Hypnotherapy for Eating: How Mindfulness and Therapy Can Heal Your Relationship with Food

Dr. Sera Lavelle

The Psychology of Weight Loss, Binge Eating, and Goal Setting

As a Clinical Psychologist who specializes in weight loss, binge eating, and eating disorders, I find that healthy eating has little to do with understanding nutritional information, and much more to do with understanding our emotional responses to stress and then developing healthier coping mechanisms.

Many of my patients intend to eat well, but then find themselves eating a food or amount that deviates from their own best intentions. They often do this, not because they lack information about the calories or the sugar involved, but because something emotional happened; and in that moment, they find a way to quiet that voice that tells them not to overindulge.

Despite the implication from the diet industry that weight loss requires more and more information about food and is best attained through the latest diet fad, knowing that these foods are high in fat, calories, or sugar rarely, if ever, holds them back from engaging in impulsive behaviors.

The Psychological Reasons It’s Hard to Stick to Healthy Eating

  1. We are overwhelmed by confusing information.

When we are bombarded by the overabundance and often conflicting information about food, it’s easy to find ourselves continually making plans to “start our diet tomorrow,’ as facing it today seems overwhelming.

As Dr. Michelle Maidenberg states, “Although there are a plethora of resources out there about general health and weight wellness, the messages are most often inconsistent and confusing. Many individuals find themselves in a spiral of frustration, self-blame, and shame. This perpetuates the belief that it’s too difficult to figure out and that they will never be able to truly achieve success and meet their goals.”    

The problem stems from internet articles and magazines in grocery stores that scream new ideas for weight loss that promise results that are not only quick, but also dramatic. These articles are created with the intention of being eye-catching because of their extreme claims. They do this because the writer knows that writing an article called “Lose Weight Slowly Through Incremental Change” will not get the likes, shares, or purchases compared to an article that’s entitled “Lose 20lbs in Two Weeks Through This New, Restrictive Diet.” The problem with this way of promoting is not only that it sets us up for failure, but it also gives us the subtle and unconscious message that losing weight in a slow, moderate manner isn’t promising nor an accomplishment. This makes us less likely to stay on a healthy diet that would likely lead to long-term success, as we don’t really feel proud of ourselves when we lose weight in a way that is slow and sustainable.

  1. We don’t really make a commitment.

Sometimes we fail to reach our goals because we weren’t really committed in the first place. Making a commitment means that you have a clear plan in place that involves taking strategic steps to reaching your goal. When we tell ourselves things like “I am going to eat less and lose weight” without a clear action plan, goals, or steps involved, we are setting ourselves up for failure.  

It’s important to note that setting a clear plan and taking action is different from the notion of willpower. Willpower, according to Merriam-Webster, is our “ability to control one's own actions, emotions, or urges.” It implies an internal feeling or quality about ourselves, and if we deem ourselves as not ‘having enough,’ then we feel flawed. This line of thinking, however, is most often endorsed by society when it comes to weight loss. As noted by Dr. Maidenberg, “Having willpower and motivation to change are targeted societally as being the factors that contribute to weight issues.” She notes, however, that “if it were so simplistic, individuals would readily and seamlessly make progress.” 

When we attribute our failed attempts at weight loss to a lack of willpower, we perpetuate a dangerous cycle. It can lead us to continue making vague commitments with no clear action plan, and then judging ourselves as being weak and flawed for not following through. I find that my patients who struggle with weight very seldom lack willpower. They are generally successful in most other areas of life, with weight being the one exception.

I notice that they also treat these other aspects of their lives differently than they do their goals with eating. They can readily make a plan and put actions into place to reach social and professional goals, presumably because they do not trigger an emotional response in the same way. With weight, on the other hand, it can be more comfortable to not commit fully, as this mitigates the blow to the ego that comes from trying our best and failing. Thus, it is easier to avoid a real attempt at weight loss, as it also softens what we see as inevitable disappointment. By not fully making an attempt, however, you are also making it far less likely that you will achieve your goal; and, in turn, furthering your belief that you can’t do it.

  1. We feel compelled to self-sabotage.

Perhaps you did make an exact plan, set clear goals, and put actionable steps in place to reach that goal, and yet, you still find yourself straying from your diet, binging, or giving up altogether. What is going on?

When I observe this pattern of self-sabotage in my patients, I use it as a cue to take a step back to address that person’s unconscious blocks related to feeling good about themselves. The idea is that when we desperately and intently want something on a conscious level, yet for some reason can’t summon the strength needed to achieve it, there is likely something on an unconscious level that is holding us back. Maybe it’s the fear that it will be upsetting if we can’t keep it up, or that there will be too much expectation of us if we are ‘good.’

As an example, I once worked with a woman who was very overweight. We identified a number of patterns that affected her self-worth, and once resolved, she was able to lose a substantial amount of weight (nearly 100 lbs) in a moderate and sustainable fashion over the course of a year. When I saw her two years later, she had gained back nearly all of the weight she had lost. What happened?

In our work together, she was able to relay that once she got down to her goal weight, it scared her. She had met a partner with whom she was quite happy, but she lived with a constant, irrational fear that he would leave her if she resumed her prior weight. As their relationship progressed, she found herself compelled to eat more and more, as the stress of getting attached and losing him was so intense that it unconsciously felt safer to push him away. Once we identified this pattern and she realized that she was actually loved for being herself and not for her weight, it became easier to get back on track and back down to her goal weight.

How Hypnosis & Meditation Can Change Your Relationship with Food

There are numerous ways to eat that are healthy and can help promote weight loss if that’s your intention, and if you stick to any one of them long enough, you will likely reach your goal. Some ways of eating are rigid and restrictive like the keto diet and may promote weight loss more quickly, while others are more moderate, like intuitive eating, and may take longer, but lead to long-term change. Based on both research and my personal experience, I recommend taking a moderate approach to weight loss; however, it’s most important that you find a way of eating that feels mentally appealing to you.

In our practice, we use hypnosis and meditation, not only to help a person stay committed to their goals, but also to remove unconscious blocks, help a person identify unconscious triggers, reduce anxiety, and develop self-compassion. Although there is ample research showing the effectiveness of hypnosis for both weight loss and binge eating, without the addition of therapy to address the underlying issues, the impact of the hypnosis can be short-lived.

By addressing these issues in therapy, in conjunction with hypnosis and meditation, a person is not only more likely to reach their short-term goals, but also less likely to resume their old patterns since they have often resolved the underlying reasons that they turned to food in the first place.

The best way to get out of the cycle of weight loss through restrictive dieting, followed by weight gain through overeating, is using self-compassion. As Dr. Maidenberg notes, “It makes it challenging to improve when individuals are self-deprecating and disempowered. Building self-confidence, self-compassion, and understanding and obtaining resources for the physiological, psychological, and social factors that impact their weight issues, creates the lifelong sustained changes that are needed.” 

When we don’t have self-compassion, we often get lost in the trap of eating something we deem as ‘bad,’ telling ourselves we will ‘start the diet tomorrow,’ and end up binging that day since we assume we can never have it again. We then imagine that the problem is that we don’t hold to our promise in the future, while the reality is that this faulty, guilt-minded logic creates this problem and also ensures it will make it happen again. When we set clear plans, and address those underlying reasons for self-sabotage, we are not as tempted to overindulge. Instead, we are able to look at both moderate restraint and moderate indulgence as self-care, which allows us to gradually and purposefully change our patterns to something more fulfilling and sustainable.

Dr. Sera Lavelle is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist at NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy. To learn more about how mindfulness & hypnotherapy can help you or to make an appointment, please contact us here.

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