Did you know that some simple cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques could actually help you stick to your weight loss plan and could also help motivate you to get off the couch and exercise? I learnt this myself, first-hand, when I joined Motivation and these skills helped me considerably in making better choices with my food and exercise.

At Motivation, we teach CBT skills to our clients because we really believe they are one of the very best strategies for successful weight loss. That’s because, as I’ve discussed in other blogs previously, knowing what to do and knowing how to get yourself to do it are entirely separate skills. When it comes to changing behaviour, especially in the long-term, getting yourself to do something different depends largely on what you tell yourself: that is, on your thinking.

Facing Down that Slice of Cake: the CBT Way

You’re at a birthday party and you’re hungry. You’re offered a large slice of chocolate cake. You will behave in either one of three ways; you will either eat the large slice (and perhaps even accept a second slice); you will accept the cake and eat just a small amount or you may decline the cake altogether.

Your behaviour is dependent on your thinking. So if you are saying to yourself, “It’s just one slice; what harm can it do? I’m tired and hungry; I deserve this treat”, you are likely to indulge in a large slice of the cake. If you are subsequently telling yourself, “Okay I’ve ruined my ‘diet’ now anyway, so I may as well have another slice,” this type of ‘all or nothing’ thinking will inevitably lead you down the path of, not jut more cake, but even a run of two or three days of bad eating (sometimes a week of it!). This is what guilt and perfectionism can do people!

On the other hand, if you can stop in your tracks and realign your thoughts to become more positive and more helpful to your weight loss programme, you could say to yourself, “I could have that cake but it’s full of sugar and that will mean I’ll have a blood sugar crash later, which could mean I’m craving sugar for days. Do I really want that? Could I enjoy a protein bar instead and decline the cake?

Or could I just have half of what is served to me, and then continue with the rest of my day sticking to my healthy eating programme?” In this case, the thinking is notably different and likely to lead to different behaviour and different outcomes (perhaps even determining the quality of your food choices in a positive way for the rest of the week, since you are pleased that you stayed in control).

Preparing for Challenging Times

At Motivation we often focus our new clients on regulating their eating as a first step.

In other words, we design a programme that is likely to reduce their appetite and make them feel energised and healthy from the get-go. Once they are eating well and feeling good, we can then transition them into the nitty-gritty of the programme; that is, tackling those unhelpful thought patterns with some CBT. These are especially important when faced with events or situations that may challenge your weight loss plan.

For example, a birthday party, a weekend away or a stressful event, such as work pressure or parenting worries. We help our clients to devise some useful ‘mantras’ that can help to overcome negative, unhelpful thoughts when they arise. Examples of these include:

–  Instead of “It’s not fair; everyone else gets to eat what they want”…change thinking to: “This is hard but it’s well worth it to feel better. I can eat whatever I want, whenever I want, or I can be slimmer and feel great in my clothes again. I can’t have it both ways. And nothing really tastes as good as feeling healthy and slim.”

– Instead of “I’m tired and stressed so I deserve this ‘treat’…change thinking to: “Is it really a ‘treat’ when the result is only really to punish myself with feeling bloated, disappointed and overweight? If I eat sugar now, or drink alcohol, it will give me a quick hit, followed by a slump. What other choice can I make that will help with my stress or tiredness? What else can I do that is more helpful and will actually make me feel better in the long term?”

– Instead of “I can’t do this. It’s too hard. I can’t fight these cravings”…change thinking to: “Craving always pass. I can make them go away faster by focusing my attention on something else.”

CBT Questions to Ask Yourself

One of the most useful techniques when learning CBT skills is to ask yourself pointed questions. When you are having negative thoughts, or feeling heightened emotions that don’t feel good, such as anxiety or low mood, ask yourself these three things:

Is this rational? Or is there a more rational way of seeing this?

Is this helpful? What could be a more helpful way of looking at this and what would a friend say?

Is this way of thinking negative? What would be a more positive way of seeing this? And what would be a kind, more compassionate (either to yourself or to another) way of seeing this situation?

To help to formulate more rational, helpful and compassionate thoughts, we use what we call ‘the ABC method’ at Motivation. Think of a recent situation when you felt bad or choices that you made that you aren’t happy with (such as bingeing or eating junk food)

A is the event (what has happened)

B is the thought (what are you saying to yourself)

C is my emotion (what was I feeling? Is it anxiety/guilt/fear/depression?)

D is my behaviour (what did I do?)

A happens. It is an event that triggers a negative thought or feeling. When C (the emotion) is very strong, it is very hard to control your behaviour. But by reworking your ABCDs, you will not be able to change the situation, but you will be able to change your thoughts about it, and then you will notice a change in your behaviour. We encourage clients to write this down. It is extremely powerful as you can see what you are thinking written down, and you can rework the thought on paper, leaving you feeling entirely different and more positive about the situation or yourself in general.

I practice this regularly. Something happened recently where I was feeling low in mood and questioning myself. By sitting down and writing down the ABCDs, I noticed that I was being incredibly hard on myself, and that my thinking was irrational (ie. “I’m a terrible person”). When I rewrote my ABCDs, I worked on B – the thought. I rewrote a new way of thinking about the situation, which mean I was being kinder to myself and more rational. The urge to go drink a glass of wine or polish off some crisps soon dissipated and I was able to make a choice that was healthier; to take a long soak in a bath which – nine times out of ten – works a million times better for that feelgood factor!

Everyone has their ‘thing’ that gives them a quick fix of pleasure (one that is healthy). Discover yours by reading more about healthy rewards here.

Blog Post by Maebh Coyle