For most of us, stress is a part of our everyday life. Stress at home, stress at work, stress about our weight – it’s everywhere and no one is immune to the stressors that life has to offer. The problem is that when trying to lose weight, stress plays a bigger role than we think. And while most come and go without so much as a thought, they often have a lasting impact on our waistlines, due to biological and mental reasons.
The Biological Impact of Stress on Weight and Diet
Typically, most of us think of stress as nothing more than a feeling, one that is completely independent of our body’s internal functions, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. We actually have a very physical response to stress that undoubtedly affects our body weight.
For example, when you’re under a great deal of stress, your body iniates a “fight or flight” response and releases higher amounts of the hormone cortisol. Based on research, we know that cortisol is responsible for many healthy bodily functions, such as keeping your blood pressure stable. However, it can also contribute to non-healthy bodily functions. Perhaps the most notable one is its effect on your weight.
This can turn your overeating into a habit. Because increased levels of the hormone also help cause higher insulin levels, your blood sugar drops and you crave sugary, fatty foods. So instead of a salad or a handful of almonds, you’re more likely to reach for cookies or mac and cheese. That’s why they’re called “comfort foods.” By constantly releasing cortisol, your body will begin to view eating, or these foods, as a source of solace and a means of temporarily eliminating stress. Fatty and sugary foods are usually the big culprits, because lots of us have such a strong love for them. The bottom line?
More stress = more cortisol = higher appetite for junk food = more belly fat.
Another thing that happens when stressed is the increase of the hormone that controls satiety, ghrelin, which causes you to feel more hungry and leads to overeating.
It boosts your appetite while increasing the likelihood that your body will store food as fat—primarily in your midsection, which is the worst place for it.
The Mental Impact of Stress on Weight and Diet
There are mental impacts of stress on your waistline as well, because feeling anxious and tense all the time contributes to emotional eating. If you struggle with this yourself, then you already know how powerful negative emotions can be when it comes to craving foods that bring you comfort.
Those who feel stress, or are involved in stressful environment, on a regular basis are known to experience anxiety, depression, lack of motivation or focus, irritability, anger, and have problems sleeping.
And because stress happens on a daily basis, choosing to cope by using food will certainly impact your body weight, and your health overall. In fact, a number of diseases and health conditions are often prompted by eating too much too often.
Stress vs. Your Health
Stress may be one of the nation’s new health serial killers based on the effect it has on nearly every part of your body.
Medically proven, stress contributes to:
Heart Disease, Strokes, High Blood Pressure, Colitis, Irritability, Rheumatism, Depression, Migraines, Diabetes, Athersclerosis, Insomnia, Fatigue, Sex Problems, Skin Diseases, Allergies, Overeating, Asthma, Kidney Disorders, Ulcers, and THE LIST GOES ON…
Therefore, not only is stress keeping you from achieving your weight loss goals, but also keeping you from being as healthy all-around as you should be.
How to De-Stress Your Life
So, reappraisal – changing how you think about stress – is the big one, but there are other actions to take that can positively change your response to stress.
Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Say to yourself: “Look, traffic is unpleasant, but who cares?” Is it really worth being the guy who flips out because someone dared into his lane, every honk bringing him closer to stress-induced heart attack? We’ve all seen that guy, we’ve all been that guy, and it’s no way to live. If you get the urge to honk or speed up when someone puts their blinker on to come into your lane, don’t do it. Stay your hand. Acknowledge the desire, know that these urges are the result of a lizard brain prone to exaggerated responses in a modern world, and tell yourself that you’re better than that. You’ll go about your life with the preternatural calm of a zen master (well, maybe not quite that calm), deftly maneuvering through the thickest and nastiest of traffic and smiling all the while. In the words of a different type of zen master, “Let it be.”
In a “stressful” situation, get as weirdly analytical as you need to dismantle it.
Ask yourself questions like “Is [the stressor] going to negatively impact my life enough to justify this physiological response?” or “How will sweaty palms and an elevated heart rate improve my ability to pay my car bill?” You’ll often find that answering them honestly and logically removes the stress.
Don’t let important things hang over you.
Remember that mounting personal debt is not just an abstract stressor to be discarded or ignored or meditated away. You owe money; take steps to start paying down your debt methodically, however minimal the payment might be. You have a deadline; meet it. You’ve got a neglected spouse; wine and dine them. Some problems are real and deserve your attention. Reappraisal won’t beat everything.
Don’t ever say any permutation of “I’m so stressed,” even if you are.
What’s the point? Whose cause does it serve? By reaffirming your stress level in a negative manner, you give it life and power over you. You’re literally telling yourself to be stressed out. It’s silly, so stop feeling sorry for yourself.
Give to others.
Volunteer somewhere, help the old lady across the street (or whatever the modern corollary for that is), pitch in to help friends move houses, offer to show your mom how to properly lift heavy things, walk that old dog his elderly owner is unable to walk, make dinner for your sick buddy, and so on. A recent study found that stress only increased mortality risk in those who had not “provided tangible assistance to friends or family members.” People who helped their friends and family could endure stress without incurring a mortality risk.
And for those who think they can’t do this, that they’d never be able to truly convince themselves that stress wasn’t hurting them: faking it can work. Folks in the stress reappraisal studies had spent their lives hearing how stress could kill, just like all of you, and they were able to change how they responded to stress. See, the human brain is powerful. We have the unique ability to psyche ourselves out and think ourselves into a depressive, unhealthy pit, a terrible cycle of bad thoughts begetting bad thoughts begetting poor health. But it goes both ways. We can also trick ourselves into feeling better. We can tell ourselves that we don’t care about it, that the traffic doesn’t bother us – even if it kind of does – and that the stress we do experience isn’t harmful to our health, and not only will we eventually start to believe it, it will become true.
The ultimate message is that there is no “true you” underlying everything, waiting to call your bluff. Rather, we are what we think, say, and do. We have the power to shape our response to this sometimes but not necessarily stressful thing called life.
The real beauty of this approach is it’s easy. Thinking a thought takes almost zero effort. It expends very few calories. You can do it from the comfort of your bed. All you need is to know it can and it very well will work.
Stress will kill you.
But only if you let it.