Why Losing Weight Won't Solve Your Problems

You may not know much, but there is one thing you know for certain, without a doubt, that would make your life a million times better. You know for sure that if you would buckle down already and lose that extra 10, 20, 30 pounds or more, your life would be so much better. You'd finally fit into those old clothes you've been hiding in the back of your closet, you wouldn't feel so winded chasing your kids around and your social life will blossom. 

Only, if this were the case, wouldn't a lot more people be out there losing weight instead of dreaming about it? If weight loss were some kind of magic door that opened into a world devoid of sadness, there would be a whole lot less procrastination going on.

Losing weight is just as much about calories in and calories out as it is about what is going on inside your head. How are you feeling emotionally? If you're depressed about your weight, will that depression lessen once you've hit your goals or will it still be there? What about your social anxiety? Will you be able to go to that summer barbecue if you simply look better in your jeans?

"[Weight loss] is often perceived as being 'the one thing' holding a person back from success or happiness in life, according to health psychologist Dr. Gretchen Kubacky. "Losing weight reveals that [that] fixation—the weight—wasn't the problem. Which can be surprising, shocking or even depressing."

That's not to say that happiness doesn't go hand-in-hand with being healthy, but rather that your future happiness can depend on heading down the weight-loss route equipped with the right intentions.

The Right Weight-Loss Mindset

When starting out down the path to weight loss, first decide why you want to lose weight. "A realistic approach is best. Examine your motives before you start the weight loss journey," Dr. Kubacky says. "Something specific is likely to be achievable. I want to look better in my jeans, get off blood pressure medication or drop from a plus size to a regular size. Something vague and ephemeral like 'It will make me happy' or 'I'll feel better' or 'The right kind of guys will want me,' are much likelier to lead to disappointment. Be clear and specific, and limited in your expectations."

Think about that old adage of the journey, not the destination. Weight loss will be full of ups and downs and it's important to remain flexible. "I think that the best mindset to be in when making any change is to first be open and flexible. Rarely do things go exactly as planned and if you are too rigid you will not be able to cope effectively with things as they come up. Often times rigidity leads to an 'all-or-nothing mindset,' which can lead people to quit before they realize their goals," says clinical psychologist Patrick Meyer, Ph.D. says.

When you do choose to lose weight, keep in mind that some of the feelings and worries you have now can still accompany you on your journey. If you lose weight equipped with the right attitude and awareness of yourself and any limitations, you're much more likely to simultaneously improve both your physical and mental health. Several common mental health issues can thwart your weight loss goals or mindset. Make yourself aware of some of these issues, and learn how to deal with them effectively to limit your frustrations down the road. 

If You Feel Anxious

SparkPeople member AMBER512 lost over 90 pounds in 18 months after joining the website, and continued to lose by incorporating other small changes. Even though she had always suffered from depression, she noticed she became more anxious than she used to be after her weight loss. "I thought I would feel better about myself if only I were thinner; if anything, I'm more insecure," she says.

To help with the anxiety, Amber has added exercise variety to her routine. "Since becoming physically active, I have tried to incorporate meditation and yoga to calm the seemingly endless rushing thoughts in my head. It definitely helps, but it's a process. Some days are fine and then others I realize I still hate my body even though it's smaller. I think I originally thought that by losing the extra weight my body would look more like it's 'supposed' to. At 5' 5'' and 135 pounds I definitely didn't think I'd still be wearing a size 10, but that's just the way I'm built. I'm working on focusing on what my body can do, not just on what it looks like."

"It’s important go slow and steady and join a support team or group so you that you are not alone on your journey. Someone who suffers from anxiety already has a mindset of being a perfectionist and is constantly worrying. For this type of person, it is easy to fall down or feel like a failure because unrealistic expectations have been set. To avoid falling into the cycle of non-self-love, a support system is vital," Dr. Coral Arvon, Director of Behavioral Health and Wellness at Pritikin Longevity Center + Spa, says.

If You Feel Depressed

Although the primary symptom of depression is sadness, it's sometimes difficult to recognize the difference between these two feelings. Sadness is triggered by an event, such as losing a loved one; feeling sad occasionally is a normal human emotion. Depression, on the other hand, is a mental illness that affects our emotions, thinking and perceptions in chronic ways. It is a mental state in which you feel sad about everything.

