“My depressive episodes are always followed by significant weight gain.”
What The Research Indicates
The literature is clear! Depression and weight are connected. Significant depressive episodes are frequently followed by substantial increases in weight. This is true for adults and adolescents alike (Wurtmann JJ, 1993; Felton J, 2014). This cycle reinforces itself with synergy:
The longer you experience dysphoric mood, the greater the increase in weight – Increased weight leads to poor self-image, thus reinforcing a depressive episode.
The Effects of Stoping Exercise
Let’s use the example of the well seasoned athlete. Have you ever noticed significant weight increases in athletes post retirement? It’s rather shocking! Tonya Harding, JaMarcus Russell, and Kevin Stevens are excellent examples.
If you decrease your engagement in physical activity, whether you are an athlete or not, you are guaranteed to gain weight. Decreasing caloric intake is not enough to balance this effect. Few individuals have a metabolism like Jeffree Star who claims to eat candy all day long and stay skinny. (I’m not convinced, but that’s what he says.)
Self-Efficacy Is Key
Self-efficacy means that when you take a targeted action, you have a sense that your actions have a direct effect on the outcome. Your ability to go toe-to-toe with depression, depends on a firm belief that you have impact.
While some research points to serotonin as the primary culprit for weight gain, this leaves us with little opportunity to affect the outcome (short of going on medication). It is important to engage a comprehensive set of cognitive behavioural tools, that when successful, build a strong sense of self-efficacy, useful in battling both depression and weight gain.
Taking The First Step
We acknowledge that breaking the depression wight gain cycle is not as easy as simply, ‘getting yourself out the door.’ Your mind, fed by dysphoria, is going to battle you every step of the way. However, by committing to taking that first step, you are showing your commitment to feeling better. In other words, in the very beginning, ignore how you feel.
Should you take that first step alone? This should go without saying, –> “No!” Engage in a supportive therapeutic relationship for support. We can’t emphasize the importance of this enough!
Identify – Target – Take Action
We suggest the following techniques to help get you get started. Consider this your starter guide, not a replacement for the one-on-one work you should be doing with a therapist.
Identify: Know what the underlying thought distortions are driving your mood and inactivity. This is best done by identifying and labeling your maladaptive thought patterns.
For details, listen to FMP 006 • Defining Cognitive Distortions (CBT Masters Series #1).
Target: Once you have an idea about the typical patters of thinking that get in your way, target the one that feels the most relevant. Work by Dr. David Burns shows that walking through a three step process in targeting our most maladaptive thoughts, is effective at improving mood while increasing motivation.
For details, listen to FMP 007 • Triple Column Technique (CBT Maters Series #2).
Action: The hardest work has been done. You now know the distortions driving your decreased mood and motivation. You have identified one that you want to go after using the Triple Column Technique. Now, it is time to test your hard work by significantly increasing your activity level.
Remember when we mentioned the importance of taking that fist step? Now commit to taking second, third, and fourth steps by engaging in regular physical activity. We guarantee that distortions will emerge. You will use the Triple Column Technique to challenge the distortions as they arise, thus, kicking them to the curb.
Persistence Is King
Avoid using, “feeling better” as your primary outcome metric. It takes a few weeks to notice changes in thinking patters, mood, not to mention weight. Commit to the process, not the outcome. There is not doubt that this is the most difficult battle you will face!
In the long run, you will master tools that can be used throughout your life. Success is a long game. Simply put, persist!