Stressful situations require something extra out of us. We need more alertness, more awareness, more energy. Getting attacked by a wild animal or an armed enemy floods your blood with the kinds of hormones and chemicals that make survival possible. You’re snapped out of your normal peace of mind and into the stressful scene, ready to take it on.
Acute stress is the kind that we evolved to handle.
A similar thing happens when you get up to speak on stage, or take a deep breath to ask your love interest out to dinner. This kind of stress wakes us up and prepares us for what life is about to present to us. We handle the situation, the hormones subside, and we move on.
Chronic stress is very different.
Quiet, subtle, and unrelenting, chronic stress runs silently through your body every day, if you’re afflicted by it. Our ancestors didn’t encounter it. Anthropological studies of aboriginal civilizations show the average day for them is remarkably stress-free. They hunt when they need to, gather when they can, and spend a lot of each day chatting and joking with friends. No deadlines, no chemical stressors, and no internal inflammation that locks the fat to their belly.
The Causes of Chronic Stress
What is it about modern life that makes us constantly stressed?
Ask yourself what makes your stomach tighten and your jaw clench. We fill our lives with busywork and distraction, take on more work than we can rightly handle, and put pressure on ourselves to do more, look better, and be more available than ever before. No longer is it normal to grab a quick respite from our obligations by going to a quiet meadow to think. We now have devices that make unplugging near impossible.
Psychological stressors like deadlines and arguments are part of the picture, but an often undermined piece of the puzzle is physical stressors that may not feel emotionally stressful, but still trigger chronic stress in your body.
5 Physical Causes of Stress
- Lack of sleep
- Eating too little (chronic dieting)
- Exercising too much (chronic cardio)
Fitness mags tell us that in order to look our best we must work out constantly while eating as little as we can. Both lack of nutrition and over-working muscles are stressors, especially when combined.
Don’t worry, there are forms of diet and exercise that reduce stress very effectively, as well as helping you to lose weight. Patients are surprised when I tell them they need to exercise less to help them shed some pounds, but it’s often the case.
Sleep is one of the greatest factors in this list, and the situation isn’t made easier by that daily hour of cardio taking time from your productive day.
Failing to get adequate sleep is huge. Sleep is essential for our brains to process the day’s events and to clear out the waste products of thinking. Inadequate sleep has also been shown to increase weight gain.
Call me crazy, but maybe that hour on the treadmill would be better spent on the pillow.
How Stress Makes Us Gain Weight
Stress also packs on the pounds in both mental and physical ways.
The effect on our mental state (as well as the time-restricted nature of stressful lives) means that when we are stressed, we forget to put effort into what we eat. A looming deadline can make us feel the need for comfort food, maybe some of the sweet things we ate as children, just to make ourselves feel better. This alone can lead to either diet neglect or overeating.
In a busy day there just isn’t as much time as you need to do things like prepare proper whole food meals and to nourish yourself well. Instead, you’re likely to simply grab the nearest unhealthy snack, quickly stuff it into your bag and shoot out the door, into the fray.
Who has the time to eat good food? Right?
People who make the time and people who inform themselves about how to streamline healthy eating, that’s who. Having every minute of every day filled up with busywork does not give you stars for effort; it compromises your health and your ability to stay slim.
When under that oppression of emotional stress it’s very difficult to find the strength and motivation to forgo temptation of addictive sweets. Why do you think the meal of choice for the stereotypical breakup is a tube of ice cream? You’ll find it harder to stop eating when full if you’re eating like this, because you’re not eating to feel full, you’re eating to feel better.
We’ll cover some much healthier ways to feel better in the next section.
As for the metabolic effect, stress increases levels of certain hormones in our blood that prime our metabolism for storing fat, rather than burning fuel.
The 3 hormones of stress:
- CHR (corticotrophin releasing hormone)
Cortisol is involved in the daily rhythm of wakefulness and sleepiness. It’s highest in the morning, to help you get out of bed, and gradually falls into the evening, when it’s time to wind down. Chronic stress will disrupt this rhythm.
A disrupted cortisol rhythm will:
- Raise insulin
- Reduce insulin sensitivity
- Keep fat from being accessed
- Store energy as belly fat and visceral fat
Cortisol causes glucose to rush out of cells and into the blood. Useful for getting out of bed in the morning, or to get out of a sudden life-or-death situation, but not when it happens all day, every day. Consistent glucose spikes lead to chronically elevated levels of insulin, which leads to insulin resistance, which as we know contributes to obesity and diabetes.
Cortisol also likes to store calories in the worst possible places – belly fat and the visceral fat packed around your abdominal organs.
Stress and weight gain go hand in hand. Chronic disease such as fatty liver, obesity, and heart problems are also not far behind. What can we do to combat this threat?
How to De-Stress and Keep Slim
Now that we know how important it is to reduce stress in our lives, here are the most effective ways that you can reduce chronic stress immediately.
Friends are the first port of call when things get overwhelming. That impulse to pick up the phone and unload to a trusted friend is not just there to distract you. It’s there because your instincts know that two heads are better than one.
Getting the blood pumping in playful activities is one of the most effective ways to lower the feelings of overwhelm, unwind from work, and remember that there’s more to life than whatever the latest crisis is.
Get plenty of sun, and spend peaceful time in nature whenever possible. Even looking at pictures of nature has been shown to reduce stress hormones and improve mental performance.
Vitamin D levels are depleted by high cortisol, so in a world where so many of us are deficient in the crucial sun-vitamin anyway, it’s doubly important that we get time in the sun.
Protect Your Time
Delegate your most irksome tasks if possible, and if not, get the little things done as soon as possible. Procrastination increases stress by keeping a list of tedious to-dos hanging over our heads for the whole day. Get it done in the next two minutes, delegate it to someone else, or just drop it completely.
The world does not have the final say in where your time is spent. Only you have the authority to hand a piece of your life over to a task or not.
Make time for the important things.
How do you like to de-stress and unwind? Leave a tip in the comments below, and I might add it to a future post.