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The Mind Science

Britain’s weight is rising. Obesity is threatening to overtake smoking as the United Kingdoms number one health problem. Being obese is not merely a cosmetic issue. A recent study by the National Audit Office concluded that obesity could shave 9 years on average from a person’s lifespan as a result of the numerous health problems which typically accompany obesity. As I will explain, those problems are not necessarily only physical problems. The sense of disempowerment which can be generated by a long term battle with weight can affect us at many different levels.

Why is obesity on the increase? 

The simplest answer is that our lives today are more sedentary (less physically active) than they have ever been whilst at the same time we have greater and easier access to tempting but fattening processed foods than ever before. The foods we are sold need to taste good and be quickly available in order to compete in today’s fiercely competitive markets. Any chef will tell you that food tastes better when it’s fat and/or sugar laden so if we are choosing our menus according to taste alone then we will probably choose those foods which will promote weight gain. In today’s busy world there’s also a premium on food being “fast” which is one of the key factors in what causes a person to exercise poor judgment when it comes to deciding what they will or wont include in their daily diet. There’s a conflict of interests when it comes to our food production so it’s up to us to recognise this fact and choose wisely. Assuming that someone else is looking out for us is a mistake as far as food is concerned.  

What is to be done about it?

The equation is fairly simple. We simply reduce our calorific intake whilst increasing our calorific use. When we cut down on calories sufficiently or use up more calories than we consume in a day, then the body will dip into its energy reserves which are stored in the form of glycogen and fat; thus we lose weight. This means we eat less fat, sugars, and carbohydrates, and increase our level of physical activity.

Is it really that simple?

Well. Yes, and No. First of all let’s just look at a couple of factors. We must recognise that the above model is weight loss at its simplest, but still nonetheless an irrefutable fact.

Nutritionists will agree that every-body is different to some degree and that there are all sorts of factors which could possibly affect a person’s weight. These factors may include issues such as allergies to certain foods (wheat, dairy and gluten being most common), sluggish liver/gall bladder, poor nutrition, slow metabolism as a result of thyroid dysfunction etc. These factors are known to be relatively rare, but it may be worth seeking the advice of a nutritionist or your GP if you are sure that you have truly done all that you can to lose weight.

Most people however will be overweight simply because their calorific intake is too high whilst their activity levels remain too low. It’s as simple as that. And, if it’s been this way for any length of time, then the weight just keeps creeping up …even just a few too many calories daily can build up to a state of obesity over time. We must learn therefore, that the first step towards results is to stop making excuses for ourselves (I’m big boned…..I don’t eat that much really…everyone in my family is big….I have a slow metabolism etc). To achieve anything in life we need to be honest with ourselves, so “owning the problem”, that is to say, recognising that the problem is a result of something we are doing is always the first step towards taking back control. By owning the problem you are recognising that the problem lies within your sphere of influence and this means that you can find a solution by changing the way you do things.

