5 ways therapy can help you lose weight

Are you braving it out on yet another weight loss diet, giving into food cravings and feeling like a failure? Maybe it’s not you that’s failing the diet, but the diet that’s failing you. Perhaps it’s time you tried something new - but why turn to a psychologist for help with losing weight?

For many people, overeating can function a bit like a Swiss army knife - it’s the magic device that gets you through all sorts of tricky situations. It cheers you up, soothes your worries, smothers difficult feelings, covers up shyness, shows your appreciation, staves off boredom, and fills the emptiness. So when you go on a diet and restrict your food intake, it’s no wonder you feel like your survival mechanism’s been taken away. You’re left fighting food cravings and being overwhelmed by the difficult feelings and situations that made you turn to food in the first place. No diet can help you manage that.

A psychological approach

The good news is that there is a way of making peace with food, losing weight and keeping it off that doesn’t involve restrictive dieting rules or lists of forbidden foods. It’s an approach that can make you feel better about yourself instead of worse, and tackles lasting weight loss using psychological principles. Helping you with your feelings, thoughts and behaviour around food, it can empower you so much more than any diet can.

Getting the help of a psychologist can seem like a big step if you haven’t experienced such help before. Sometimes people feel anxious or ashamed about asking for help with their problems, especially when it comes to overeating or disordered eating habits, whether its emotional eating, bingeing or simply feeling out of control around food. Sometimes the shame and stigma that drives people to overeat in secret can also hold them back from reaching out for help.

Yet worrying about weight is incredibly common. National statistics show that three out of five people are overweight or obese, and that more than half of women are trying to lose weight at any one time. Many try dieting, but the success rate for dieting is appallingly low. As many as four out of five dieters regain the weight they lose within a year. It’s no wonder that so many people are struggling with weight and eating issues, and are looking for real alternatives to dieting.

The destructive dieting cycle

Studies tell us a lot about why diets fail, including the ways that they can negatively affect your thinking and behaviour around food. Being on a diet can plunge you into obsessive thinking about food and eating, and make you even more likely to turn to food when emotionally stressed. This can lead you to overeat, gain weight, and start on a destructive dieting cycle.

Research suggests that this destructive dieting cycle goes like this:

  • You’re on a diet, and that means you’re thinking about food more than usual. You experience some stress, like a bad day at work, and then give into a ‘forbidden’ food. What happens next?
  • You break your diet and eat the ‘forbidden food’, and feel so bad that you end up overeating or even bingeing. Psychologists call this the ‘disinhibition effect’. The dieter’s thinking is: ‘I’ve eaten a couple of biscuits I wasn’t allowed, so I may as well finish the packet’.
  • If it happens often enough, this disinhibition leads to weight gain, so you put yourself on another diet. And then you’re back at square one, but with even more feelings of guilt, shame and failure.
  • Repeated episodes of dieting and regaining weight, or yo-yo dieting, can lead to successively faster regaining of weight when the diet is over, and presents even more risks to health.

It isn’t just your thinking and behaviour that is negatively changed by dieting. There are physical effects too. Dieting can cause lasting adverse changes in the hormones that help to control your appetite. That means that biologically, dieting can leave you feeling hungrier and more driven to overeat, even long after the diet is over, increasing the chances that you’ll regain the weight.

How a psychologist can help

The way to break this destructive cycle is to find other ways of changing your relationship with food, which is where the support from a psychologist comes in. Here are five ways that having psychological help can make a difference...

  • Identifying your overeating triggers. We overeat for different reasons. Therapy gets you thinking about what drives your overeating. Are you eating because of ‘psychological’ hunger – stress, boredom, anxiety, sadness and anger, or because of social pressure or rules, like always having to finish what’s on your plate? Spotting patterns in your eating habits is the first step towards being able to do something about them.
  • Managing your overeating triggers. Once you become aware of your eating triggers, the next step involves learning what to do about them. Unlike diet regimes, therapy can help you deal with the triggers that drive you to overeat, whether that means leaning to be more assertive, changing your thinking patterns, or dealing with difficult emotions or people. These are situations that a qualified psychologist can help you deal with.
  • Learning to trust your body’s own signals for food. Therapy can guide you through the process of getting back in touch with your body, regaining trust in your body’s own signals for food instead of relying on dieting rules that dictate what to eat. You can discover what, how, and when you like to eat, using techniques that you can try out every day until they become new healthy habits. This is an approach that is individually tailored to you and your lifestyle, rather than the ‘one size fits all’ that so many diets promote.
  • Improving your relationship with yourself and your body. Working with a psychologist can help free you up from the self-critical patterns of thinking that drive you to overeat. Repeated attempts are dieting can leave you lacking in self-esteem and confidence. Letting go of self-judgement and guilt means that you’re less likely to indulge in emotional eating, and can lose weight effectively.
  • Rebalancing your life. Imagine a life without obsessing about food and weight. Instead of believing that you have to lose weight before you can really start living, a psychologist can support you to find fulfilment now. Therapy helps free you up from the destructive cycles of thinking and behaving around food, enabling you to focus on thinking about what you want out of life instead of focusing on your weight.

Next steps

Changing your relationship with food and your body can be difficult if you’re going it alone - that’s why getting professional psychological help is so important. This approach won’t give you results overnight like the claims made by fad diets. It’s about undoing old habits, making lasting changes and investing in yourself. Whatever your weight or issues around food, getting professional help can unhook you from destructive cycles and help you to find solutions for the long-term.

Take the first step and get some psychological help so you can start living a healthier and happier life.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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