When you’re stressed, nothing else really matters—not according to your body.
If you’re trying to lose weight while you’re chronically stressed, it’s like trying to run a marathon while giving someone a piggyback ride. Sure, you might make it across the finish line, but you made it a lot harder than it needed to be.
Your body’s “fight or flight” response can speed up your metabolism
When you’re stressed, your body goes into “fight or flight” mode. Also known as the “acute stress response,” this physiological mechanism tells your body it must respond to a perceived threat.
Your body readies itself by releasing hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline prepares your body for vigorous activity.
Meanwhile, cortisol signals for your body to temporarily suppress functions that are nonessential during a crisis. This includes your digestive, immune, and reproductive system responses.
When your sympathetic nervous system is stuck in “on” mode, it’s like your body’s smoke alarm is constantly going off. In this state, it’s hard to pay attention to anything else, and it’s hard to determine when something is truly alarming.
Managing Stress is as important as counting calories if you’re trying to lose weight because stress makes everything seem harder. We have a finite amount of energy and hours in the day. When we have to deal with stressful situations or cope with their aftermath, we have less time for healthy habits. We might struggle with sleep, we don’t meal-plan as frequently, we skip workouts—which only adds to our stress.
Stress produces the hormone cortisol, and cortisol has also been linked to triggering cravings for comfort foods. In addition, stress increases insulin levels, which impacts your ability to burn off those comfort foods. Prolonged, chronic stress can also lead to hormonal changes that may increase your appetite and cause cravings for higher-calorie comfort foods, such as ice cream, chips, and pizza.
Whenever you start to plateau, it’s a good idea to take a step back and see where you are in life. Sometimes the scale gets stuck even if you’re eating a nutritious diet and keeping up with your workouts. Your body thinks that you need to hold onto those extra calories to deal with the stress.
Stress erodes self-control.
Stress depletes the energy you would otherwise use to exert self-control. Our impulse control takes a hit when we feel distressed, so we look for ways to feel better—and snacks are an easy answer.
If you’re chronically stressed, your self-control will repeatedly come under fire from any number of sources: traffic, spilled coffee, crossed signals over school pickup… you name it.
And here’s how you can start to deal with stress to help your healthy habits feel more manageable:
- Admit that you’re stressed.
You can’t pour from an empty cup, and chronic stress drains your cup—once you start to manage it, all your health goals may feel easier.
- Make time for play.
Self-care can ease stress, but we sometimes forget it can include more than fitness and nutrition. Take up a hobby that has nothing to do with weight loss. Hobbies can reduce stress, and studies have shown that participating in leisure activities is linked to a lower body mass index.
- Start and end your day with calm.
Set the tone for the day with a few minutes of relaxation, like yoga, meditation, or diaphragmatic breathing, all of which can help lower stress levels. If we’re not participating in the daily coping mechanisms, relaxation techniques, or “me time” that helps us keep our stress level down, our stress keeps adding up. Winding down at the end of the day can help you sleep, which in turn will help tomorrow feel a little less stressful.