If you’re feeling the psychological or physiological effects of stress, you’re not alone. According to the American Psychological Association, in 2021, eighty percent of the US population suffer from stress. These feelings can manifest in numerous ways, such as the way we eat and what we eat.
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Stress-related weight gain is a common trend, and with this weight gain can come additional health problems that increase feelings of being overwhelmed. But don’t let stress dominate your life. You can do plenty of things to lessen the load, from tweaking your lifestyle and work regime to injecting mindfulness into your interpersonal interactions. Understanding stress and how it affects your weight is one of the first lessons in biology.
How Unhealthy Eating Is Related to Our Body's Chemistry
The primary hormone responsible for triggering the stress response is cortisol, produced in the adrenal glands. Cortisol and adrenalin are released into the bloodstream when the brain perceives itself to be under threat. These hormones contain large amounts of glucose, and this release gives the body the extra energy needed to escape a dangerous situation.
But all that glucose going into the bloodstream needs to be replenished, and the fastest way to recoup glucose is by eating, and the sweeter, fattier, and stodgier the food, the better. Research from Ohio State University also indicates that cortisol slows down the metabolism in the long run, exacerbating the weight gain from compulsive eating.
Stress often comes from external sources like work, school, relationships, or finances. In addition to the burdens of daily challenges, stress makes it harder for us to process emotions and information, which only exacerbates the existing symptoms—it can be a vicious cycle. Effective communication and problem-solving are also more difficult when stressed.
Stress can have a variety of emotional impacts. It can manifest as irritability or self-isolation. And it’s not uncommon for people under pressure to lash out seemingly unprovoked, yet they likely were already simmering with irritability. And loneliness, moodiness, or depression can often cause stressed individuals to withdraw further from socializing. Unfortunately, socializing is one of the best antidotes to stress.
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That Hummingbird Heartbeat: Fast and Furious Reactions to Stress
Stress can manifest physiologically, too. A faster pulse and increased perspiration are classic symptoms of stress in the moment, and many people report experiencing digestive problems and abdominal pains. These stomach effects are due to the body ‘reassigning’ blood flow from the digestive system to the organs essential in preparing for a threat.
That nervous energy that stress gives us causes muscles to tense. This tension leads to jaw clenching and teeth grinding; unsurprisingly, stress headaches are another common phenomenon. Tensing the back and shoulder muscles while sitting at a desk for prolonged periods is particularly tough on the body.
Prolonged stress can also adversely impact the immune system. Data collected by the Mayo Clinic reports: “The long-term activation of the stress response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follow can disrupt almost all your body's processes.”
Eating Your Heart Out!
It’s natural to use food to soothe our stress, yet, since digestion and metabolism are impaired by stress, learning healthy ways to handle fatigue effectively can help. There are plenty of ways to lessen or prevent stress-related weight gain.
Below are some simple ways to prevent stress eating. Learn to stop stress-related weight gain in its tracks.
Related reading: "6 Foods that Trigger Anxiety from a Nutritional Psychiatrist."
7 Tips to Support Healthy Eating and Weight
One of the first things you can do to prevent weight gain is to take control of your eating. Notice the first signs of hunger, and nourish your body. Skipping meals is a big no-no. You’re more likely to grab an unhealthy snack or convenience food when your body is desperate for fuel.
Swap out your unhealthy choices for fruits and nuts or a protein drink. A study shows that walnuts, in particular, assist the body in lowering blood pressure responses to stress.
It’s worth it to keep a record of your eating; it will be easier to spot trends or recurring moments of weakness and help you anticipate and plan for future stressors.
Incorporate a regular workout of fitness training or weight lifting into your week. Get into the groove! It can make a big difference in the long run. Additionally, mindfulness practices like yoga, meditation, stretching, and deep breathing have immediate benefits and create long-term improvement by lowering stress levels overall.
Avoid eating out of boredom by distracting yourself with healthy activities, such as brisk walking or doing mindfulness exercises. When you reach for food, instead, grab a stress ball, Rubik cube, or putty. The squeezing and release of your hand will help you relax.
Take time to get adequate sleep; it can do wonders to improve emotional and physiological well-being, too.
TIP 7 Lastly, there is also a social aspect to stress. There’s a good reason people say that a problem shared is a problem halved. Talking to friends and family can ease your worries and help you feel less burdened. If this doesn't help, talking to a coach, counselor, or psychologist is also an option.
They say you are what you eat—the trick is to not eat your feelings!
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