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How to overcome the 5 emotional triggers sabotaging your weight loss efforts

Dr. Kori Propst
in Mental Edge
October 17, 2013
12 minutes read

Kori Propst, PhD

In my work as a nutrition consultant and clinical mental health counselor it’s not uncommon for most of my clients to believe that what they are experiencing is exceptional.

“Am I the only one who can’t get my head on straight? I am so tired of failing. I just don’t understand why I do what I do when I know what to do! I need to lose this weight, but I love food. I’m a carbaholic and have a terrible sweet tooth. Do you think there is something wrong with my metabolism? Do you think I’m not eating enough!”

Any part of that sound familiar?Yes, we’re all unique in meaningful ways — but when it comes to weight loss, dieters share many of the same problems. Of the thousands of people who have passed through my office during the past decade, I’ve typically seen two types of dieters. Which type are you?

Type 1: The Yo-Yo'er

You know the feeling all too well.

You’re going strong. You feel empowered. You’re committed to the goal. You’re able to say “no” when you need to.

This time, it’s going to work. Finally.

You probably still get excited about dieting. No matter how many times you’ve done it and failed, you always go back! “I’ll do it this time!” you think. As you get all ramped up and motivated to begin the trek toward your best body, your brain is dumping out dopamine by the gallon as you anticipate the rewards of those pounds flying off.

You’re doing great and staying on track, and then WHAM! It happens again! You’re hit with a challenge that has you careering straight toward the bucket of Chunky Monkey! Three days down and now three pounds up. What gives!

Then, the familiar words start dancing in the background…

If only I had more willpower.

I just need more self-control.

I’m so weak.

You’re left feeling like you don’t have any control over your body or your weight. And to make matters worse, you’ve let yourself down again.

Type 2: The Classic Regainer

You’ve tasted success before, and boy was it sweet. Pun intended, of course, because you know how to stay away from anything even remotely dusted with sucrose.

Unlike The Yo-yo’er, you have lost a lot of weight in the past and were super committed straight through to your goal. Ten pounds gone…20 pounds gone…30 pounds gone, and there you are. Not that it was easy, but you wanted it badly and you just did what it took to get there. Even if it meant forgoing social events, avoiding certain people or places, and removing your favorite foods from the menu. Friends? Who needs ‘em?

How great you felt when you fit into your smaller clothes again!

Inevitably, however, as you transitioned back to “normal” life, you saw the pounds creeping upward. Slow at first, but as you started allowing yourself small indulgences here and there, drinking more wine again, not weighing in as often, and making excuses not to exercise, you gradually moved back to another section of your closet.

C’mon, you can admit it. Life got in the way, you weren’t making time for yourself or planning like before, and your self-control flew out the window.

But now what?

Welcome to the experience of 98% of people who lose weight. You either yo-yo in place for years, or you lose a bunch and gain it all back.

Discouraging, right? Might as well not even try.

Identifying the real culprit (Hint: it's not Ben or Jerry)

Identifying the real culprit (Hint: it's not Ben or Jerry)

First, it’s time to realize that while the stats are dismal, you have the power to be one of the 2% that actually loses weight and keeps it off permanently.

But what’s the real difference between people who struggle with the same 10 lbs, and those of us who are able to systematically, strategically lose weight for good?

Emotional triggers.

Emotional triggers can stem from internal conversations we have within ourselves that make us deviate from even the most well-planned, committed diets or external cues that prompt an emotional reaction. Most of us make the mistake of assuming that we can use willpower, desire, and logic to overpower these emotional triggers. This may work in the short-term, but a new, more attuned level of consciousness is necessary for the overhaul to occur that you’re looking for!

Don’t believe me? Think about some of the elaborate games you play with yourself in order to create a certain emotional state. Think about how hard it is to simply avoid a particular action that has strong emotional ties. I’ve been there dozens of times, white-knuckling my way past the dessert-laden break room and charting a different course through my office to avoid my co-worker’s chocolate stash. Ever told yourself not to think about something? Guess what you can’t stop thinking about.

