Coping with Emotional Distress on Your Weight Loss Journey

Hopefully, you will successfully lose weight with your new medications. Make sure to also try to adopt a healthy lifestyle with healthy food choices and increased regular activity to maximize the weight loss as well as your long-term benefits. While most people lose weight and comfortably make adjustments to their new lifestyle, some continue to struggle with food-related thoughts, and a variety of emotional difficulties. For some, the emotional struggles are related to weight loss and learning to live in a thinner body. For others, there are emotions that emerge as they are no longer eating to soothe these difficult thoughts and feelings. While these thoughts and feelings are common, it is something to be addressed to avoid resuming old habits and engaging in emotional or binge eating which can lead to weight regain.

What follows are some tips and strategies to address emotional distress to avoid unwanted eating. It is recommended that you try some of these strategies and stick with them for a few weeks to see if they are beneficial. If you are continuing to struggle, consider seeking professional help to avoid experiencing continued distress and to help maintain your weight loss.

Allow yourself to feel what you feel

Some people are uncomfortable sitting with their thoughts and feelings. As soon as anxiety, sadness or other emotions arise, they seek to distract themselves. While some thoughts and feelings can be unpleasant, they are not dangerous and do not need to be avoided. In fact, research demonstrates that trying to avoid difficult feelings can make them worse.

As a first step, consider dedicating five to ten minutes twice a day to just sit and observe whatever pops into your mind. Allow the thoughts and feelings to be there, but try not to engage with them. In other words, observe your thoughts and feelings as if they were clouds going through the sky. You don’t interact or touch the clouds; you just look at them. If you get “hooked” into thinking too deeply, you’ll probably go into problem-solving mode, asking “what should I do with this thought or feeling?” Instead, just watch the thought like a cloud and let it float through your mind. With practice, you will get better at allowing thoughts and feelings to come and go as they please, rather than trying to push them away or trying to solve every problem that pops into your mind.

Add in some meditation

While you are sitting with your thoughts and feelings, notice your breathing. Is it rapid and shallow or is it slow and relaxed? Begin by simply observing your breathing. Just notice what there is to notice. After a few minutes of noticing, see if you can breathe a little slower and a little deeper….just slightly. Try to breathe from your abdomen (diaphragm) and not your chest. Simply observe the rising and falling of your abdomen as you breathe. After a few minutes, take note of whether or not you feel a bit more relaxed. This ability to calm yourself and relax is a great way to cope with unpleasant thoughts and feelings should they occur. You don’t need to escape from difficult thoughts and feelings or push them away; now you can just allow them to be there and come and go as you breathe your way through them.

What should I do if I think I’m hungry?

It can be tricky to distinguish “head hunger” from “stomach hunger,” but one way to tell is that “head hunger” comes and goes. Stomach hunger stays and increases over time if not satisfied. Food is fuel and hunger is your body’s way of saying “We need fuel!” “Head hunger” are “cravings.” Cravings are your body’s way of saying “we want food.” It’s ok to indulge cravings once in a while, but if you do so too often, you are likely to be eating when unnecessary and we know where that goes.

When you’re not sure if it’s “head hunger” or “stomach hunger,” stop in the moment and observe what you are feeling. Ask yourself, “Am I really hungry or do I just want something to eat?” and “How long ago did I eat?” If it’s “stomach hunger” and you haven’t eaten for several hours, go right ahead. You’re probably truly hungry. But if you’re uncertain or you know you recently ate something…see if you can wait awhile. Distract yourself with an activity. Answer emails. Make some calls. Go for a walk. Do some housework. Anything you can do to pass some time and show yourself that you don’t need to immediately respond to “head hunger” will help you gain more control over undesired eating. 

What should I do if I am uncomfortable while observing my thoughts and feelings ?

If you are experiencing high levels of anxiety or sadness while meditating, it could mean that you are touching on emotions connected to difficult experiences in your life. They could be recent events or events from long ago. Sometimes you can become aware of them and work your way through them while meditating. Other times, this could mean you are tapping into something more significant, like loss or trauma. If you continue to have difficulty with observing and experiencing your thoughts, either while meditating or otherwise, it is advisable that you seek professional help. Especially in the case of trauma, it is challenging to work your way through these events and the thoughts and feelings associated with them without assistance.

What can I do if I’m struggling with my new body and my self-image?

It’s not surprising that you might be feeling this way. Your body can lose weight faster than your mind can adjust to your new body. Sometimes, time alone helps. Other times, people experience a type of “body dysmorphia,” where the person in the mirror seems much different than the person looking at the mirror. You might not recognize yourself. As a start, ask yourself “What is the difficulty I am having seeing the new me?” It could simply be a strange, yet harmless sensation of not yet adjusting to the new you. While strange, it is not unsafe. Remind yourself of this fact and acknowledge that you are going through a process that takes some time. Also, make sure you are embracing the new you. When people complement you, say “thank you” and acknowledge your accomplishment. When you shop for clothing, buy the right size clothing. If you find that you feel shy or a bit uncomfortable, make incremental changes to be a bit more outgoing embracing your new appearance. However, if you continue to struggle with unpleasant thoughts and experience high levels of anxiety about your new body, this could be related to trauma or other life experiences that may necessitate professional assistance. 

The tips on this sheet address only a few of the experiences many people have with significant weight loss and with the reduction in non-hunger-based eating. Consider support groups or other social support as part of your weight loss journey and don’t hesitate to seek professional help if your independent efforts to address these concerns don’t seem adequate.

Warren L. Huberman, PhD, ABPP is a Clinical Psychologist, Board Certified in Behavioral and Cognitive Psychology licensed in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and holds a telehealth license in Florida. Dr. Huberman has worked with individuals and groups in the field of weight loss for over 25 years. He is the author of “Through Thick and Thin: The Emotional Journey of Weight Loss Surgery,” which addresses many of the experiences of those experiencing dramatic weight loss. He can be reached at 212-983-6225 or