The success or failure of your ability to lose weight lies squarely on how well you manage the stress in your life. Stress is the condition of too many or too intense physical or psychological demands placed on a person. Chronic stress can lead to serious health problems and depression. In this post I want to talk about individuals who actually are unwilling to let go of the stress in their life. That seems strange, right? It’s actually not that uncommon. If you’ve had chronic stress in your life, might it be that you don’t want to let go?
About 70% of individuals with chronic stress and depression respond to behavior therapy and end up feeling much better. However, about 30% do not improve. Interestingly, some of these do not seem to want to improve. We call these “badge of honor” folks because they wear their stress as though it were a badge of honor. It has also been referred to as the “martyr syndrome.” For these individuals, stress is actually quite functional and therefore to give it up, they fear they may actually lose more than they gain (at least in the short term). These individuals, incidentally, are the least successful at losing weight (in one of my studies, they collectively lost no weight at all), because stress and depression are standing in the way of their success and they are just not able to let it go.
If you have been experiencing chronic depression and/or stress for a long time, consider whether you are wearing the “badge of honor:”
Are considered the “stressed out” person in your house?
Do you feel as though other people are not nearly as busy as you?
Do other people often comment on how stressed you are?
Do you spend a lot of time complaining about other people?
Do you sometimes use stress or being too busy as an excuse for mistakes?
Do you find it very difficult to relax?
Do you take very little time to relax?
Consider Janice, mom of 3, who works full-time. She has frequent fights with her husband because he works late and therefore can’t drive the kids to their activities, which puts this task on her each night along with making dinner and managing homework. She spends 2 hours a night helping the kids with homework because she says they won’t do it if she doesn’t supervise. She also volunteers for a community association and has to attend meetings at least twice a week. She comes to therapy complaining that nobody helps her, she has too many demands, and that she has no time for dieting and exercise but wants to lose 50 pounds. She frequently shows up late to session with long-winded excuses about how busy she is and how crazy her day was. When we begin to take steps towards reducing some of her demands, Janice seems resistant. She admits that her husband is only working the late hours to afford a summer vacation, and that she doesn’t really want to go on such an expensive vacation, but refuses to talk to him about it because “he probably won’t go for it.” She also refuses to cut back on her volunteer time even though she complains that she doesn’t like the people and it isn’t fun anymore. She also refuses to brainstorm ways to get the children to take ownership of their homework, even though she admits they did it on their own when she was away on a business trip. Why is she resistant to some pretty straightforward solutions? We end up struggling to find time for her to workout, plan healthy meals, and do all the things that she needs to do to get started on weight loss.
Janice’s “stress” is her way of gaining a sense of control over her life. She can use it as a tool to get people to do what she needs them to, excuse mistakes, and shirk responsibility. She also earns a certain amount of respect by being “in charge” of all aspects of home life. If she were to reduce her stress by creating a more balanced life she might actually feel less in control of people in her life, lose her status as “in charge” and not have her usual excuse when she makes mistakes. If she were to become an equal partner as opposed to the “bearer of the burden,” the entire family dynamic would change, likely at the expense of some of her power. One big change is that Janice would need to learn an entirely different way of communicating with others and be forced to acknowledge and deal with other people’s feelings, something she gets a pass on with everyone walking on eggshells, not wanting to overwhelm her further. If she were to lose her “stress”, she would also be forced to confront her weight, start exercising, change her diet, etc. She would be forced to do some things that might be pretty uncomfortable, even though this would allow her to have what she really wants in her life which is to achieve a healthy weight. Although from the outside we know that Janice will feel so much better when she achieves balance, starts exercising, and eating better, in her mind such a shift might be pretty scary. As a result, Janice has locked herself into a pattern of chronic stress, one that is likely to be destructive to her health.
The point here is that if you keep up a pretty high level of stress in your life for too long, it may become a crutch that is hard to let go of. Stress may become your tool for dealing with people. Your perfect excuse. Your way of feeling in control. Stress may become the comfortable shoe. Stress may become…you.
Janice is a fictional patient constructed to illustrate features of chronic stress, any parallel to a real person is coincidence.