At the heart of it weight is determined by the balance between how much we eat and how much we exercise. Food is energy and if we don’t use that energy either because we’re consuming too much food or we simply aren’t getting enough exercise, the body will store the excess as fat, ready to be used when needed.
Yet, if it’s really as simple eating less and exercising more, why do people ignore this and do the opposite, especially when the benefits of a healthier weight are widely known? What is it that’s happening within us that’s contributing to weight gain and to problems losing weight? We can then ask ‘does hypnosis work for weight loss?’ To answer these questions we need, first of all, to look at the role of one of the most primitive survival mechanisms of all: stress.
Stress – what is it?
Stress is the body’s primitive defence mechanism, which is activated as a response to situations the brain perceives to be dangerous. When we feel stressed our heart may race, our thinking may become distorted, our palms may get sweaty and our breathing may become faster and shallower. Some people may experience stomach pains, others may feel sick, whilst some may feel the urge to use the toilet.
The stressed feeling is a result of the brain flooding the body with stress chemicals, notably adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine. In more primitive times these would have provided us with the energy we needed to fight or flee a particular threat. However, the stresses of the modern world do not match those of the past: we aren’t fleeing danger, we don’t have to worry when we will will eat our next meal and we aren’t continually fighting with other people for resources. Instead, the stresses of today involve traffic jams, missed appointments, a sick parent, an exam, a bill that needs to be paid. Yet the body’s response to a perceived threat remains the same.
How does our stress level increase?
Negative self perception, pressure to lose weight, idealisation of the perfect body, as well as our own day to day worries are major contributors to stress. In neurological terms the brain can’t distinguish between what’s real and what’s imagined and that can be a problem for us because our thoughts play a significant role in our stress level. Every negative thought we have increases our level of anxiety and the more anxiety we have, the more likely we are to fire the stress response.
So, if we’re thinking we’ll never lose weight, worrying about future, thinking we’ll never be in a relationship, thinking about how much we don’t like our manager, thinking we don’t have the perfect body or whatever our thoughts might be, our anxiety goes up. The more negative our thoughts, the stronger the stress response.
Over time this can have a significant effect on our health as we become vulnerable to high blood pressure, heart disease, reduced immunity, decreased feelings of self worth, sexual dysfunction, poor sleep, gastrointestinal problems and weight gain.
Are weight loss attempts causing even more stress?
If we make a decision to lose weight then we will need to change something about our behaviour: we might choose a particular diet, perhaps we join a gym, maybe we buy a healthy-eating cook book or we might follow a weight loss expert on social media. Sometimes, however, our aim is to achieve a lot in a very short space of time and our own expectations may be unrealistic. If we don’t see results as quickly as we would like or perhaps we’ve missed a day or two of our diet, we might feel discouraged from continuing with our efforts and give up on achieving our goals.
There is also no shortage of pictures of people with tiny waists, perfect breasts, ripped abs and chiselled physiques on TV, in magazines and on social media feeds, which might lead us to think that to be healthy, that’s how we need to be. Yet often what we see isn’t what’s best for us and attempting to achieve such a body can lead to disappointment, further increasing our anxiety.
Advertisers of weight loss products often relate a slimmer waist line to a happier self. While achieving a goal of losing weight may make us feel better about ourselves, if we’re having difficulty becoming that slimmer self, we might begin to believe that we can’t be happy or that happiness will only result when we’ve lost weight.
So, how does stress affect our weight?
There are 5 main ways in which stress can have an effect on our weight and our attempts at weight loss. We might think of this as the stress/food cycle:
1 – When our stress level increases, so too can our appetite
The role of stress chemicals is to prepare the body and provide it with the energy it needs to deal with a threatening or dangerous situation. In the short term the stress chemicals can shut down the appetite, temporarily putting eating on hold. However, once we begin to calm down and the stress chemical levels have begun to reduce, cortisol remains in the system to ensure we replenish the energy store. The body thinks we’ve used the calories to deal with stress, so we are encouraged to eat more to replenish the calories, even though they haven’t been used.
2 – Stress can lead to fat storage, which can lead to further stress
If the level of cortisol remains elevated in the body over a long period of time, instead of providing energy, it will favour fat storage. Cortisol appears to promote the formation of fat in the abdominal areas, which contains more cortisol receptors, meaning we produce even more stress. The more stressed we are, the greater the fat storage.
