Everyone deals with stress at some point their lives, but people who experience high levels of perceived stress or long-term stress often end up suffering real physical and emotional consequences. Stress can negatively impact mood and cause people to make poor decisions, including unhealthy eating choices.
April is Stress Awareness Month, so today we’re digging into the reasons why it can be so hard to lose weight when you’re chronically stressed.
The relationship between stress and weight
When we’re under a lot of pressure or have been experiencing a certain amount of stress, our bodies go into fight-or-flight mode (a.k.a. survival mode). This often results in overeating, because our bodies think we’ve used calories to deal with stress and falsely thinks those calories need to be replenished.
Stress causes the levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) in our bodies to increase. Higher levels of cortisol can lead to higher insulin levels, resulting in a drop in blood sugar and cravings for sugary and fatty foods. While eating these comfort foods can temporarily lower stress, it doesn’t last long. The stress-eating cycle continues, literally feeding an overeating habit that eventually leads to weight gain.
This connection between cortisol and weight has been examined in various scientific studies. One study performed by researchers from University College London analyzed longitudinal health data from more than 2,500 men and women older than age 54 and found a connection between cortisol and being overweight.
Other studies have shown that changes in appetite may cause weight fluctuations during stressful periods. One study of 1,355 people found that stress was associated with weight gain in overweight adults. While these studies show an association between stress and changes in appetite or weight, medications, hormonal shifts and psychological conditions could also be influencing these changes.
Healthy ways to cope with stress
If you’ve experienced weight gain as a result of overeating due to stress, use these are some helpful tips for handling stress in healthier ways.
1. Get some casual exercise. Take a brisk walk or go for a light jog. More high-intensity workouts can work against you by raising cortisol levels.
2. Establish a regular mindfulness practice. Incorporate prayer, meditation, breathing exercises or a yoga or tai chi practice into your day to help clear your mind. You’ll be able to handle stress better and avoid poor coping mechanisms, like overeating, more often.
3. Get support. It’s always good to have someone to talk to or lean on so that the stress you’re facing doesn’t continue to build up. Whenever you’re feeling tense, speak with a close friend or family member you trust and can rely on.
4. Read. Reading, especially works of fiction, can be a great distraction and help get your mind off your problems for a while. Next time you feel the urge to grab some cookies, grab a book instead and take it to a relaxing spot to unwind for a bit.
5. Listen to music. Music is a wonderful mood changer. Just be sure you listen to uplifting music that you can sing along with and/or dance around to rather than music that will get you into a deeper funk. The combination of listening to happy music, singing and dancing is one of the best ways to naturally relieve stress. Create some playlists that are ready to go when you need them!
Keep these healthy stress management tips in your back pocket and be prepared to use them the next time you have the urge to overeat. Before you know it, you’ll be more equipped to handle life’s stresses in ways that better serve you — and find yourself reaching for the chips or cookies less often.