Do you consider yourself a worrier? Some of us identify as persistent worriers and we see worry thoughts as constant companions in our brains. Today I want to talk about the worries that clients in my weight loss program often face and what to do with all that worry.
My issue with worrying
There was this time in my life when every time I would get in my car and drive anywhere, I would imagine myself getting into horrific car accidents.
I would be thinking over and over, “What if that car just swerved into my lane and hit me head on?” Or, “What if I smash through that guard rail and went over the edge of that cliff? What if someone runs this stoplight and t-bones my car?”
The noise was just constantly on as I drove anyway. My brain was very creative in its imagined road hazards and ways that I would die as a result.
I felt a little bit crazy. I haven’t been in an accident, no one I knew really ever had at that point. So I wasn’t really sure what triggered it, and no matter what I tried, I couldn’t get it to stop.
I would have these what-if thoughts, and then my brain would judge me for them, and call me crazy. My brain also offered thoughts like, “What if because I keep thinking about this, I make it come true?”
Worry actually has a purpose
Persistent worry like this is something I see my clients struggling with on their weight loss journeys. They’re not worrying about dying like I was, but their worry thoughts are disruptive, and they worry that the more that these thoughts show up, the more likely it is that these things they’re worrying about will come to fruition.
They worry about gaining the weight back.
They worry about eating off their protocol and what will happen if they do that.
They worry about what to eat on vacation.
They worry about being hungry.
But the thing about worry is that it seems important. It seems necessary, even.
It seems like it is helping us consider all the options so that we’ll be prepared when things happen.
This is the actual purpose that worry serves and why we evolved to function this way. Worry focuses our attention on things we can be preparing for, preventing, and taking action on.
And this is true in some circumstances. If you worry about getting in a car accident, you may then wear your seatbelt, drive the speed limit, and buy a car with airbags.
If you’re worried about getting skin cancer, you might seek shade, wear sunscreen, or a hat.
Our brain has evolved to worry about and be wary of the unknown as a matter of protection. Predictability means safety to our brain. If we know what to expect and what is coming, we will be prepared.
This is where worry and fear come into play much of the time as we are attempting things we don’t have evidence of success in, or even worse, that we have evidence of failure in.
The two kinds of worry
Our brain tends to worry about all the possible terrible outcomes as a matter of preparation. This is one useful purpose of worry, but there are actually two kinds of worry.
There’s the helpful kind of worry that has you wearing sunscreen at the beach, and there’s the unhelpful kind that has you quitting on yourself and hiding in shame.
That is the worry that I see happening with my clients.
The results worry creates
See if any of these scenarios ring true at all for you.
You start a weight loss program reluctantly because you’re worried you will quit like you always do and just gain the weight back.
Every day you’re thinking thoughts like, “This probably won’t work. I don’t know why this will be any different than last time. Sure, I’m doing okay now but it never lasts long.”
And when you think thoughts like this, you feel worried and anxious and hopeless.
This feels uncomfortable and when you’re feeling uncomfortable, your brain has found that chocolate is a solution that gives you some temporary relief from the discomfort. So you eat chocolate. And your brain’s like, “See, this is what happens every time.”
Or maybe you’re doing well planning your food for the next 24 hours, and eating only those things, but you start to worry about what happens if you eat something that isn’t on the plan.
In the past, when this has happened, you end up calling the day a failure and eating all the things for the rest of it, and then starting over tomorrow or next Monday, or after the holidays when it will be easier.
As you start to think about this scenario, you start to feel panicky. And when you feel panicky, your brain has found that baking some comfort food and eating it helps distract you and calm you down.
So you bake your grandma’s famous chocolate chip cookies and you eat 12. And your brain’s like, “See, this is what always happens. You eat off plan.”
Or as you change your eating to lose weight, you start to worry about what you will do if you feel hungry and you’re done eating for the day, or you don’t have anything planned for that moment.
Your brain is like, “Hunger is an emergency. If we feel hungry and we don’t answer it, it means starvation mode, and our metabolism will be messed up for life.” Just the thought of being hungry makes you hungry and desperate, and you decide that you’d rather survive than lose weight.
And well, Chick-fil-A is right there. And your brain is like, “See, you always end up hungry and overeat anyway.”
Worry is always completely imagined
I want you to notice something about worry here though. It’s always about something that is in the future, which is in our imagination. Something that hasn’t actually happened. It’s totally made up.
Sure, it’s possible and you may have had a similar experience in the past, but the thing you’re worrying about right now hasn’t happened yet. When we hear a sentence in our brain that starts with, “What if,” we’re in essence saying, “Let’s pretend something bad.”