3- Stress can increase the appetite for fatty and sugary foods
When stressed, the body prepares itself by ensuring there is enough energy available. The fuel our muscles require is sugar and, as a consequence, our appetite for fatty and sugary foods can increase, since it is these foods which provide the energy. If elevated cortisol levels become chronic, then we can continue to crave these foods, further adding to weight gain if consumption remains high.
4 – Stress can lead to comfort eating
Eating sugary and fatty foods can dampen down the feeling of stress because eating them causes an increase in dopamine levels. This promotes pleasant feelings and reduces tension, which is part of the brain’s reward system. The behavioural response is, then, to eat these foods whenever the body reaches a certain stress level. Over time the amount of dopamine released when eating these foods decreases, so that we require more food to gain the same feel-good response.
5 – Stress can lead to a feeling of helplessness
Stress can make us feel we aren’t in control of our own feelings, especially when we overreact to situations or see others dealing with similar situations in an outwardly calm way. If we don’t feel in control, we might begin to feel helpless in changing our situation and perhaps even give up trying to improve ourselves. Engaging in physical activity will almost certainly not be a priority at this point. Limited physical activity means fewer feel good chemicals are released in the body, which can exacerbate the stress eating cycle. If we aren’t motivated to engage in physical activity, we won’t be burning the calories from stress eating.
Is stress management linked to weight loss?
As stress can be a major factor in both weight gain and weight loss, stress management has a critical role in helping to regulate our weight . Anything that is really going to help us must be targeted towards how we feel about ourselves, so that we are using the resources of the mind for us, rather than against us. If we only focus on losing weight then we disregard stress as an underlying cause of weight gain and in difficulties in losing weight.
How does hypnosis work for weight loss?
Perhaps it is better not to ask ‘how does hypnosis work for weight loss?’ but instead ‘how does hypnosis work for stress reduction?’, since if weight gain is influenced by stress, then we must consider what we can do to reduce the effects of stress in our life.
Rationally, we know what we have to do to lose weight, so it isn’t the rational, thinking part of the brain which hypnosis is directed toward. We are instead concerned with the stress centre, where survival templates are stored, which can sometimes cause us problems rather than being of help. Stress is a survival technique and each of us will have individual survival templates ready to be accessed when in the presence of a perceived threat. Our aim, then, is to reduce the incidence of the stress response firing up, so that we can remain in control of our thoughts and actions.
To do this, we have to replace our negative thinking with more positive thoughts, so that we can begin to create less anxiety and significantly lower the level of stress hormones in the body. Rather than think about how difficult it might be to lose weight, or think about past attempts at weight loss, or imagine a future in which we haven’t lost weight, our attention is instead directed toward achieving our weight loss goals and seeing the difference that will make to our life.
So, how do we use hypnosis for weight loss?
By focusing on how we will feel when we’ve lost weight and differences that will make, we create a powerful picture in our mind of what we want to achieve. This is where hypnosis for weight loss is such a powerful tool. We can use it to help us visualise:
- a life in which we are no longer overweight
- how we will feel physically and mentally when the weight is gone
- how we will feel having achieved our goal, which will further motivate us to achieve other goals we set ourself
- what we will be able to do having lost the weight
- any other differences losing weight will make to our life
If we can create as clear a picture as possible in our minds of what success is to us then it becomes a motivational force and the brain will work hard to ensure the picture we have becomes reality. We can then develop healthier behavioural templates for situations which might have previously seemed stressful, thereby creating new neural pathways in the brain, so that we no longer default to the sabotaging behaviour of the past.
Suggestion techniques can also be used in hypnosis to encourage us to develop a positive relationship with food and exercise which is key to a healthy diet and long-term weight management.
What results can we expect?
If we consider weight loss as one of the consequences of reduced stress in our lives and we use hypnosis to help reduce that stress, as well as for enhancing our efficacy of visualising success, then we can begin to:
- think more clearly and make better choices about the food we eat
- feel motived to include more physical exercise into our daily routine
- reduce our reliance on food for the production of the body’s feel good chemicals
- sleep better, which will help to naturally reduce stress chemicals
- feel in control of our lives and better understand what we can do to create change so that we make the necessary lifestyle changes
Bringing it all together
Ultimately, eating fewer calories and burning more of those calories will result in weight loss. However, as we have seen, a sole focus on eating less and exercising more might not be the solution. When we’re feeling better about ourselves, when we’re focused on what we want, rather than what we don’t want and when we’re starting to take part in activities which make us feel good, then we reduce the harmful effects of stress. If we are less stressed and feeling more in control, then we open up the possibility of making the necessary lifestyle and behavioural changes needed for weight loss.