Heavy mind equals heavy body

WEIGHTY ISSUE: Harsh criticism doesn't help the pursuit of a healthy weight and body image.
WEIGHTY ISSUE: Harsh criticism doesn't help the pursuit of a healthy weight and body image.

Is the way you think keeping you fat?

Experts are now suggesting that your psychology could be the missing link to your weight problem.

The feeling is all too familiar: you go on a diet and are initially successful at dropping a few kilos. Eventually the restrictive nature of your eating plan becomes too much and you yo-yo back up to your original weight, or even higher.

Then the feelings of shame begin.

"Shame is regarded as the 'hidden emotion'," says Dr Deborah Thomas, a clinical psychologist who ran 'shame awareness' workshops at the University of Sydney. "It's a very normal emotion to experience but also very debilitating, and we'll do almost anything to avoid or get rid of it."

Other experts agree. "People don't talk about shame because they are ashamed of shame," says Joseph Burgo, a clinical psychologist based in the US who believes harsh criticism doesn't help the pursuit of a healthy weight and body image.

He says, "When a person resolves to tackle long-standing weight issues, the inability to follow through can feel like 'proof' that one really is a 'loser'."

Burgo believes the medical profession ignores emotional and psychological issues when confronting a person's weight, "largely because they're unprepared to help the person cope with them."

Many people are now turning to methods of weight loss that address the emotional issues behind why they are overweight, rather than simply changing their diet and exercise habits. These new 'cognitive' methods prescribe a 'whole-self' approach.

Ann Bailey is an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) practitioner and senior clinical psychologist who believes that people can spiral into a 'shame avoidance cycle' when trying and failing to lose weight.

"This therapy gets people in touch with their emotional struggle with food issues, through mindfulness. They then release their struggle through acceptance." During ACT, she says, people are not asked to challenge their unhelpful thinking, but "accept it, distance themselves from it, and move past it."

Is there a 'disconnect' between our minds and bodies causing feelings of shame?

Bailey points out that weight loss guidance "is abundantly available, yet approximately 60% of our population is overweight."

One not-for-profit method offering an unconventional approach is Avnish Bhardwaz's Therapeutic Hunger workshops, which he runs online. Bhardwaz does not prescribe any diet at all to his students and encourages them to listen to their bodies' cues via breathing and meditation exercises.

He says shame and harsh self-criticism won't make you thin, "it's counterproductive and gradually builds bad habits." He says people dull their pain with food. "They use all sorts of masking agents and should do the exact opposite, if they want to address their true issues."

The notion that you'll never be able to 'fix your weight' until you 'fix your thoughts' is gaining momentum. An addict might give up a substance for a short while, but they'll probably go back to using if the reasons they became addicted aren't addressed. Psychologists claim the same goes for food issues.

Bailey says, "It's commonly believed that being harsh and self critical leads to greater success and achievement, this isn't the case. When we are kinder to ourselves, we're more likely to maintain exercise, and other positive health behaviours."

Is the key to losing weight permanently accepting ourselves as we are? Will we remain fat until we release feelings of shame? Thomas' shame workshops have suggested this is the only way. "There is no perfect weight, perfect size, or perfect shape. These judgements are derived from feelings of shame or imperfection. Striving for perfection only leads to increased feelings of shame."

Unfortunately, according to Bailey, tacking our issues may require months or years of work. "By developing greater psychological strength we begin to see a life of possibility opening up and we become free." 

She believes, only when people stop beating themselves up, will they see long-lasting results.