Obesity and depression are inextricably linked. Research has shown that women who are depressed are more likely to become obese, and those who are obese are at high risk for depression. The two conditions are like nasty parasites that feed off each other. Depression can lead to self-destructive and self-sabotaging behaviours such as over-eating, for example, while obesity dulls the body and mind leading to feelings of self-loathing, which is an inevitable road to depression if it is not checked in time.
Unfortunately, in many places across the world depression is still not taken seriously enough. After all, we all have bad days or bad phases and depression is often seen as nothing more than an exaggeration of that. Many people will never even admit to being depressed because the world expects you to put on a happy face at all costs. The families of the depressed are also often to blame as they feel embarrassment at acknowledging that a family member is suffering from depression. Even several doctors who are treating women for obesity will not only fail to diagnose the problem but will also ignore the emotional and psychological aspects of obesity altogether. This attitude stems from the general consensus to separate the body and mind when in fact they are both dependant on each other. Society is completely blind to depression in women who are obese and this in turn leads to the women themselves bottling up how they really feel. Why is this bad? Because it creates emotional issues that just grow and grow until they get too hard to cope with, which manifests in several unpleasant ways that are both physiologically and psychologically harmful.
So the biggest obstacle that faces obese women is recognition of this side-effect of obesity. Unless you accept that there is a problem, you cannot fix it.
Symptoms and Repercussions of Depression
Depression is a long-winded, complicated, intricate labyrinth of mental and emotional issues that serve only to drag the affected person into an ever more twisted vortex of negativity and pain. The condition distorts perception and makes day-to-day life very challenging. There is a very thin line between the symptoms and the repercussions of depression.
- Body image issues are the number one cause, symptom and side-effect of obesity-related depression. Because obesity is most obvious in its physical form, obese women suffer from extreme anxiety, sadness, anger and frustration about their appearance. Since being obese is not on par with the standards of beauty today, women develop an extreme self-loathing that takes over their lives. Anger and self-loathing are normal and recurring stages in depression. Obese women feel that they are worth nothing, that they are hopeless and useless to the world in general because the media portrays physical beauty and thinness as the apex of feminine achievement. The distorted sense of self-worth is derived from an even more distorted body image, something else we can thank the media for.
- Obesity is in itself a disease. Sick people are not the happiest. There is, of course, the fact that the obesity itself is putting great stress on bodily systems which leads to feelings of mental heaviness as well. Plus, obese women view themselves as being sick and that in turn leads to self-pity, lack of self-confidence, dramatically lowered self-esteem and thus a reduction in productivity as well. All signs and symptoms of depression.
- As mentioned in the previous point, obesity really taxes the organs. This can cause the organs to either malfunction or to stop working. The immune system is exhausted by all the extra effort it has to put in. Research has shown that depression has just as bad an effect on the immune system as the obesity itself. That gives you an idea of how body and mind are both equally important to health. The emotional state of a person dictates the functioning of the body to a great extent. So both obesity and depression together cause great havoc to the immune system. This leads to a sicker body and mind, which in turn leads to more negativity, ever-deepening depression and often more weight gain. It also increases the risk of several other diseases.
- This is one disease that greatly reduces the quality of life on the whole. Obesity and the depression combined lead to very low levels of energy which in turn lead to decreased mobility, fatigue, lower levels of productivity at work, and a general lack of enthusiasm with life.
- Suicidal thoughts are common.
- Over-eating and frequent binging are both potential causes for obesity. Many depressed people who are obese will often overeat and binge in an attempt to cope with difficult feelings. However, these two behaviours usually occur when people have psychological issues in the first place. Does depression, in this case, precede obesity? Researchers admit that they do not know but that there may be an even deeper link between depression and obesity than they initially thought.
- Extreme bouts of sadness for long periods of time should also be seen as initial symptoms of depression in obesity. Feeling down for weeks or months is not OK. What kind of life is that? This is a hard symptom to detect in people who are generally moody and keep to themselves. Depression can remain hidden for many years which is another reason that it is such a challenge to diagnose.
- Avoidance of social interaction is a natural progression of depressed behaviour. Obese women may stop meeting their friends, going tout shopping and even going to work. This can make it even tougher to catch depression as the symptoms cannot be witnessed by a subjective eye. When someone is depressed and alone, it allows for some pretty self-destructive thoughts to play out without interruption, thus causing a spiral into even deeper depression.
- Women who are obese and depressed will often develop extremely unhealthy relationships with food. Either food will be the enemy which has to be feared because it made them fat, or it will be a friend that they will run to when negative emotions need to be numbed. Both extremes are just as bad.
