by M.J. Murphy
Everyone knows that stress can lead us right to the comfort food, and that comfort food often takes the form of carbohydrates and fats. Sweets, snacks, beer, wine, bread, potatoes…pick your favorite.
What you may not know is how stress actually leads to this weight gain.
Under stress such as tension, anger, fear or worry, the body produces hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. Why? When our ancestors were under stress, they needed these chemicals to help them be alert and focused, to increase the heart rate and get muscles tense and ready for fight or flight.
Since most of us have mental and emotional tension in sedentary jobs, these hormones really cause us problems because we can’t run away from our desks or pop the boss in the nose.
When our ancestors ran away or fought, they needed to refuel and these stress hormones also signaled their bodies to eat. So, these same hormones tell us to eat, even if we haven’t had any physical activity.
We may find ourselves in a vicious cycle of stress, followed by elevated cortisol, followed by chips and cola, or some other combination of carbs and fats.
The best answer to correct this eating pattern is a combination of stress management techniques, exercise, and healthy eating patterns. It also helps to know what your triggers are – not everyone defines stress the same way.
Stress management techniques
Find a few that you like and will use. 3 easy ones to incorporate into your lifestyle are deep breathing, positive thinking and substituting TV with another activity.
Deep breathing is good for you. If you like, say a lovely mantra to yourself as you inhale and exhale, or you could just say peace as you inhale and serenity as you exhale. Simply counting 1-2-1-2 as you breathe will also work.
When do we breathe slowly and deeply? When we are asleep, calm, and relaxed. Deep breathing is a great way to signal the body to relax. Do it several times a day, even when you are not experiencing stress.
Thinking positive thoughts or focusing on a beautiful place that you enjoy are fine ways to de-stress. Anxious thoughts will produce stress in the body, positive thoughts encourage us to relax.
As you increase awareness of where your thoughts are going moment to moment, gently bring them back to the present, to anything positive you can find to focus on, be grateful for, appreciate.
Watch less TV. When people say they watch TV to relax, they often actually are using it to detach and distract themselves. Especially avoid late evening news – the stories make many people more anxious right before they go to bed. Instead, do some stretching, yoga, meditation, or journal writing.
Exercise helps you lower your stress and control weight at the same time by burning calories. Find something you like to do that makes sense in your busy life and just do it!
If you are absolutely too busy or just don’t like going to the gym, don’t choose that.
If you like walking, give yourself a push to do that 3-4 times per week or every day if you can. If you enjoy walking with company, get a buddy, but go alone if you have to. Just get up and move – use your imagination! Turn on some music and dance in your living room. Walk around while you talk on the phone. Park the car at the end of the parking lot. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Be creative!
Healthy Eating for Stress
Avoid processed foods such as refined flours, sugars and fats. These foods give us quick, feel-good energy and let us down with a sluggish feeling.
The swings in blood sugar can lead to more stress in the form of anxiety, irritability, headaches, and loss of focus. These foods also increase the release of insulin, another hormone related to weight gain and appetite.
To make matters worse, cortisol and insulin together create cravings for carbohydrates and fat, another element of that vicious stress eating cycle.
When eating a meal, be mindful of the tastes, aromas, and textures of your food. Remember to breathe. Eat slowly and enjoy the food. Stop eating a few minutes before you feel full.
Stay hydrated. Sometimes people mistake thirst for hunger. You will be less apt to overeat or reach for snacks if you drink water throughout the day.
If you have danger foods, don’t keep them in your house. If you are tempted to eat a whole bag of potato chips or cookies after a bad day at the office, don’t ever buy them and bring them home. However, don’t banish them from you life, either. Just buy small packages occasionally in the vending machine or deli so you can control the portions.
Don’t deprive yourself of food. You may feel more stress if you are hungry, and hunger and stress together may even lead to binge eating.
Some people find that they have an easier time staying trim by eating small amounts every 4-5 hours. Your blood sugar levels will stay more even and your energy will be steadier.
Don’t forget to have fun! Find things to look forward to each day or each week. We often eat when we are in the duldroms, feeling dull and bored and therefore feeling like we want a treat. Fill your life with positive thoughts, good relationships and meaningful activity you’ll be less apt to fill your tummy with food.
M.J. Murphy is a licensed therapist practicing in Atlanta, Georgia. She works primarily with people who have problems with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, grief and abuse histories. She also works with stress management, time and organization skills, and career counseling. You can visit her website at www.murphycounseling.com .