Eating right and exercising regularly aren’t the only things you need to do if you want to get the body you want. There are many other factors, such as stress, that can significantly affect weight loss (and weight gain).
Even if you’ve been on a steady weight loss plan for months and have been doing all the right things, you might not be getting the results you should be getting. If that’s the case, you may want to look at other factors that might be affecting your results.
One such factor is your stress levels. Being constantly stressed can affect your body negatively, and this can put a damper on your weight loss because your body (and mind) is too busy trying to balance itself and deal with all the undue stress.
In our day-to-day lives, we are all under a lot of stress. Sometimes we perceive it as good – stress that forces us to move forward, do more, get better results. Sometimes it weighs us down, and it can be the most negative force in our lives.
When you are under constant stress, it might be the time to take action, because it is no longer only in your head, it starts to have an effect on your entire organism.
How? Simple. Do you remember when your hands were sweaty on that big date? Or when your heart pounded heavily during that scary movie? Then you know that stress affects both the mind and body.
What is stress?
According to the American Psychological Association, stress is an automatic response developed in our ancient ancestors, as a protection mechanism that protected them from predators and similar threats.
Whenever the stress triggers it, your body perceives that it is facing a danger, and it kicks into gear, flooding itself with hormones like cortisol that increase the blood pressure, elevating the heart rate, boosting the overall energy and preparing itself for dealing with the problem.
But here’s the thing. Nowadays, it’s a tough chance that you will ever be in danger of getting eaten, right? However, your body still reacts the same way it did in the time of our cave ancestors.
The difference is, now, you confront a bunch of challenges every day, like meeting deadlines, paying unexpected bills, managing family crisis, and your body reacts to stress the same way every time.
But, if the stress load is too much, your body might get stuck in a constant “fight or flight” state. There is where the dangers for you lie.
Types of stress and how they affect you
Even short-term, minor stress can have a negative impact. You can get a stomach ache before an important presentation at work.
If this minor stress was sudden, it could have a much more dangerous effect. A short fight with your partner, a natural disaster, a terrorist attack – all of these can have a serious impact.
According to one study, these stresses can result in heart attacks, arrhythmias or even sudden death. Reportedly, this happens only in those who already suffer from heart disease, but the problem is that some people don’t know about the problem until acute stress causes a severe response.
If you continue to let your stress pile up, all of your minor stress will eventually balloon and put you in a state of chronic stress. When constant stress starts meddling with your ability to live normally, it becomes a serious threat.
Fatigue, problems with concentration, temper tantrums – all signs you need to loosen up. This stress can lead to headaches, according to a recent study – even coronary disease, and even slower and more difficult recovery from existing health problems.
What causes it? Depression, job strain, low level of social support and a habit of “catastrophizing” (inflating problems into catastrophes in your own mind) are just some of the ways you can fall into a state of chronic stress.
How stress disrupts your body
If you thought that stress only affects your thoughts and your mood, you are in for a rude awakening. Being stressed out affects systems all over your body, and disrupts regular bodily functions that contribute to not just weight loss but a healthy life in general.
Parts of your body that are affected by stress include:
When you are stressed, muscles tense up. When they are tense for prolonged periods of time, they might cause disorders. Tension headaches and migraines are linked with chronic muscle tension in the head, neck and shoulder area according to APA.
Stress makes you breathe harder. Not a problem for most people, but for people suffering from lung disease or asthma, this can be life-threatening.
When you are under stress, the brain sends signals to adrenal glands to start producing adrenalin and cortisol so you would have the energy to run from danger. Your liver reacts to this by producing more glucose, a blood sugar that you draw energy from.
For most people, if that extra energy is not used, it is not a problem, since the body is able to reabsorb the excess sugar. For some, this could trigger diabetes.
When you are under stress, you eat much more or much less than you usually do. If you eat more, you can experience acid reflux or heartburn.
If you eat less, you will start losing weight rapidly and your blood sugar levels will start falling, causing you nausea, weakness, and exhaustion.
