How Stress Makes You Fat
Break the Cycle
Although you can't control many of the things that cause you stress, such as a parent's illness or losing your job, you can take steps to curb the negative effect these stressors have on your body. "Support is essential. Reach out to family and friends," says Alice Domar, PhD, director of the Mind/Body Center for Women's Health at Boston IVF. Her research has shown that mind/body support groups not only improve women's ability to emotionally cope with such hardships as infertility, endometriosis, and gynecological cancer, but also may improve physical outcomes (resulting in higher pregnancy rates among infertile women, for example).
A support group doesn't have to be formal. It can simply be a network of friends who are willing to lend a sympathetic ear when you need one. Dr. Domar notes that sharing your worries can lead to meeting others in a situation similar to yours: "You learn of a friend of a friend who also lost a child, and before you know it, you're in touch with someone who really understands what you're going through -- and vice versa. As a result you feel less isolated."
Another outlet for pent-up tension is keeping a "stress diary," which can help you pinpoint what issues really push your buttons and so negotiate them better in the future. After a big fight with your husband, for instance, jot down why you feel agitated, frustrated, or angry. Later, once you've cooled off, reread what you wrote and try to analyze it in a nonjudgmental way, then brainstorm things you could do next time to respond differently.
Include in your diary a laundry list of "stress-reaction alternatives" that you can tap into when you feel sad, hopeless, edgy, or overwhelmed, advises Dr. Domar, "so you don't do something like spoon peanut butter straight from the jar to make yourself feel better." Try some of these de-stressing tactics, all of which can quell the surge of cortisol in your body:
Visualize yourself less tense. Mental imagery has been shown to help people cope with pain, both physical and psychological. Imagine your stress as a palpable entity that you can grab and fling away from yourself. Or close your eyes and picture yourself at the beach. A moment in such peaceful surroundings can leave you feeling refreshed when you "return."
Breathe deeply. Taking slow, full breaths is the key element of the much-studied relaxation response, serving to reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle and mental tension. Whenever you feel tension rising and your body's flight-or-fight response kicking in, exhale slowly as if you have just been relieved of a great burden. Let the air push out of your lungs. Silently repeat a comforting word or sound as you inhale to the count of four and exhale to the count of six. Repeat at least two or three times.
Practice mindful meditation. This tactic can help put the brakes on a tendency to catastrophize, that is, letting your mind run wild with horrible scenarios and what-ifs. Snap yourself back into the here and now by focusing on how your body feels at this very moment -- what kind of breaths you are taking, whether the skin on your hands is cool or hot, or what the inside of your mouth tastes like. Sustaining this concentration for even 30 seconds can help clear your mind.
Remind yourself that you have choices. Stressful situations can make you feel like a victim; after all, none of us chooses to have sad or bad things happen in our lives. But you can establish boundaries so that the stressor doesn't spill over into every aspect of your life. It's in your power to stop complaining about how unreasonable your boss is, for instance, and to turn your attention to playing catch with your kids once you get home from work. Simply deciding to get outside yourself and stop dwelling on the problem can bolster your sense of power and lift some of your anxiety.
Learning how to better manage her stress helped Laurel Green change her life -- and weight. "On my 45th birthday I realized I had allowed my entire identity to be consumed by my different commitments and worries. I was living on automatic pilot and had become a pathological nurturer of everyone but myself," she says. "I felt sluggish and disconnected -- certainly not how I wanted to be."
At that turning point, Green made a promise to take better care of herself and became disciplined about carving time out every day to do it. She started by power-walking with a close friend and was surprised to find that the hard work and sweat boosted her spirits. From there, Green added to the mix biking, weight lifting, using the elliptical trainer at her gym, and playing in a women's indoor soccer league, doing at least one workout every day of the week. Green also quit being a member of what she calls "the clean plate club" and began paying closer attention to whether she was really hungry, choosing smaller portions as well as healthier foods.
Interestingly, Green was strictly focused on fitness and de-stressing; she never set a weight-loss goal. Still, she has dropped 50 pounds over the past four years. Is it partly because her life is less stressful? "Absolutely not!" says Green, who during this period also coped with her teenage son's announcement that his girlfriend was pregnant, supporting them in their decision to place the baby up for adoption. "Now, no matter how bad things get, I've learned I can cope with stress without sacrificing my own health in the process," says Green. "And I feel more positive even when things get tough."