Beating the Melancholy Bulge
Author: Mandy Dalton
Are you constantly on a diet? First in line to try the latest weight-loss trend or perpetually in pursuit of the best way to shed a few more pounds? Weight management is a struggle that so many women face, and it’s easy to get frustrated and disappointed with your efforts. However, you might not be as to blame for your inability to “get thin quick” as you may think. While it is true that exercise and the food you eat play an important role in losing weight, physical care is only part of a comprehensive healthy-lifestyle. To be in a state of healthy living your physical and mental health need to be working in alignment. Physical and mental health are closely linked, so that a change (good or bad) in one directly affects the other.
All Too Common
Mental health issues are a prevalent concern throughout the world. Although it is still largely unreported for reasons such as stigma, studies shows that one in four people are affected. That is about 450 million people worldwide suffering from some form of mental illness. Illnesses which will impact their emotions, behaviors and even cognition. They can also cause a multitude of physical problems, directly and indirectly, weight gain being one of them. Three of the most common mental illness diagnoses are depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder (formally manic depression).
Gloom and Doom
Depression is far more than just feeling sad or having an “off” day, although it may begin that way. However, as symptoms progress they start to impact a person’s life to a much greater degree. Some of the physical impairments include low energy, aches and pains, insomnia and changes in appetite. The pain and fatigue make it difficult to maintain an exercise routine, and an often increased appetite (generally filled with sweets and comfort food) can add the weight on fast. Aside from these already difficult obstacles to overcome, the brain’s limbic system controls both emotion and appetite which can make weight changes even more difficult to manage.
Everybody experiences anxiety, especially when (positive or negative) changes are taking place. The problem arises when it becomes an intense and unyielding fear about everyday situations. Anxiety affects weight gain in a three-fold way – increases appetite, causes fat retention and interferes with willpower. A common contributor are hormones, which are automatically released when faced with threat. Once the initial adrenaline dissipates, the “stress hormone” cortisol starts signalling the body to replenish the food supply. Chronic stress leads to the body storing fat and decreasing metabolism. It is also very common for people to react to anxiety by overeating and making poor nutritional choices in an attempt to “eat their feelings”.
Up and Down
There are four classifications of bipolar disorder (BPD) which all affect mood, energy and activity level. There are up (manic) episodes and down (depressive) ones. The specifics regarding length and intensity, and even symptoms, can vary from person to person and between each category. Aside from the culprits already discussed, such as decreased energy and metabolism, the medications used to treat mental illnesses (especially BPD) are widely recognized as causing weight gain. The main drug classes to do so are mood stabilizers (e.g. Lithium), antipsychotics (eg. Seroquel) and antidepressants (e.g. Paxil). These particular pharmaceuticals disrupt the chemical signals that control appetite producing in users an often heightened, and hard to satiate, hunger. It’s not unusual to gain at least 20 to 35 pounds over the first year or two of treatment.
Fight the Fat
By this point, if you suffer from mental illness, you’re probably thinking it’s time to throw in the towel on the whole weight loss front. Don’t despair just yet, as there are always steps to be taken towards improvement. Remembering that physical and mental health directly affect each other, it only makes sense to work on both aspects together. This will include steps on both sides to aid in your overall health.
- Begin – motivation for self-care is hard to come by with mental illness, but a forced start often leads to increased desire
- Chart – pay attention to which symptoms lead you to “comfort eat”
- Start Slow – yes, you ate a chocolate bar, but you didn’t eat five – celebrate the small accomplishments instead of being too hard on yourself
- Calorie Count – note down the calorie and fat content of the foods you’re consuming, sometimes just seeing it on paper is enough to promote better choices
- Portion Control – even with nutritious foods, remember that it’s common to eat oversized portions – put aside half right away to prevent overeating, especially at restaurants
- Skip the Bedtime Snack – eating before sleep is one of the easiest ways to pack on the pounds – if you can’t sleep without a nibble, eat light and make nutritious choices
- Sleep – it’s important to get proper rest for so many reasons, the main one now being mental health maintenance – remember that link?
- Enjoyment – be sure to engage in your hobbies or simply enjoy some leisure time – there are more ways to refuel than simply food
- Exercise – forget “fit” and focus on “fitter” – what you are looking for is progress
- Reduce Stress – deep breathing, yoga, gratitude list, take walks, reduce caffeine, meditate – everyone is unique, do what helps you Of course, these are not all of the actions you can take towards achieving your own optimal physical and mental health but it certainly is a start.
Sometimes, no matter how hard you work, you may still experience extreme difficulty managing your weight with mental illness. In cases such as this, it is often suggested to work hand-in-hand with an experienced dietitian. You may also wish to discuss the pros and cons of switching medications with a psychiatrist if the situation affects you too greatly. The main thing is to take your time, communicate with your personal and professional support network, and be good to yourself.
Author Bio: Mandy Dalton is a freelance copywriter based near Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She’s always had a flair for and love of writing, and is thrilled to be able to make it a career. With an education and employment background in addictions and mental health counseling, Mandy enjoys utilizing this knowledge to write about such issues. Samples of her work can be viewed at