The fear of gaining weight can happen for many reasons.
Often being overweight is not necessarily a cause. The fear of weight gain can be a common factor in eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, and bulimia nervosa.
Where does the Fear of Gaining Weight come from?
Fear of any sort is a very powerful emotion can that come from events around us that trigger our inner world to respond in a way where we may panic, feel nauseous, and feel the need to run away.
Fear can be triggered by other powerful emotions such as a threat to our safety, humiliation, embarrassment or disgust. These negative emotions may come from many different sources; when it comes to the fear of gaining weight, they might include:
- Peers who are critical of weight;
- Chronic health conditions that prioritise dieting;
- Comments by others about appearance;
- Low self worth and the emotional response to assume others feel negatively;
- Family attitudes or habits that are focused around selective eating;
- Traumatic events in childhood or adolescence where they have been shamed by others around appearance;
- Media that focuses on “ideal” airbrushed images and the person is “sold” on this as their goal;
- Current anxiety and/or depressive symptoms can increase the fear and create a vicious cycle.
What does Fear of Weight Gain feel like?
Fear is the emotion we use when we are experiencing very strong negative feelings. It causes us to want to respond: you will have heard of the fight, flight or freeze response that happens when we are scared.
Our minds and bodies respond to fear strongly, often with powerful changes in our psyche and in our actions to contain the fear. We feel less fear when our “plans” to manage the fear are activated. Often such plans don’t remove the fear, rather they contain the fear.
When experiencing “fear” it is hard for others to say or do things that are helpful, as self-protection mechanisms around the fears often cause a person to disconnect with relationships, health choices, and long term future plans.
The fear itself is terrible for someone and deep down they don’t want to have this controlling their life. The fear will often cause a person to identify food and eating as the source of pain, rather than the social situations around them which might have created the environment to become afraid in the first place. It is common for someone to feel angry, hypersensitive, and even deny or minimise the fear around the triggers.
What can I do to Help Someone?
When someone is gripped by fear, it is not a useful strategy to just dismiss or disregard that fear.
Emotional support is very important. It can be difficult as when someone has a fear the last thing they want to do is anything other than run from it.
There are times when we have more courage than before, and sometimes there are times when the fear becomes all controlling and unavoidable. Often it is at this point of feeling overwhelmed, that a person will seek help, or ask others to support them. In an ideal situation, it is better for the person to seek help earlier if they can bring themselves to see someone.
Being kind and supportive can be helpful. Of course if the situation is dire and a person is very unwell and you are worried, then seeking urgent medical treatment is warranted. To be supportive is important, to help someone seek help if the situation is getting worse.
How can Fear be Treated?
Fear is treated with a range of approaches that can help both immediately and in the long run.
Some common strategies include:
- Building a supportive therapeutic alliance;
- Strategies to manage negative emotions;
- Building distress tolerance skills;
- Learning about the story around how the fear came to be;
- Learning about what the fear of food looks like in day to day living;
- Learning new ways of approaching fears so that control can be taken back;
- Changing the way thoughts or emotions may become exaggerated or out of control;
- Addressing social relationships so that they can become more supportive;
- Consider getting a diagnosis and accepting that the fear in some conditions may be related to an eating disorder;
- Moving the focus to managing the fear or emotions, rather than managing the triggers.
If you or someone you care about has a fear of food or gaining weight, and are wondering about healthy approaches to managing the core negative emotions, then counselling might be a useful option. The first step is always to identify if help is needed, and if so then there are lots of options for managing. Seeing your GP and sharing your concerns is always a useful idea.
Author: Vivian Jarrett, MAAPI, MAPS, MAICD, B Psych (Hons), GCert (ResCom).
Vivian Jarrett is the Clinic Director at Vision Psychology in Mt Gravatt and now M1 Psychology at Loganholme. She is passionate about providing high quality psychology services to Australians from all walks of life.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3088 5422.