- Brain scans of women who were depressed for more than 5 to 7 years showed that their neurological structure had changed over time. Quite literally, the hard-wiring in your brain changes to accommodate your depressed state. The new wiring means that your brain chemically requires you to remain in that depressed state. Your brain becomes used to your depression, almost addicted to it, and at some point it is just accepted as a way of life. So it is actually extremely difficult for people who have been depressed for very long to ‘snap out of it’. It may take months or even years to undo the damage and the wiring.
- Depression debilitates a person. Women who are obese and depressed will find it very difficult to stick to an obesity treatment plan. Exercise and healthy eating can both seem like very huge tasks which they do not think they can ever accomplish. This is not laziness or lack of willpower. As stated in the previous point, the changed neurological structure is a huge obstacle, not allowing the person to make any kind of change which will threaten the current chemical processes in the brain.
- If depression can alter the chemical production in the brain, you can imagine what it does to the hormonal system. The hormonal system is much more sensitive than the brain so it can be affected much more easily and sooner too. You don’t have to be depressed for years for hormonal problems to crop up. A few months will do it. Obesity in itself also causes erratic hormonal production which leads to a host of problems. In fact, one of the side-effects of hormonal imbalance is depression. And hormonal issues can also lead to drastic weight gain. Here’s another example of how both body and mind are connected, and another reason that researchers aren’t sure which came first – the obesity and hormonal problems followed by depression or the depression followed by hormonal problems and thus obesity.
- Insomnia is another symptom of both depression and obesity. What’s worse, lack of sleep contributes to the worsening of both conditions.
- Depression increases the risk of several health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and hypertension. The risk of these diseases is anyway greatly increased by obesity. Add depression to that equation and you have a ticking time bomb.
As you can see, all these emotions of depression are linked, each stemming from one and leading to another which in turn links back to the first one. It’s hard to tell them apart. Even harder to tell which is causing which. A vicious cycle indeed, and all excellent reasons to treat depression along with obesity. If depression is not considered in the treatment of obesity, there is a very high chance that the results will be disappointing or that obesity will recur.
What can be done?
It is logical to presume that if obesity is brought under control, the depression will go away. This is true to an extent but not always. Indeed, losing excess weight can and will lead to alleviation of depression symptoms. However, remember that depression causes neurological changes too, especially if both obesity and depression have been present for a very long time.
Long-term depression literally leads to a change in the chemical balance of the brain as well as the neurological structures in the brain. So although an obese woman may lose all her extra weight and become slim, she can still be very depressed because her brain is still wired that way. It can be awhile before things go back to normal, and that too only if she is taking active steps towards it.
This is why obesity needs to be treated both physically and psychologically from the start otherwise the risk of slipping back into old ways of thinking and action is very high.
- Treating depression with obesity is not the same as treating depression alone. Obesity is a health condition that does not allow for traditional depression treatment. For example, normally anti-depressants are prescribed to patients who are severely depressed. However, this should be avoided for obese women as anti-depressants often lead to weight gain. So any success from weight loss efforts can be thwarted and lead to further depression.
- Even the treatments for obesity have to be customised in women who are suffering from depression. For example, dieting is not something that depressed women can easily handle because of their unhealthy relationship with food. However, allowing an unhealthy diet to continue is not the answer either. Regular one-on-one sessions with both a nutritionist and a psychotherapist are in order. Support from the family is also a big help.
- Exercise is a huge help for both depression and obesity. It obviously helps in weight loss, but exercise also has benefits that you cannot see. Exercise improves energy levels, releases endorphins or happy hormones in the blood and just generally makes you feel better. Women who feel good are less likely to indulge in self-sabotaging behaviour and self-hating thoughts.
- Alcohol should be avoided because not only is it nutritionally useless and high in calories, it is also known to worsen depression symptoms.
- Sleep plays a huge role in both obesity and depression. Those who sleep well are more likely to be at their ideal weight than those who don’t. Also, sleeping well does wonders in making you feel better as anyone who has awoken rejuvenated from a nap can testify to.
- Practicing yoga or meditation on a regular basis can help to calm the mind and forge a stronger connection between mind and body.
- Learning about depression is a crucial step in treating depression. As mentioned earlier, most people are not even willing to admit that there is a problem. This puts up a wall and hampers treatment. Even after depression has been accepted, the condition can still be overwhelming and confusing. Learning more about it can help in coping with it.
- Joining some kind of support group where you can interact with people who are going through the same thing you are can be uplifting and a source of great comfort.
- Journaling is a therapeutic activity that is recommended for anyone who has mental turmoil. Writing it all down is a way of sorting through the chaos in your head and finding some clarity of thought.