Stress can also affect your digestion, and the nutrients your intestines absorb, or how fast food moves through your body, so you could experience either constipation or diarrhea.
What happens when weight loss and stress combine?
Well, the thing is, when you go on a diet to lose weight, you are putting your body under a certain amount of stress, and that is ok. From everything we have seen above, your body can cope with it.
But, if amounts of stress increase, if you are between jobs, or new challenges arise to accompany the pre-existing stress, weight loss might become more difficult than you hoped it will be. You will need to manage your stress, which can manifest itself in one (or all) of these warning signs:
For one, there is stress eating. It is an emotional response, according to Mayo clinic, a way for us to suppress or soothe negative emotions. Basically, food serves as a distraction, a quick pleasure to comfort you in difficult times.
But, if you are trying to lose weight, this is one of your greatest enemies. Stress eating will contribute to excess calories, and if you do it often enough, it will bring back the weight you fought so hard to lose.
Higher levels of cortisol
The second factor is the fact that stress causes our bodies to produce more of the hormone cortisol. Simplified, cortisol is a stress hormone that, according to Harvard Health Publications, increases appetite, promotes body fat and makes it harder to lose weight.
So, you are on a diet, and you try your best, but your stress levels are so high that hormones are literally making you feel starved, and this is when you start doubting your diet and go on a binge.
Unfortunately, this is another “fight or flight” response of our bodies, that still connect increased stress with danger to survival. To make it easier, imagine this like a bears’ response to approaching winter. Eating until your body feels safe enough.
Lack of sleep
Third stress-related factor that can endanger your weight loss diet is a lack of sleep. When you are stressed out you sleep less.
Less sleep and chronic fatigue cause a rise in hormone ghrelin, and since ghrelin is a primary hunger hormone, it makes you feel hungry even when you aren’t. This hormone is not the only problem lack of sleep can cause to your weight loss plans.
When you sleep less, your body has less energy to take in nutrients from the food you eat, since your metabolism cannot function properly, explains Michael Breus, PhD, author of Beauty Sleep, and the clinical director of the sleep division for Arrowhead Health in Glendale, Ariz.
In some cases, we have to say, stress can lead to weight loss, but it is far from healthy. Being under a lot of stress can make you feel no appetite, or forget to eat completely. This kind of weight loss can cause weakness, dehydration, and suppressing of the immune system.
How to reduce your stress and lose the weight
Most of the time, people will advise you to “calm down” and “relax” to deal with your stress. However, that’s easier said than done.
It’s hard to relax when there are bills to be paid, an important project that needs to be finished on time, or problems in your relationships. It’s not simple, but the best thing you can do is take it one step at a time.
An excellent way of hitting two birds with one stone is exercising regularly. Exercise not only helps you lose weight, but also enables you to cope with stress.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, set small goals and try to be consistent with your workouts. Set aside some time to exercise every day, and make sure you stick to the plan.
Take a few minutes every day to be alone with your thoughts, take in all the good and the bad that is happening, and understand that nothing is as bad as it seems, and that you are able to tackle every problem that comes your way.
Try to meditate regularly, and learn to use breathing techniques to calm yourself down even in the heat of the most stressful moments.
Learn to control your stress through practice
It’s easy to see how exercise and meditation can help you lower your stress levels so that you can get your body in better shape physically and mentally. However, actually putting it into practice is another matter altogether.
If you are looking for a practical way to deal with your stress without having to sign up for therapy sessions, we highly recommend The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook.
This comprehensive guide on stress relief was written by three renowned experts in the field – Dr. Martha Davis (PhD), Dr. Matthew McKay (PhD), and clinical social worker Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman. It is a go-to resource by many therapists due to its abundance of stress reduction strategies and powerful relaxation techniques based on the latest research.
The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook has also been given The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies Self-Help Seal of Merit, which is awarded to self-help books that teach the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) principles and use scientifically proven techniques to help people overcome their mental and emotional difficulties.