Tackling the emotional side of obesity

January 11, 2013|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • Dr. Hillary Wade has lost weight by attending Stepping Stone support group where she was taught how to find the emotional reasonings behind her eating.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

Hillary Wade spent years trying to hide.

She hid from the negative comments that strangers might make. She hid from social situations where people would judge her without knowing her.

And, mostly, she hid from her own feelings.

But one year ago, a Monday night meeting became her saving grace.

She sat in a circle of 10 people, began to speak and after uttering three words, broke down and cried.

Talking about being obese had always been taboo, Wade said. But here she was, among a group of supportive individuals who understood what she was going through. And she was overwhelmed by the freedom.

Obesity is defined as a condition in which a person weighs considerably more than normal for his or her height, sex and body frame.

Often, there is medical intervention to address the negative physical effects of carrying excessive pounds.

But obesity also can impact your emotional health.

Just ask Wade.

"It can lead to loneliness, depression and even boredom from cutting yourself off from social interaction," the Hagers-town dentist said.

In fact, she noted, it was emotional upheaval that contributed to her weight gain.

"I had had weight issues for a lot of years," Wade said. "But over the past 15 years, the pounds began to add up pretty significantly. The main problem was stress and the emotional eating that came with it."

Wade said she was dealing with family issues — death and cancer — and also was going through dental school.

"I had a lot of different feelings but I didn't know how to deal with them," she said. "So I turned to food."

In an effort to get her weight under control, Wade said she enrolled in a weight-loss program and began to exercise.

"It helped a little, but the stress was still there and I gained everything back," she noted. "I really got to the point where I was so unhappy, I knew that I needed to make some changes in my life."

So she approached Lori Schellenberg, the owner of Stepping Stone Health in Hagerstown, who provides nurse care management and nutritional health coaching to assist people in their weight-loss journey.

Schellenberg said she is a registered nurse with more than 32 years of experience in the medical field and is a certified nurse case manager.

She has worked in a hospital setting, as well as home-health, occupational and rehabilitation settings.

"I have taken care of patients across a continuum of life," she said. "And I came to realize that the quality and longevity of my patient's life was directly related to obesity. So many of them had lost weight and gained weight, tried and failed. I wondered why and began to research this question. It was based on this that I established Stepping Stone Health."

Schellenberg said those who have experienced obesity and yo-yo dieting often are not successful with weight loss for the long-term, regardless of what tool they use or how many pounds they initially shed.

"That's because those people never address the underlying emotions that lead them to obesity," she said. "Instead, they turn those emotions off and use food to deal with those unpleasant — and sometimes pleasant — emotions in an unhealthy way."

Schellenberg said she can identify with what her clients are going through.

"I began to pack on extra pounds with each child," she said. "I have four grown children now and began experiencing medical issues directly related to obesity, including hypertension and diabetes. Utilizing one of my weight- loss tools myself, I was able to lose 40 pounds and my blood sugars and blood pressure are now within normal limits. I have balance in my life through exercise, healthy eating habits and surrounding myself with 'like' people, focusing on health and happiness.  I want to live a long and healthy life and enjoy my grandchildren in the future. And that's what I want for my clients, too."

The emotional side of obesity, Schellenberg said, involves feelings.

"Feelings point us toward what is pleasurable and what is painful so we can make the right choices," she noted.  "Pleasure and pain are relative and specific to each person. That is why we have people who are skydivers versus people who are librarians.  That is why some people will complain of a stubbed toe while others will ignore a torn ACL in their knee and continue to play football."

Emotions can be trained, she added, "and for this reason, each person, although they can be successful in weight loss through generic one-size-fits-all weight-loss programs, requires an individualized approach to assist them on their journey to permanent weight loss."

They also need support, and among the tools of her program, Schellenberg said, is a support group called "Change Your Mind, Change Your Body."

"It's interesting to note that currently in my support group, I have only women," she said. "Most of my clients also are women. I think that men tend to think they can do it on their own. This comes from our culture, I believe."

Another interesting point, Schellenberg noted, "is that most of the people in the support group have requested an all-women's group.  This tells me a lot about body image and relationship issues."

At one time, Hillary Wade said she weighed 229 pounds.  Today, she weighs 168.

Learning to better cope with the stresses in her life has helped in that weight loss, she said.

"But support is huge, too," she added.  "It's important to be able to open up about something that's so personal to you and know that others feel that same way."

Even when she reaches her weight goal, Wade said she will continue attending the Monday night support group meetings, which are held at Wade Family Dentistry on Howell Road in Hagerstown.

"I know I need to keep myself in check," she said. "It's something that people can struggle with every day, every week."

Wade said people she has met at the support group meetings developed weight problems for a variety of reasons.

"One person was taught to eat everything on her plate, so she has dealt with years and years of overeating," she said. "For me, I'm a stress eater. Others have dieted their whole lives because they think society expects them to look a certain way. When you're overweight, you look at those actresses or models and think you'll never get there, which feeds your depression."

"This pressure to be thin provides an onslaught of continued negative emotions," Schellenberg agreed, "including anxiety, guilt, helplessness and shame, which, in turn, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of overeating — unless one gets to the bottom of these feelings and what really is the underlying issue."

The emotional side of obesity can also have an affect on relationships.Schellenberg said "anytime one person is not emotionally healthy, it can be a trigger to so many issues in a relationship."

For example, she said, "if a partner begins to develop a poor self-esteem and poor body image due to obesity, this will often lead to feelings of unattractiveness in the bedroom, leading to sexual issues. That person may not be able to address those emotions, instead avoiding their partner in other ways leading to a breakdown in communication and causing the other partner to feel unloved. It becomes a vicious cycle."

Schellenberg advises individuals with obesity issues to "first and foremost, find a program that offers a weight-loss tool to assist you in getting the weight off successfully and safely. And, more importantly, focus on making the necessary changes to keep the weight off. The approach that I take is to offer tools for weight loss, provide one-on-one support and education,  and, as people lose the weight, support them in a group setting along their journey."

Seeking support

Persons interested in attending the Stepping Stone support group or needing more information can contact Lori Schellenberg at or telephone 301-325-8208.

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