Emotional Health Check-Up
By Dale Veith, PsyD and Kalin Burkhardt, MS
I’m amazed at how much time and energy we spend trying to get physically fit and how little we invest in our emotional well-being. Emotions are part of leading a healthy life—if the emotions are healthy, that is. While we can’t judge the health of our emotions based solely on how we feel physically, we can at least understand how well we function emotionally.
Anxiety is a common emotion that occurs throughout the weight loss process. People experience anxiety or worry about losing enough weight in order to meet their health goals. They are also concerned about gaining weight, and more, after they have reached a desired weight. People often find that, particularly for those who have undergone bariatric surgery or who are on a restricted eating plan, that they had been suppressing their anxiety with food and now are no longer able to do so. Because of this, more intense feelings of anxiety come to the surface.
Anxiety attacks happen when there is a rush of adrenaline in the body, which is the body’s natural way of responding to danger, low blood sugar, and stimulants. It gets the body ready to take action by increasing blood flow and tensing muscles. If this happens when there is not a clear source of danger, it can be more frightening and more difficult to reduce.
Similarly, panic happens when someone experiences the above symptoms to such a heightened extent that he or she wants to flee the situation. This is experienced in the mind rather than in the body. While what you are feeling is likely annoying, unsettling, or painful, it is important to remember that panic is not harmful and it passes.
Anxiety and panic can become automatic conditioned reactions to certain situations. To reverse the conditioned response, it is necessary to retrain your reactions to various anxiety-inducing situations so that you are desensitized to them. One way to do this is to refocus your attention onto something that is pleasant and harmless. This could include taking a walk, knitting, counting backwards from 100 by 3, listening to calming music, or working on a crossword puzzle. Another strategy is to focus on your breath. Practice taking slow breaths through your nose to the count of three and completely filling your lungs. Then hold for three counts. Next, exhale through your mouth while counting to six, and again pause for three counts. Repeat this routine several more times. It is most helpful to practice breathing in such a way frequently when you are not anxious so that when you are feeling anxiety or panic, you can draw upon this skill that you are already accustomed to.
Using imagery is another useful tool to combat anxiety or panic. Imagine a safe place that brings you positive feelings of happiness and calmness. This could be imagining the beach, a mountain, or a place of worship. It can also include participating in an enjoyable activity, such as swimming or spending time with loved ones. Pay close attention to each of your five senses to form a vivid image. What are the colors and objects in your image? How warm is it? What textures do you feel, for example soft sand or warm blanket? What time of day is it? What do you hear? Practicing this exercise in a time of calmness can help you call upon an image more easily when you experience panic or anxiety.