Other Considerations

There are a number of other factors which must be understood in order to achieve healthy and sustained weight reduction. Fat is burned by the flame of carbohydrate. Completely cutting out carbohydrates does not work! Crash diets (this includes living only on lettuce leave and salads!) are dangerous and do not achieve sustainable weight reduction, because we actually send the body into “starvation” mode. This has a number of negative effects. At the physical level, we are not supplying the nutrition we require to function properly and this leaves us open to poor health generally. Our immune systems may become weakened, and the sudden change in bodily chemistry can also place a real strain on our internal organs. Remember, on any diet…some fat and carbohydrate is necessary for good health. Diets which ignore this fact are dangerous. Modern fad diets encouraging the removal of carbohydrates (naming no names) are receiving increasingly bad press as people are collapsing and becoming ill as a result of these methods. The same is true if we simply stop eating. When the body is starved in this way the metabolic rate will decrease dramatically in an effort to conserve energy ensuring the survival of the organism. This means that we actually burn calories at a slower rate and this of course is totally counter productive when we are trying to lose weight. The body will hold onto every ounce of fat that it can. It does this because the message that you are sending by not eating is that there is a shortage of food in the environment. With our ancestors having to endure many famines throughout the ages, we are genetically pre-programmed to conserve the maximum amount of stored energy (fat) at such times since we cannot know how long the shortage of food will last. It is therefore essential to understand that steady weight loss is achieved by ensuring that we eat a plentiful, balanced, and nutritious diet whilst reducing our calorific/fat intake and increasing our physical activity. Then our bodies will agree that it is “safe” to relinquish some of the extra weight we are carrying around as there is no sign of a food shortage. This is one of the reasons that it is very important that you don’t skip meals when on a weight loss programme. The best advice is to eat little and often. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day because it sends the message to the body that there is actually a store of food available; a surplus. The body has its own intelligence, and when you eat breakfast before starting your day, the body recognises that it was not necessary to go out and find food first and so assumes that food is stored and plentiful. This of course inhibits decreased metabolism, as the body feels that it is “safe” to take all the fuel it needs for the day. We know also that every time we eat our metabolic rate increases slightly for a short period of time, so if you like celery, you’re on to a winner!  (Celery is so low in calories that we use more calories eating it than we gain!)   

Food, Control & Depression

So, there are the basic mechanics of it. Sounds simple enough doesn’t it? So why do people have such difficulty in achieving lasting weight control?

Well…..food is inextricably linked with our emotional mind. We can take that as a given right from the start. Food is often strongly associated with feelings of comfort. As babies we will seek the breast as our primary source of comfort. Later, this becomes sweeties (rewards from mum for good behaviour), and as we lead our lives, the idea that comfort and food are packaged together is continually reinforced. From an evolutionary and ancestral perspective, food has always produced feelings of comfort since eating has assured survival- in the short term at least. The human animal will have learned that finding food would be “rewarded” by a positive chemical response in the brain. This takes the form of a pleasant rush of feel-good neurotransmitters (serotonin being the most prevalent) which flood the brain, making us feel contented and comfortable. We, as human beings today still seek that chemical reward, and it’s not difficult to see therefore how food has become a primary source of both comfort and reward. This is a factor in the equation but it is only a factor. We can overcome the urge to trigger the comfort response quite easily when our lives are running well generally. Then we find comfort in other areas of our lives, and we are able to override the desire for instant gratification in the pursuit of a greater goal (slimming down). But, if we are unhappy generally, then we may well seek the comfort response in other ways, albeit unconsciously, and that can easily result in an obsession with food.

Recent research has shown that eating disorders are usually accompanied by erratic levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is known to be a major regulator of mood and behaviour. Studies into the chemistry of compulsive behaviours have shown that there is a strong link between compulsive behaviour and dysfunctional serotonin production in the brain. We also find low serotonin production implicated in a number of other illnesses, specifically depression and anxiety. What this means is that if we are depressed or anxious generally, then it will be much more difficult for us to take control of our eating habits. If we are not generating a positive healthy flow of serotonin, then we will be much more prone to compulsive thoughts and behaviours, which means simply that we have much less control. If we really cannot control what we are choosing to eat, then we can be said, at some level, to be suffering from a compulsion. This DOES NOT imply however the presence of anything as serious as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. We know that many people will exhibit a degree of compulsion in one area or another of their lives, and that can be considered to be quite normal. What it does show us though is that there is a very clear link between being unhappy or anxious and not being able to take control……and not being able to take control can lead to us feeling unhappy or anxious. Thus, a negative cycle is created and helplessness can set in. We know that once a person has taken on the belief that a situation is “helpless”, then they stop trying to find a solution. If these factors are never understood, then it is easy to see why weight loss can be crushingly difficult for some people. Trying to meet the problem head on with will power alone will only perpetuate the cycle of anxiety, depression, and compulsion as we exhaust ourselves with the constant struggle. Importantly too, if our diets have involved “starvation”, we also will have been adding to our difficulties because starvation will be interpreted by the body as a signal to conserve energy. The best way to get a human being to conserve energy is by making that person depressed. Depressed people have no desire to engage with life and therefore tend to do very little, thus conserving energy…one more reason why crash dieting doesn’t work! Crash dieting will trigger depression, and in the long term you will lose intellectual control and burn yourself out.