However, that pretending creates real feelings now.
Feelings like anxiety and panic and even desperation. And those feelings do not typically drive helpful actions that are aligned with your weight loss goals.
When you feel anxiety, you don’t reach for chicken and broccoli. When you feel panic, you don’t typically take a minute to pause and evaluate and make a conscious choice.
Worry Hack #1: Use your imagination for good instead of bad
One worry hack I love is this: Instead of pretending something bad, as long as we’re using our imagination, we might as well imagine something amazing.
Maybe this time, instead of you quitting the program and it and you not working, it will feel easy. You will lose the weight and decide to become a weight loss coach who helps other women learn the tools and skills that finally worked for you.
This has happened to me. It’s possible.
Maybe this time when you eat a candy bar off plan, you open it up and you take a bite and you notice a golden ticket inside that’s a prize Hershey is giving away of $10 million to a lucky winner. And you decide to start a charity with the money that gives food and clean water to people in impoverished countries.
I know this sounds silly, but is it any more silly than you trying to predict any other future outcome? And creating hope or joy or silliness with our thinking about the future?
It’s a lot more pleasant and helpful than creating panic and desperation and worry.
Worry Hack #2: Acknowledge your worry with “Yes and…”
Another worry hack you can try is “Yes and….” This is actually what I eventually found helped my tragic-car-accident worry bouts calm down and eventually go away.
Every time I would get in the car and my what-ifs would start, instead of pushing them away or trying unsuccessfully to stop thinking them or rationalize them, I would respond using “Yes and….”
When my brain would think, “What if I smash into the cement wall on the freeway going 80 miles an hour?” I would think, “Yes, that could happen, and…” Typically, this sentence would end with “I would die.”
Okay, you may be thinking that sounds horrible and unhelpful, but think about it like this:
Have you ever been on the phone around a toddler who needed something? So you’re on the phone, you’re preoccupied, and you have a toddler who’s trying to get your attention. It looks usually like them poking you in the leg and saying, “Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom,” incessantly until you respond.
When you say, “Shh, just a minute,” it just makes them poke harder and say “Mom” more persistently until finally you look down and say “What?” And they hold up a Play-Doh snake they just made that they wanted to show you. You say, “Wow,” and they just skip happily away.
All they really wanted from you was to be heard and acknowledged.
This is the same situation with your worry thoughts. They are coming from your toddler brain and sometimes, all they need is to be heard and acknowledged in order to skip away.
I tried to say things to my brain when I was in my car accident worry-mode like, “That will never happen, or that’s unlikely,” but that was akin to me saying, “Shh, just a minute,” to my toddler brain. It just made it more persistent.
Acknowledging that “Yes, that car accident is a thing that has happened and could happen,” was all my brain needed to calm down and let it go.
It only took a little while of me consistently acknowledging those thoughts for them to disappear for good. And it’s not even something that I ever think about now and I drive all the time.
An effective check-in protocol to use with your worry
Here’s a super effective check-in you can use with weight loss worries — or really any worries — to determine how to respond.
First, start to raise your awareness of and acknowledge your worry thoughts, instead of pushing them away or ignoring them.
You can start to pay attention to them as they come up, or you can even sit down when you have a minute, or take a minute to sit down and think about and make a list of the common worry thoughts you have about your weight loss.
Then ask yourself these questions about them:
Does the problem I’m worrying about exist in the world around me right now — outside of my mind and my imagination?
Is the worry helpful? Is it preparing or preventing something important?
If yes, is there anything I can do to change it right now?
For example, you drive away from your house after having just cooked something and you have the thought, “What if I left the stove on?”
This is a real possibility of something that could be a potential problem in the world right now. And you can take action to change it by turning around and checking yourself or calling someone at home to go check for you.
If you’re headed to the beach on a sunny day and you think, “What if I get sunburned?” This potential problem exists. It is helpful to worry about sunburn at the beach, and you can wear sunscreen or bring an umbrella to change it.
Stop creating negative results with your worrying
When it comes to your weight loss worries, remember that worrying about things that could go wrong in the future creates feelings in this moment, and those feelings will drive what you eat now, and ultimately create your future weight loss results.
So take the time to hear and acknowledge what worries your brain is offering you about the future.
And start asking what you can do about it now.
Some of the tips in this episode and concepts came from an awesome book I love called The Worry Trick by David A. Carbonell, PhD. I encourage you to check it out if you have any issues with chronic anxiety or worry. So much good practical advice and so much help there.
And if you want to learn more about how to lose weight for the last time, watch my free video about how to lose the first five pounds — and keep going.