If logic and willpower were all that we needed, we’d simply tell ourselves, “No, no. Not today. I have a goal to accomplish.”

But it’s just not that simple.

How to Identify your emotional triggers

Here’s the secret — It’s not the emotional trigger that’s the problem. It’s how you react to it. Emotions are your ally when they are used to practice more committed and healthy relationships with food.

The first step to overcoming these triggers is identifying them in your life.

I’ve worked with thousands of clients over the last decade and studied tens of thousands of data points. The results are clear: We often “fall off the wagon” when we experience the cognitive dissonance of wanting to do something when it doesn’t align with our goals AND lack the skills to navigate it. At that point, our emotions can take over. Then the eating is all about trying to feel better.

Why can’t I be more like my sister? She was able to stick with it.

I’m supposed to be enjoying this diet. I shouldn’t feel like crap.

I shouldn’t have even gone to this party. I knew it would make me cheat.

I can’t believe I’m even thinking about XYZ food right now. Just thinking about it is going to ruin everything!

And the list goes on.

These are all emotional triggers that make you feel badly about yourself, open the door to self-criticism, and lead to straying from your plan.

Your job now is to recognize when these triggers appear, and then remember that you don’t have to crash and burn in a haze of guilt and self-doubt. Accept what you feel, then proceed with the rest of your day.

Overcoming the 5 most common emotional triggers

But what about the specific roadblocks that pop up in every day life? Singing Kumbaya around the campfire is all well and good until your face lands in a monster plate of spaghetti and meatballs.

Here are the 5 most common emotional triggers I hear in my practice on a daily basis and the exact strategies to handle them:

1. “I really overate at lunch and just couldn’t get back on track after that. The entire day was a bust.”

Kori Cracks The Code: Inflexible and rigid thinking will kill you every time. See the black and white nature of this statement? Usually when I go through the day’s history, there were several excellent choices made. Except you gloss over those and usually get snared in the “WHAT THE HELL” effect. You might as well just eat whatever you want (and lots of it) now, right? Wrong. If you want to avoid engaging in stress eating or eating for reasons unrelated to hunger you must include practicing awareness and management of stress, choosing more effective methods of dealing with negative emotion, but also being flexible and compassionate yourself when setbacks occur. Setbacks WILL occur, and that’s okay. In fact, setbacks must occur in order to learn and grow. With each setback you have an opportunity to take responsibility and asses the situation from a new perspective. What went wrong? How would I do it differently next time? What did I not anticipate? Was there something in the environment itself that I could change or does it lie more on my response to it?

If you expect a little failure going into each day, you preempt much of the disappointment that comes with it. You’ll find that the challenge of engaging in the goal is more fun as well. Dealing with negative emotion can start with merely practicing recognition of how it starts. Emotion manifests in your body. You may experience internal cues like a faster heart rate, a tight chest, or a rise in body temperature; or outside signals like fidgeting, a furrowed brow, or irritability. Pay attention to them. Use them as guides to remind yourself to breathe. Let your body work for you– a long exhalation actually turns down the volume of your amygdala (the small inner area of your brain that is involved in the stress response). And naming the emotion itself (i.e. fear, sadness, stress, disappointment) can aid in the same. Labeling the emotion as outside of yourself too, for instance, “That’s anxiety,” as opposed to “I am anxious” allows for an increase in objectivity.

2. “No one understands me and why this is important. My spouse is unsupportive, still cooks really fatty meals and brings home junk, and my friends are always asking why I’m dieting again and want to eat out at the unhealthiest places.”

