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Arya M. Sharma, MD Headshot

The Five Stages of Living With Obesity

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Some readers may be well aware of the five stages of grief, the natural process of grieving, which, according to Kubler-Ross, move from denial to anger to fear to grief and finally to acceptance.

As others have pointed out, the same five stages apply to virtually every serious life event, including being diagnosed with a chronic or severe illness.

Now that we have come to appreciate that obesity is a chronic disease (for which we have no cure!), it should come as no surprise that these five stages also apply to obesity.

First comes denial: not denial that I am gaining or have put on weight -- that is obvious enough. Rather, denial that this may be a real problem or may have serious consequences down the road. A normal response in this stage is to not want to know about it. I don't see a doctor because I don't want to hear that I have a problem. I don't listen to advice because it doesn't apply to me. I don't weigh myself because I don't want to know. Pseudoacceptance -- it may be as it may, but if that's the case, then that's the case -- don't tell me I have a problem and don't tell me I need to do something about it. Leave me alone!

Second comes anger: often it is the anger that fuels the denial. Anger at my body. Anger at myself. Anger at the people around me (including those offering help or understanding). Anger at life in general. Why me? Why this? Why can I not stop myself? Why can I not stick with my diet or exercise plan? Nothing works!

Third comes depression: this phase is characterized by sadness, a sense of loss, despair, anxiety, fear of what is to come. What if this weight gain continues? What if my health problems get worse? I don't want to be the "fatty" that people make fun of. I don't want to be ridiculed in public. I don't want my pains to get worse. I don't want to end up in a wheelchair or have diabetes or sleep with a CPAP machine. There will be restrictions -- giving up things I love. It will mean effort -- doing things that I don't care for. No longer can I live like I used to or like others continue to -- lucky them!

Fourth comes bargaining: OK, I get that I have a problem but really, there must be some simple way out of this. If I can only find the right diet or right exercise or maybe cut my carbs or go vegan or get myself tested for food allergies. How about I just give up the white stuff, or the fat, or the pop? What if I buy a treadmill and religiously used it every day? How about I just share my story ? May be someone will help me -- or I will find the strength. I have been successful in every other aspect of my life -- so really -- how hard can this be?

Fifth we reach acceptance: This is where I finally accept that I have this problem and reach the point where I am ready to move on. Once I accept that this problem is not simply going to go away, nor will it be fixed by another quick diet or weight-loss supplement, I reach the stage where I accept that I need to become more realistic about the solutions. I am now ready to find and accept the help I need (and fight for it if I have to) or I am ready to accept that this is what I will have to live with for the rest of my life -- so let's make the best of it and move on.

Research shows that these stages are not perfectly sequential -- often they occur in parallel and even regress or sometimes flip-flop from one stage into another. That is perfectly natural. Some folks may never move beyond denial or anger, some may be stuck forever in depression or bargaining. Even those, who have accepted their situation may occasionally regress (e.g. the surgical patient who is in denial having to take his vitamins).

At this point it is important to point out that acceptance does not simply mean accepting the status quo.

Rather, acceptance means accepting the fact that I need to now deal with this problem the best I can. If I need to become a marathon runner to conquer this weight, so be it. If I need to open my soul to a psychologist to work through my childhood trauma, then that's what I have to do. If in the end the only solution is bariatric surgery -- bring it on. If this is what it will take -- I am now ready to accept it, embrace it, use it to my advantage. I am now ready to stand up to bullies and the "wise guys" who have all the answers.

As health professionals, it is important that we recognise what stage our patient is at. The denial and anger stage are not the best time to discuss diet plans. Nor is the depression or bargaining stage the best time to bring up the topic of surgery or lifelong medication.

With true acceptance comes hope and a positive change that sets the foundation of whatever is to come next. This is no longer the time to point fingers, assign blame, nurse regrets,  hide in shame, dissolve in despair.

Things are as they are and I accept them. But, as they say, when life throws you lemons, reach for the tequila!

If you have experienced or can relate to these stages I'd love to hear your story.

This post was previously published on Dr. Sharma's Obesity Notes

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