9 Things I Wish People Understood About Weight and Mental Illness
Television, magazines, and ads are riddled with weight loss methods to help men and women achieve their “ideal” body image. For someone without mental illness, losing weight can be difficult, but when you add in depression and anxiety, it may make the journey more difficult. I can’t exercise and eat better and have the pounds come off. I end up fighting a mental battle — one full of self-doubt, fear, frustration, and anxiety.
I’ve battled with weight issues my whole life. At one point, when I reached my highest weight, I went through what I thought was natural weight loss. I counted my calories, exercised, and resisted temptation. The problem is, I ended up starving my body. Though I lost a lot of weight, I did it in an unhealthy way, and I have since put it back on. It’s a never-ending battle, but it’s one we can fight provided people understand the struggle we’re going through.
Reminding me I need to lose weight does not help. I can clearly see or feel when I’m overweight. Holding an intervention, berating me for gaining weight, or dropping comments just makes me feel worse. If you’re concerned about my weight gain, perhaps ask how I’m feeling or if there’s anything you can do to help. Show kindness and love, not critique.
I want to exercise. Despite this desire, depression and anxiety can sometimes make it near impossible to do that. Some people with conditions like mine have social anxiety, and going to a gym or working out in front of people is scarier than packing on the pounds. It’s not something I can just “get over.” If you want to help, offer to come with me, or let me set the pace when I do find the strength to go.
Stress biologically causes weight gain. According to WebMD, when you are stressed, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode which can cause you to overeat because your body thinks the stress is causing you to lose too many calories. Likewise, your cortisol level rises and can lead to overeating. So not only is my mind working against me, but my body is working against me as well.
Food may equal comfort. Sometimes when I’m stressed or depressed, all I want to do is go home and eat comfort food. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it’s periodic, but it’s easy to over-stress eat. Food becomes a barrier against emotions. If I don’t treat how I feel, I may eat my feelings instead. Distract me. Don’t let me be alone when I need support, or provide an ear if I need to talk.
I can’t survive without eating. Unlike other addictions, I need food to survive. Food isn’t a cigarette, video game, or beer. It’s a necessity to stay alive, and it takes time to adjust to cutting out portions and finding the right amount of food for my body. Sometimes realizing I can’t just give up food is stress-inducing, and that may, again, cause me to overeat because, what is the point? I also have to remind myself it’s harmful to restrict calories too much. If I do, my body goes into starvation mode and I may just pack on the pounds. Please, don’t try to survive on a 500-calorie diet. It’ll hurt your body before it helps it.
Lack of confidence. Anxiety and depression can make me feel horrible about myself regardless of my weight. Those feelings of despair become so strong that I may start asking, “What is the point? I’ll never look like this person or that person.” If weight loss doesn’t happen quickly, it can lead to discouragement as well, which increases stress and depression. Please understand where I’m coming from and just allow me to talk if I have these bad feelings. Offer friendly advice and remind me I’m loved no matter my weight. A person’s health, both physical and mental, is of the utmost importance.
Acceptance and Love. What I really need from you is love and acceptance. I need to know you’re going to love me no matter my appearance. There have been times I’ve been so afraid to go home due to terror of what my family will think of me. I’ve received negative comments before, and that’s enough to send me running in the other direction. I need to know I won’t be turned away, but rather loved and comforted if I need it. Show the people you love that you care.
Respect. Respect is important on many levels. Respect my decision not to eat certain food if I’m with you. Don’t scorn me for not wanting to eat the casserole you brought to a family dinner. Don’t encourage me to take a second helping when I’ve said I only want one. Guilt-tripping me is a great way to increase my stress and anxiety, so please, be respectful of my decisions. If we go out together, don’t feel put out if I decide to order a salad and not split an appetizer. I’m doing what I can to take control of my life, and your disapproval does not help. Also, don’t take it as a personal affront to your own food choices. Just because I’m focused on what I’m eating doesn’t mean I’m judging you for your own food.
Don’t comment on weight loss. This may seem like a strange thing to request, but when you comment on how much weight I’ve lost, that makes me attribute my beauty and self-worth to a number and my appearance. If you want to comment, tell me I look happier and healthier. That’s what we should focus on… happiness and health. For the past four years I’ve tried to break the belief that my self-worth is connected to a number on a scale. I’m worth so much more than that, and so are the rest of you.
I implore you to keep these things in mind if you have a friend with mental illness who is trying to lose weight for health. It’s not easy, and what we need is your love and support.
And for those of you struggling to lose weight alongside mental illness, you’re not alone. So many people have that same issue, and we can work together to find support and be the healthy people we want to be. You are loved and you are strong. You can do this.