Chronic stress can pack on the pounds, especially around the belly, where people least want it. And our modern-day lifestyle, with its ever increasing pace and complexities, presents more and more opportunities to feel stressed. The chronic nature of today’s stressors are especially bothersome and concerning when it comes to health and weight.
In his book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Andrew Solomon discusses how the more choices people have and the more complex those choices, the more uncertainty there is in people’s lives — and the more “uneasiness” or stress they live with. Today we have many more choices than our ancestors did. We get to decide who we marry, where we live, what we buy, where we go, what we do. But all these choices, while we may want them, produce chronic stress.
And then there’s technology. The pace at which it changes and the amount of information available have an upside, but there can be by-products: a sense of lack of completion and mastery, and a sense of constantly being hurried and never able to catch up. These feelings are all stressful even when you’re not aware of them.
There are two main reasons every weight management plan should have a stress management component:
1. Chronic stress changes your body’s physiology to one that puts on more fat, especially the type of fat that’s more dangerous to your health.
2. Chronic stress changes your mind’s psychology to one that is prone to eating larger quantities of food and food of poorer quality. It also can lead you to eat in a compulsive manner.
How do you know if you’re under the negative influence of chronic stress? Consider these signs:
• You feel rushed and don’t see an end to it.
• You breathe in a shallow and rapid manner.
• You eat quickly and don’t get enjoyment out of it.
• You feel anxious and don’t know why.
• You have trouble sleeping and don’t feel rested when you awaken.
Also consider some of the psychological effects of chronic stress on eating behavior:
• You give up more easily on things, feel tired, feel like you don’t care and can’t handle your own demands, so there goes your motivation to follow your health plan.
• You crave comfort from the stress and seek it in food.
• You feel anxious and can’t think straight, so you make more mistakes and can’t problem-solve when you goof up with eating or exercise.
• You can’t focus well, so staying on top of your eating and exercise goals becomes difficult.
So how can you better manage stress and keep it from getting in the way of your health and intentions to change your lifestyle?
• Take a mental health inventory several times a day by looking for the signs and symptoms of chronic stress.
• Take a step back. How does the situation you’re in compare to the bigger picture of life? Oftentimes, what you’re overly concerned about becomes much smaller when it is measured against what’s really important. Maybe getting somewhere a few minutes late is okay if arriving on time would mean driving recklessly fast and risking your life.
• Start with your breathing and slow down your movements. The body responds quite rapidly to deep breathing by relaxing. It’s one of the best tools in any stress management program. Take a deep, long breath and, as you let it out, tell yourself to relax. Now purposely slow down your physical movements. It may seem like you’re going in slow motion but, in reality, you’re going at a more normal pace and you’ll find you’ll still accomplish what’s necessary.
• Use affirmations, logical advice and mantras. Say things like, “I want to feel calm, cool and collected. I want to let go of this stress and I choose to do it. It feels so much better when I take it easy.”
• Notice the beneficial effects so you can remember the rewards when you need to next time. Pay attention to how your body responds to letting go of stress. Feel your muscles relax, your breathing deepen and slow down, and your mind let go of negativity.  And don’t forget to notice how your eating is calmer and more controlled, just the way you wanted it.