"If someone is sad about their weight and gets sad when they try to find clothes that fit [when getting dressed], then that person's sadness may improve once they lose weight. But if someone has been depressed for their entire life and this depression is not solely related to their weight, then losing weight is not going to 'cure' their depression," Rachel Goldman, Ph.D., Department of Psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, says.

To treat the underlying causes of depression before or while losing weight, seek the help of a professional and remember to take care of your entire self, not just your physical appearance. "It never hurts to seek professional help if you run into feelings of self-loathing or depression during a transition such as weight loss. The mindset that helps [during weight loss] is that weight loss is but one of a number of self-care measures you are employing to improve the quality of your life," Robin Hornstein, Ph.D., the clinical director at Hornstein, Platt and Associates, says.

If You Take Dieting to Extremes

Affecting at least 10 million people in the United States alone, suffering from an eating disorder may be the mental struggle most often associated with weight loss. Personality traits that contribute to eating disorders include obsessive thinking, impulsivity, perfectionism and excessive persistence. Although you can have these traits and not have an eating disorder, many of them are common to those that do. If you recognize these traits in yourself and are wondering if they will impact your ability to lose weight in a healthy way, consider seeking help to address these issues to make losing weight less difficult.
"When you find yourself taking extreme behaviors such as weighing yourself every day or even a few times a day and/or [you] are [so] fearful of gaining any weight that you feel you can never miss a day of working out, these are signs that there are mental health issues associated with weight loss and body image," Dr. Arvon says. "If all you can think about is the food you are eating and when you are going to go to the gym, it's time to reach out for some help. When your thoughts are only focused on your body image and weight loss or gain, reach out to a trained professional to help identify where the underlying issues stem from, such as the fear of being judged."

If You Suffer From Low Self-Esteem

Believe it or not, losing weight doesn't always improve your self-esteem. "If you have low self-esteem, you may feel like you are always being judged by your weight. You might feel better in your clothing once you lose weight, but the issues won't go away because someone with low self-esteem will constantly be wondering what others are thinking about them," Dr. Arvon says.

Losing weight may also draw outside attention—both wanted and not. "It is important for people to realize that there are other issues that arise after someone has been overweight and then loses weight. For instance, others may view them differently, they may get more attention than they did in the past and they may have excess skin (depending on the amount of weight loss), among other issues. Many people struggle with body image after weight loss, similar to when they were heavier," Goldman says. "Also, a lot of this comes down to people's own personal thoughts and beliefs [and] how we talk to and treat ourselves. We have to be positive and believe in ourselves to be successful with weight loss, but unfortunately that is not easy to do."

Look in Before You Begin

If you want to lose weight, but feel as though you need to deal with underlying issues as well, consider taking a step back and looking at your entire wellbeing—mental, physical, emotional—and try to paint a clear picture of what your values are versus your goals.

Meyers believes spending this time getting real with yourself and your intentions prior to beginning a weight-loss plan is at the core of approaching the lifestyle change in a mentally healthy way. "Identifying your values around the behavioral change [is] really helpful because values get at the 'why' you are deciding to make a change and not just what you want to accomplish. A lot of people will get goals and values confused as they are similar. Goals are often time-limited, measurable, specific and you can succeed and fail at them (e.g. I want to lose 10 pounds by spring break). Values are not time limited, are more difficult to measure and usually broader in scope. You will also never be able to succeed or fail at them in a sense (e.g. I value living a healthy life, or I value being a great parent/wife/husband/friend). You could never cross off a list 'living a healthy life' or 'being a great friend,' because there is always more life to live and choices to be made. We can act or behave incongruous to our values, but that does not mean that our values have failed, it simply means next time we are faced with a decision about being healthy or [being a good] friend we make a more value-consistent choice.

"Another way to think about values is that they provide a direction to our life; they are personal, deeply held beliefs about who we want to be as a person, [and] what we stand for, in a sense. An example I often use to make the distinction is traveling West is the value (direction). You could never really arrive at 'West' [because] there would always be further west you could go, but certain destinations along the way [such as cities or landmarks] are akin to goals—you could keep score and cross these destinations off you list."

Taking into account how you feel about your weight-loss journey ahead of time can help stave off emotional problems before they start. If you find that, as your journey progresses, you are having difficulties reaching your goals alone, consider seeking professional support or reaching out to a friend to help you stay accountable.

When you take the time to take care of your whole body, and not just your weight, you might find you end up creating your own bit of magic after all.