How can hypnotherapy help?

Hypnotherapy deals with these matters all the time. Indeed, depression, compulsion, and anxiety are central concerns in modern hypnotherapy. Weight control is tackled at two levels. Firstly we work to return control by reducing anxiety and identifying stressors and then we help with strengthening focus intent and commitment. Some people will need more work than others with regards to reducing anxiety/depression. Some people may not need any anxiety reduction at all and simply having the facts outlined will be enough to kick-start their programme. Then we might move quickly into working on intent, focus, and commitment. I will work with what you bring me.

We know that excess stress in our environment will be received at the subconscious level as a threat to our physical or emotional security. The subconscious mind interprets too much stress as being danger. When danger is sensed in the environment, then the subconscious mind steps in to protect us. It does this by causing us to feel depressed (the withdrawal response) or anxious (the fight/flight response). In both of these states we lose control intellectually since the mind is now operating to a greater or lesser extent instinctively, that is, without thought or deliberation. It does this because if a life threatening situation should occur (remember this mind believes there is danger in the environment), then we will need to act automatically. Discernment as offered by the intellectual mind could be seen as weakness under such circumstances and so we lose intellectual control and become much more emotionally driven. Hence, we are “driven” to certain behaviours which we might otherwise have better discernment about. This will include in some cases the compulsion to eat inappropriately. So, we can see therefore that in order to return intellectual control, which means being able to do the things that we want to do, we will need to reassure the subconscious mind that the danger has passed and that it is safe enough for us to resume intellectual control of our lives. Hypnotherapy can help enormously in achieving this.

Hypnotherapy is probably without equal when it comes to creating and maintaining deep relaxation which makes it a very powerful treatment for anxiety. It’s not possible to be relaxed and anxious at the same time, so we can create a space where the subconscious mind can feel really safe, and let go of its anxiety and depression. By demonstrating to the subconscious mind whilst in this relaxed state that the environment is actually safe, and dealing with any specific issues you might have, we can help to give the necessary reassurance that control can be returned safely to the intellectual mind. If you are depressed then this will also involve looking at your cognition (thinking styles), and positively re-engaging with life. As positive thinking and hope return, life becomes meaningful again and we start to generate a nice healthy flow of serotonin which leads to a calmer, coping, controlled, positive outlook on life. When intellectual control is returned, then it’s much easier for you to see clearly and for you to do exactly what you want to do. What this means in real terms is that you can get on with your life without food or dieting being a huge issue. You can set your menu and stick to it without being plagued by those obsessive, undermining thoughts and feelings (compulsions). Temptation can be quickly and easily put aside when we are relaxed and in control. We can minimise the desire for unhelpful foods and deal with difficulties in a much more mature way since we will now be operating from the adult mind rather than the childish perspective of the emotional mind. As with all of the work we do in hypnotherapy which involves taking back control, we often find that we make positive changes in many areas of our lives once we have the understanding of how it is possible to empower ourselves. Often the realisation that we CAN do something we want to when we know HOW to can trigger life changing understanding.

Helping You

This article focuses on the psychology of weight loss, and is of course deliberately general. The same understanding however can also be applied to many other eating disorders, though more serious disorders will often require deeper therapy. Whatever your needs; whether you need some help with strengthening your commitment and intent, or have a more serious eating disorder driven by emotional discomfort/trauma, hypnotherapy is client centred, flexible, and can be successfully applied to create positive change at many levels. I consider it my job to help you achieve what you want to achieve….. whatever that means to you.   

If you would like to arrange a free consultation to discuss your needs in more detail, please click here to contact me. Alternatively if you would like to speak with me first, please feel free to call on 0117 904 4504.

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