Monday, October 26, 2009

Mentally Dealing with Plateaus

When I was in college, I had an experience that many people do during their years of hard study. I would often get sick during vacations, but remain well during the time periods when classes and tests were going on. This pattern was so common that it would be hard to reach any conclusion but my body was holding sickness at bay until my schedule was a little clearer.

This experience, one that my husband and others have shared as well, demonstrates the power that our minds have over our bodies. The placebo effect similarly shows that we have considerably more control over our health and well-being than we generally realize.

Recently, this thought has been on my mind as I’ve been reading a popular weight loss forum and several people have lamented, quite understandably, that they’re frustrated with doing everything right and not advancing much or at all in their weight loss. There are some women who literally have dieted for months with no or minimal loss. Part of this is, I'm sure, individual chemistry and the plateau effect. I strongly believe that plateaus are caused by our bodies desire to rest in a state of homeostasis rather than to keep losing weight. Also, from an evolutionary viewpoint, hanging onto body fat is more desirable than losing it because those who had the greatest fat stores survived the best through lean times.

While part of the problem these women are having is absolutely biological, I sometimes wonder if it may also be psychological. In particular, I’ve pondered whether or not their minds are controlling their bodies to some extent. Just as my mind used to make my body wait to get sick in college, I wonder if these women’s minds are making their body’s hang on to weight.

I’m not suggesting that this is a conscious choice. In fact, I often feel that our conscious desires have far less of an impact on our bodies than our unconscious ones. I never said, “I can’t get sick now because I need to study for tests and take tests.” It just happened of its own accord.

In particular, with weight loss, I wonder if the psychological need to remain overweight combined with a desire to fail on some level enforce a long and difficult stall in weight loss. I’ve said before that I don’t think one can be truly successful losing weight until one is “ready” psychologically to face it. That readiness is different for each person, but it incorporates elements such as having sufficient motivation, lacking hard stress, and dealing with the factors that push you to take comfort in food. These are all very hard things to come to terms with, and I’m not even sure that I’ve done so completely. I just know I’ve done so enough to get on the path to losing weight.

I also want to make sure that when I use a phrase like “a(n unconscious) desire to fail” that it is understood that I do not mean that in a pejorative sense. I’ve failed plenty before and I’m sure part of that was my unconscious desire to fail as well. It’s not only failure based on a fear of change, but also fear of losing pleasure and comfort. If you find food to be a means of anesthetizing you in times of emotional or physical difficulty, you may want to fail in order to have an excuse to return to your “drug” of choice. Pain is a potent motivator to continue to pursue destructive behavior, and a lot of overweight people are in significant pain both emotionally and physically.

At any rate, I want to keep this in mind should I start to falter or struggle in my weight loss endeavors. If I find I’m on a plateau, I want to think about these types of things in order to help me break through the barrier mentally as well as physically.

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