WEIGHT MANAGEMENT ∙ 5 minutes read

5 tools from CBT and positive psychology to help you on your weight loss journey

By Uxshely Carcamo

As you begin on a weight loss or health journey, it’s natural to experience a range of mixed emotions. You may be excited but also nervous about how much you have to achieve, you may be hopeful but also pessimistic and worried if you’ll be able to hit your goals and you may be feeling more confident but also anxious that things could go wrong at any time.  It can be helpful to use some psychological techniques to support you with these mixed emotions and thoughts. 

CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and positive psychology are two psychological disciplines that offer tools which can support you on your weight loss or health journey. CBT is a psychological approach that involves looking at, understanding and then challenging your thoughts.  Positive psychology is a field that studies how we can optimise our thoughts, behaviours and emotions to maximise our contentment and happiness. Here are some tools from these two fields that you can use:

1. Remember that you don’t have to believe or act on everything that you think

Thoughts are not facts. Often we assume that everything running through our mind is a reflection of reality and something that we need to act on. However, we don’t have to believe or act on every thought that crosses our minds.  In fact, many thoughts that we think are very unhelpful. Just because you have the thought or an urge to “eat the entire pizza”, “drink two bottles of wine” or “get a second dessert”, it doesn’t mean that you have to act on this thought or urge.  It’s very empowering to recognise that thoughts are just thoughts and you don’t have to act on them.  Imagine how much chaos there would be in your life if you acted on every thought, urge, impulse or fantasy that crossed your mind.  We don’t need to act on every thought or urge and it’s not helpful for us to do so. 

2. Challenge unhelpful thinking patterns

We’ve already explored that thoughts are not facts. Thoughts are just interpretations of the world around us that our mind comes up with. Sometimes those interpretations can be helpful and serve us but at other times these interpretations can be very unhelpful. You may have seen those mirrors in circuses that can distort how you look (making your head look long or your body look wide).  In the same way, our mind can become one of those distorting mirrors and distort reality so that we see things in a very unhelpful way.  These “cognitive distortions” or unhelpful thinking patterns can show up in your health journey in some of the following ways: 

  • All-or-nothing thinking: Where you believe that you’re either “on plan” or “off plan” and there is no in between. For example, you eat one slice of pizza or one biscuit even though you hadn’t planned to that day and then you think “I’ve ruined it now so I might as well eat whatever I feel like and start again tomorrow”. 
  • Catastrophic thinking: You believe that the worst-case scenario is going to happen. For example, you eat something that you hadn’t planned to and then think “this is a disaster, I’ll never lose any weight and am going to put on loads more. I am just going to get heavier and heavier and I’ll end up with lots of horrible medical conditions and probably die soon”. 
  • Personalisation: This is where you take things personally even though they have nothing to do with you.  For example, you turn up to a work event and your colleague is complaining about his weight and not fitting into his clothes. You worry that the only reason he’s complaining about these things is that he’s noticed that you’ve put on weight. Of course, the colleague is most likely just talking about himself but you’re taking his comments personally. 

These cognitive distortions are very unhelpful as they can lead you to behave in problematic ways around food.  For example, all-or-nothing or catastrophic thinking can trigger over-eating. Cognitive distortions can also affect your mood and mental health. It can help to write down your thoughts and try to challenge them. You can ask yourself how you might respond to someone else if they told you, for example, that they’ve blown their diet by eating just one biscuit. You would probably coach them through this by saying something like “it’s just one biscuit, it’s no big deal, just draw a line under it and keep doing what you were doing before”. 

3. Keep a gratitude journal and celebrate the small wins

As you start a new journey and are keen to get to your goals quickly, it can be easy to focus more on what you “haven’t achieved yet” and “how far you still have to go”. However, focusing too much on these things can have a negative impact on your mood and mental health. As humans, we have a natural negativity bias, which means that we also tend to focus more on negative things than positive things.  To balance this out, it can help to make a conscious effort to try and focus on the good things. Perhaps you can keep a list of your small wins along the journey.  For example, celebrate taking a daily walk if you haven’t done this before or drinking more water if you used to only drink fizzy drinks.  It can also help to keep a daily gratitude journal, which effectively is a list of things that you have to be grateful for.  So often we tend to take for granted all of the amazing things that we have in our lives. However, taking the time every day to list out the things that we have to be thankful for such as our family, friends, work, and home but also having eyes that allow us to see, music we love listening to and other more simple pleasures, can be beneficial for our wellbeing and, in turn, our health journey. 

4. Remember the 3 Ps when setbacks arise

If and when you encounter a setback on your weight loss journey, it can be all too easy to just want to give up. Perhaps you haven’t lost any weight one week (or found that you gained some weight), perhaps you still don’t fit into your clothes or perhaps you go to dinner and you end up eating an elaborate and indulgent 5-course meal that you hadn’t planned to. The key here is to not allow one small setback to completely derail your plans. Positive psychology suggests that those who are optimistic and more resilient are able to think about setbacks in a helpful way and bounce back more effectively.  This positive mindset encompasses a healthy relationship with the following ‘3 Ps’:

  • Permanence: Setbacks are not permanent. Just because you’ve had a bad day, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be a bad week or a bad month. It’s important to remind yourself that this slip-up or bad moment doesn’t mean that the rest of the week is written off. 
  • Personalisation: Setbacks are not a sign of personal failure. We all make mistakes sometimes. Just because you had a slip-up or weak moment, it doesn’t make you a failure or weak, it just means that you’re human. Not taking any mistakes personally is key to bouncing back and recovering from the setback.
  • Pervasiveness: A setback in one area of your life doesn’t mean that your whole life is a disaster. Often, if something goes wrong in one area of our life, we can feel down about everything. For example, if you’ve gained weight one week you may think that your whole life is a disaster. However, remind yourself that a setback in one area of your life isn’t a sign of a bad life in general. Focusing on the positive aspects of your life can be a helpful tool to help you to bounce back. 

In any journey, including a health or weight loss journey, it’s important that you don’t see a mistake or slip up as a failure. Know that you can pick yourself up and keep going and that making mistakes sometimes is normal and okay. 

5. Practice self-compassion

We have a tendency to be very harsh on ourselves. In fact, most people speak to themselves (in their own head) more harshly and critically than they would ever speak to someone else. Often, people speak to themselves in this way as a way of trying to motivate themselves. However, often this constant negative voice in our minds can end up making us feel down and low. Therefore, as you go on any new journey, it’s helpful to try and talk to yourself with compassion. It can help to imagine that you’re talking to a friend or family member that’s trying to get to their health goals and ask yourself how you would coach them to achieve these goals. Would you motivate your friend or loved one by saying, “you’re a failure and so fat and hopeless that you better make an effort” or would you perhaps prefer to coach them by saying “I believe in you to make these changes, you can do this”. 

The bottom line

It’s completely normal and natural for you to experience conflicting thoughts and emotions as you embark on a weight loss or health journey. Challenging some of your unhelpful thoughts and recognizing that you can overcome any setbacks that you experience along the way can mean that you’re able to achieve what you set out to achieve and maintain this over the long term.