Kori Cracks the Code: It’s common, it’s sad, it certainly makes things harder, but you can choose to be the victim or you can choose to use their behavior to galvanize your own. Find people with common interests and goals- get out there. Join a diet program that has an attached community of individuals who you can share your successes with and a coach that has your back, holds you accountable, and will teach you the ins and outs of physiology and psychology related to your eating and weight! Some people need more support than others, and there’s nothing wrong with that. While research shows that responsibilities in other contexts, such as familial, relationship, and career, can create tension that can lead to goal-compromising behaviors, having a support network minimizes the negative effects of goal threats.

3. “I know what to do, I’m just not doing it.”

Kori Cracks the Code: It’s not enough to just “know” something. If you’re a pro at dieting, but an epic failure at keeping it off, it’s likely because you don’t stay vigilantly connected to your goal. The dedication you implement during weight loss must continue during maintenance. Remember: Your health is not a phase — it’s a lifestyle. To be successful with permanent weight loss and become more skilled at managing threats, you have anticipate threats that may occur, know that there will be times you struggle, and plan ahead accordingly. This is the “no matter what” mentality. Relying on motivation for goal achievement will lead you to disappointment. Here’s a big secret: Most of the time, you’re not going to “feel like it.” But those who lose weight permanently know it’s not a matter of how they feel on a particular day. It’s all about how they’ve set up their lives to create the result they want, whether they “feel like it” or not. You get to decide whether it’s possible to change the environment and/or change how you respond to the environment!

4. “How can I finally stop self-sabotaging?!”

Kori Cracks the Code: If you have been on and off of diets for most of your life, you might be able to acknowledge the entrenched beliefs and meanings around food often created during your childhood. Food as comfort, food as love, and food as a stress reliever are three of the most commonly held attachments to food. Many of us grew up hearing “clean your plate” or “you can have dessert when you finish your dinner.” Throwing away food was unacceptable. On the other hand, many of us were raised in households of abundance. Food was always available and accessible whether hunger was a factor or not. In essence, it was used as a pacifier when negative emotion was experienced (i.e. getting a cookie from mom or grandma when we were upset). If you want to exhibit greater self-control and maintain your weight loss, you have to become conscious of your motivations to eat and begin rewriting your narratives about food and the relationship you want to have with it. You probably know people who have an identity around food that is more geared toward “I don’t think much about food. I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full.” It’s a more non-chalant, disconnected relationship with food. Or how about the individual who just sees “food as fuel.” Then there are others who really value and cherish food and what it can provide for them. Not all emotional eating is negative! They take food seriously (you know ‘foodies’) and view it in a manner that is nourishing in mind and body. They respect it. Take notes on the identities you observe people have about food and eating. We do this all the time with people in our lives who we want to be more like, outside of the food environment.

5. “I had some cake at the wedding I attended and then one thing led to another and I just continued eating junk all weekend and into the next week!”

Kori’ Cracks the Code: If you want to be a permanent weight loss winner, you have to have a toolbox of strategies. Different contexts demand different strategies. What is effective in one situation may not be appropriate for another. But successful maintainers know that they have the choice to change their environments or change the way in which they respond to the environment.

In some contexts, an “if__________, then____________” approach can work well. This is called an implementation intention. For example, “If Don asks me if I want some dessert, then I will say ‘no thank you’ and excuse myself.”

In other contexts a more flexible, responsive approach is needed. This could mean drinking more water when a craving is felt; pausing to really assess physiological hunger; repeating a motivational, empowering mantra; asking a question to increase awareness; and/or slowing down during a meal to fully experience satisfaction and reduce overeating. One of the best things you can do is create rituals—new patterns of behavior that help to create lasting, meaningful change.

So now what?

Most people believe that losing weight is easy– get a pill, change your exercise routine, or hop on the next fad diet. That may work, but not long-term. Permanent weight loss demands a change in your thinking, and not just about food. In fact, losing weight is as much a game-changer for your mind as it is for your body.

So now, I’d like to hear from you.

Leave a detailed comment below telling me what your most difficult emotional trigger is.

What’s the one mental/emotional hurdle that seems to set you back every time?

I’m looking forward to your responses – and I’ll even jump in with some feedback.

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