to reflect, take stock and edge towards a healthier version of yourself. Remembering to be kind to yourself and seek help through that process.
Written by Emily Grieger – Naturopath.
1.Fuemmeler BF, Dedert E, McClernon FJ, Beckham JC. Adverse childhood events are associated with obesity and disordered eating: results from a U.S. population-based survey of young adults. J Trauma Stress. 2009;22(4):329-333.
2.Kelley CP, Sbrocco G, Sbrocco T. Behavioural modification for the management of obesity. Primary Care. 2016;43(1):159-175.
3.Grieger E. Obstacles to Weight Loss. Des Lardner’s Organic Natural Health Clinic. 2020 Mar 4. https://deslardnerorganic.com.au/obstacles-to-weight-loss/
4.Rajan T, Menon V. Psychiatric disorders and obesity: A review of association studies. J Postgrad Med. 2017;63(3):182-190.
5.Grieger E. Obstacles to Weight Loss. Des Lardner’s Organic Natural Health Clinic. 2020 Mar 4. https://deslardnerorganic.com.au/obstacles-to-weight-loss/
6.Peeke P. Obesity: Science and Challenges. Presentation at the 2018 International Congress of Natural Medicine, Pullman and Mercure Melbourne, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia. 2018 Jun 9.
7.Mason SM, Flint AJ, Field AE, Austin SB, Rich-Edwards JW. Abuse victimization in childhood or adolescence and risk of food addiction in adult women. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2013;21(12):E775-E781.
8.Mitchell KS, Mazzeo SE, Schlesinger MR, Brewerton TD, Smith BN. Comorbidity of partial and subthreshold ptsd among men and women with eating disorders in the national comorbidity survey-replication study. Int J Eat Disord. 2012;45(3):307-315.
9.Tagay S, Schlottbohm E, Reyes-Rodriguez ML, Repic N, Senf W. Eating disorders, trauma, PTSD, and psychosocial resources. Eat Disord. 2014;22(1):33-49.
10.Hemingsson E, Johansson K, Reynisdottir S. Effects of childhood abuse on adult obesity: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Obes Rev. 2014 Nov;15(11):882-93.