Is Bad Body Image Sabotaging Your Weight Loss?

Woman having trouble fitting pants over her belly

Are you having difficulty losing weight despite your best efforts at diet and exercise?

Contrary to popular belief, losing weight is about more than willpower alone. In many cases, there is a physiological and neurological cause for your challenging weight loss.

A negative body image can be an emotionally devastating load to carry, and it can wreak havoc on your weight loss efforts. Physically, bad body image can make weight loss goals feel out of reach. Emotionally, you may place so much emphasis on weight loss that the pressure causes you to backslide more frequently. And mentally, a poor body image can cause you to see “phantom fat”— weight that you think you’re still carrying around with you, even after successful weight loss.

To help understand how bad body image may be sabotaging your weight loss, we look at why self-sabotage occurs, and what you can do to change your outlook and improve your body image.

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The Chemistry of Self-Sabotage

You might question whether a negative self-image can really sabotage your weight loss efforts. After all, it’s likely one of the reasons you’re trying to lose weight in the first place. Shouldn’t that serve as a motivator?

There’s a provable, verifiable body chemistry behind this phenomenon of self-sabotage.

When you beat yourself up about your body, it causes stress. And stress causes a whole bunch of other problems that make it harder to achieve your goals.

Distraught woman on yoga ball in workout studioFirst, stress interferes with motivation. Negative self-talk influences your mood and reduces confidence. When you are living with a bad body image, it’s much harder to maintain day-to-day optimism. The negative feelings and thoughts stemming from a poor body image can weaken your confidence that health behaviors will lead to the desired outcomes and lasting change.

Stress reduction is a physiological key to weight loss. When you’re overly stressed, it causes an overload of cortisol, an important regulatory hormone. Think of cortisol as nature’s built-in alarm system; it works in the brain to control mood, motivation and fear. It’s best known for helping fuel your body’s “fight-or-flight” instinct in a crisis. But when your body image is a constant source of stress, cortisol production can be thrown out of sync, which may be directly affecting your inability to lose weight.

When you’re stressed out, your adrenal glands produce a big shot of cortisol. This automated response can be helpful in some situations. But when cortisol is produced at a higher level on a regular basis, it can cause your metabolism to slow down and increase cravings. At the same time, cortisol also tells the brain that food is not available, which prompts the body to increase fat storage out of fear of starvation.

When your cortisol levels are constantly high, it’s going to be hard to lose weight no matter how hard you work at it.

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How to Improve Self-Image (and Stop Self-Sabotage)

The good news is that there are lots of ways to change your mind and develop a more positive body image. Talk therapy, yoga, biofeedback, hypnosis, meditation, guided meditation and acupuncture have all been shown to be effective in improving self-image.

It all comes down to replacing negative thoughts with positive ones.

As the old maxim goes, “Your body hears everything your mind says.” Your thoughts have the power to direct the outcome. And it is your choice whether the messages are positive or negative.

Easier said than done, right? So how can you foster a more positive mindset?

It starts with slowing down.

British novelist Matt Haig explains the value of slowing down in Reasons to Stay Alive, his wonderful book about his struggle with anxiety:

“Anxiety runs your mind at fast-forward rather than normal ‘play’ speed, so addressing that issue of mental ‘pace’ might not be easy. But it works. Anxiety takes away all the commas and full stops we need to make sense of ourselves.”

While Haig is talking about anxiety, the same need to slow down and “make sense of ourselves” is especially important when trying to counteract the negative self-image you might develop during your weight loss journey.

Weight loss is often a long process full of curveballs and bumps in the road. When you aren’t able to slow down and accept where you are in your journey, going “off-plan” can create floods of guilt, shame and negative messages.

Haig goes on to offer a few ways you can slow down and get control of your thoughts during stressful periods.

Woman meditating on yoga mat

“Slow your breathing. Not crazy deep breaths. Just gentle. In for five, out for four. It’s hard to stick to, but it is very hard to panic if your breathing is relaxed.”

“Meditate. You don’t have to chant. Just sit down for five minutes and try to think of a single calming thing. A boat moored in a glittering sea. The face of someone you love. Or just focus on your breathing.”

“Accept. Don’t fight things, feel them. Tension is about opposition, relaxation is about letting go.”

“Live in the present. Here is meditation master Amit Ray: ‘If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment. Live in the breath.”

In other words, it’s good to have a plan to calm your mind and reduce stress. Follow that plan as well as you can, and use positive messages to help change your self-image. And take the time to connect with how your body is actually feeling in the present moment.

The Power of Gratitude

Woman giving gratitude on track before workoutA great way to shift your mindset away from the negative is to recognize and acknowledge things and people in your life that you are grateful for.

Taking a step back not only lets you take stock of where you are in your weight loss journey, but it can also help you sidestep the day-to-day stress that contributes to self-sabotage.

Here’s an easy challenge you can do today: take a minute at the beginning or end of your day to jot down a few things that you are grateful for. Maybe you finally pushed through an exercise challenge, completed a difficult project at work, or were complimented on an outfit.

Write down as many things as you can think of.

As an added bonus, studies have found that people who practice gratitude and thankfulness exercise more than people who don’t.

You are smarter, stronger and more resilient than you think. And when you’re able to change your mindset, your body will follow.

Heavyset woman giving thumbs up sign

Accepting Yourself Is the Path to Positive Change

Positive self-talk is a powerful, wildly underestimated tool that can help reduce stress and foster the emotional, mental, and physical change you want.

Instead of focusing on how much you hate exercise, celebrate your desire to work out.

This seemingly small change in mindset not only influences your mood and confidence but also your behaviors. It can help you kick negative body image and achieve the results you’re striving for.

Establishing a more positive outlook and body image won’t happen overnight. That’s ok!

Give yourself a break when negative thoughts show up—we all have them. It’s your ability to change your mind and embrace positive thinking that will help you accept your body and stop sabotaging your own success.

Curious if hypnosis could help you lose weight?

Take our hypnotizability test and find out!