How to handle to psychological and emotional effects of dramatic weight loss
For many, the psychological adjustments of dramatic weight loss are an intensely emotional experience, and a very personal one at that. Many find themselves thinking ‘I wish someone had told me that about losing so much weight’ …
Some describe losing excess body fat as being easier than dealing with the aftermath when it comes to dramatic weight loss. Others feel that along with the weight lost, so too is their ability to ‘be happy’ or feel content. Dramatic weight loss isn’t just a physical adjustment. It’s psychologically complex too, and may not always bring about as much happiness as a person may expect.
It is a good idea to pay as much attention to the psychological changes as those physically experienced. Losing such a dramatic amount of weight may feel like being on a rollercoaster ride for some. In one moment, a sense of achievement and pride may be felt, and in others, a low self-esteem.
Part of a person’s healthcare team should be a psychologist or councillor who can help a person through the emotional effects. It’s important to understand that such dramatic change may not be a simple or easy journey and will not automatically lead to happiness and improved confidence.
Emotional challenges could be…
- Realising that losing weight doesn’t necessarily equal happiness: A person may not feel as happy or content as they may have expected. This can come as a shock following dramatic weight loss if a person is not yet mentally prepared for it. Counselling can help to do this and ensure that a person going through dramatic weight loss understands the process and will still be able to recognise themselves (who they really are) through the process. The mantra, “You are still you” can serve as a great reminder through the process.
- Losing weight can make a person feel vulnerable: For an obese person, a larger frame may have provided a degree of emotional protection and a sense that they could ‘hide’ their true selves. Psychologically, it enables a person to feel as though others cannot truly see who they really are. Losing this ‘fleshy protective barrier’ can leave a person feeling somewhat ‘exposed’.
- Losing weight casts a spotlight on a person: Adding to feelings of vulnerability, dramatic weight loss can bring about a certain amount of attention from others which may not be all that welcome. Although comments received about the change in physical appearance may be glowing and show approval of the accomplishment, it can make a person feel all the more exposed and vulnerable. Losing such a lot of weight is quite an adjustment, on multiple levels, for the person concerned. Coping with the attention of others in a way that isn’t as familiar at the same time can be challenging, and can sometimes feel a little ‘too personal’ for others to be acknowledging. It can also become emotionally problematic for some people when all of the attention dies down and passing comments no longer happen. Eventually others ‘get used to the new look’ and may stop acknowledging the change. A person can also use counselling to mentally prepare for this.
- Losing a lot of weight can lead to feelings of anger: When others notice such a dramatic physical change, it can spark a little annoyance or anger. Not all positive remarks will necessarily be flattering. It may be difficult for a person to want to acknowledge the approval of others who never gave them the time of day before, and who are now expressing positive comments or asking how the weight loss was achieved. In learning to cope emotionally with physical changes (outside appearance), it can make a person feel that others are shallow and superficial if they’re only now treating a person positively after they have lost weight. Some people have also experienced negative remarks, commenting that they no longer look ‘healthy’. Counselling can also help a person to understand that others may have trouble getting used to a physically ‘new person’ or assist in dealing with jealousy.
- Dramatic weight loss can affect relationships: For those already in relationships, tension can occur if a person’s partner is also overweight or obese. A person going through such a dramatic change may wish the same for their partner which can create obstacles and challenges within the relationship. On the opposite end of things, a partner may experience problems with self-esteem, feel threatened, or worry that temptation to be with another may force the relationship apart. A change in lifestyle habits can also create tension between a couple who used to share certain things together, such as meals or time spent not being active.
- Losing a lot of weight can cause intense fear and anxiety: Along with or instead of a sense of accomplishment, a person may become fearful about putting any amount of weight back on once the ultimate goal has been reached. This fear may lead to anxiety and stress over every morsel that is eaten, or cause a person to deprive themselves of food that would give them satisfaction or enjoyment. The pressure to maintain weight loss can become overwhelming if not dealt with appropriately. In extreme cases, constant obsession and restriction can lead to eating disorders if a person is not careful. With the right support on hand a person can learn self-control without feeling that one food related indulgence will place them right back to where they started.
- Dramatic weight loss can make a person a little self-absorbed: Making such a dramatic change in day-to-day life can become a little all-consuming for the person going through it all. A person may not be feeling all that negative about the changes they’ve been through but can still become very lost within themselves. While this can be understandable, others (family, friends, colleagues) may not be as gracious about it if taken too far.
What can a person do?
- ‘Comparison is the thief of joy.’ A person should try and focus on themselves (internally) without comparing themselves to others. For an obese person, dramatic weight loss is primarily about getting to a healthy physical state, and should not lean towards a superficial outcome (which often leads to a perpetual state of disappointment).
- Losing weight may not automatically give way to self-confidence, and this shouldn’t be expected. Being thinner will not make a person who was not in the habit of being outgoing before more so once a lot of weight has been lost. Self-confidence will need to come ‘from the inside’ and learning how to cope with the physical changes, happening ‘on the outside’. Counselling can be highly beneficial in helping a person understand that solving one problem will not necessarily solve every challenge a person has. Learning to ‘dress a new person’ in smaller sizes may also help contribute to positive feelings about such a dramatic physical change. It’s not all that uncommon for a person to find themselves still shopping for clothes at the size they were before or dressing in the usual ‘over-sized’ comforts. Counselling can also help a person to understand that sometimes dramatic physical changes have an impact on the body’s hormonal cycles. This means that depressive symptoms are normal for a person to go through post weight loss. Hormonal imbalances can affect a person’s mood, which in turn exacerbates feelings of stress, apprehension and anxiety.
- Lose the mindset that weight defines a person. “You are not your weight.” Thin does not necessarily mean happy, either. Losing weight may also not necessarily mean that the battle with weight is over – pressure to maintain weight can be just as challenging if not understood sufficiently and managed with care. From a psychological perspective, it may be beneficial for a person to adopt new labels for themselves – ‘fat’ or ‘out of shape’ can be replaced with ‘healthy’ and ‘energetic’.
- Think of losing and maintaining a healthy weight as a lifestyle, which implies a lifelong commitment. A person may have goals to set and accomplish, but there is no real end to ‘the journey’. Losing and maintaining a healthy weight will continue every day.
- A person can also better benefit from finding things that make them feel happier, good about themselves or healthier. If travelling was difficult to do before, book a holiday. Learn new hobbies, and indulge in beneficial projects that add value to life, not take away from it. It’s also a good idea to include less of the things that don’t meet these objectives in a day-to-day lifestyle.
- Celebrate achievements, as they happen, however small. Any achievement of success is one to feel good about.
- Set aside some time for self-reflection. Physical activity and constantly thinking about calorie control can take a mental toll on a person every now and then. Some quiet time can help a person restore balance and keep negativity at bay during low points.