I’m not re-inventing the wheel when I say that it’s common knowledge that stress can have some truly incredible effects on the body.
While from the outside, the effects can be fascinating, to the person who is in the thick of a stressful time, it can cause absolute chaos. And if you’re not able to find ways to cope with it, it will either continue to get worse or cause you to live in a pretty frustrating state.
Here’s my own story, that even I find a little fascinating being on the outside of it.
When I was 18, I noticed I had a strange rash on my back. It didn’t look awful, but it HURT. It progressively got worse until I showed my mom on the day of my sister’s wedding. We decided once the wedding stuff died down in a few days, she would go with me to have it looked at.
By the time we went, it had spread. It looked something awful, but what I couldn’t get over was how absolutely painful it was. I had stopped driving because the seat belt would hit it and send me through the roof. My friends joked about my outbursts and… colorful language when the pain got bad.
The doctor looked at it for a few minutes and muttered something under her breath. Something along the lines of, “There’s no way.” She told us she wanted to check something and that she would be back. She came back in and diagnosed me with “stress-induced shingles”. Yikes.
At 18, I had gotten so stressed out and weakened my immune system so much that it reactivated the virus in my system. She then asked me what was going on in my life, and my 18 year-old self was finally able to process how crazy my world had gotten. I was ending the summer after my senior year of high school after having my first full-time job all summer (I had worked for years, but not full-time) and in a span of 3 weeks I helped my parents move into their new post-Katrina home, had my sisters wedding, and was leaving to go to college in New Mexico where I knew exactly 0 people.
I was working, living out of boxes, helping my sister and mother play host to our new Argentine family, and trying to cope with the fact that life was about to be a lot different in Santa Fe.
And that wasn’t where stress and what it could do to me stopped. Over the years, my stress caused everything from an irregular heartbeat to hair falling out to, guess what? Struggles with losing weight. All in my late teens and early 20s.
So while we know stress can have an incredible toll on the body, so many people seem surprised that it can be a huge factor in being unable to reach nutrition and fitness goals.
Stress can not only impact your ability to maintain a healthy weight, but it can also prevent you from losing weight. Whether it’s the result of high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, unhealthy stress-induced behaviors, or a combination of the two, the link between stress and weight gain is glaring.
Researchers have long known that rises in the stress hormone cortisol can lead to weight gain. Every time you’re stressed, your adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol, and as a result, glucose (your primary source of energy) is released into your bloodstream. All of this is done to give you the energy you need to escape from a risky situation (also known as the fight or flight response).
Once the threat has subsided, your adrenaline high wears off and your blood sugar spike drops. This is when cortisol kicks into high gear to replenish your energy supply quickly.
Cue the sugar cravings. Because sugar supplies your body with the quick energy it thinks it needs, it’s often the first thing you reach for when you’re stressed.
The downside to consuming so much sugar is that your body tends to store sugar, especially after stressful situations.
In addition to the hormonal changes related to stress, stress can also drive you to unhealthy behaviors, all of which can cause weight gain. Things like emotional eating, eating fast or “accessible” food, skipping meals and sleeping less.
When you’re stressed out, healthy behaviors likely eating properly and exercising regularly can easily fall by the wayside. Maintaining a schedule or routine can help make these healthy behaviors a habit and combat stress-related weight changes. Things like making sure you exercise, eat slowly, drink water, and spend enough time in bed (even if you can’t sleep) can be incredible tools for managing stress.
Stress is inevitable. And it isn’t all bad. Exercise is a stress on the body and you need that. But stress shouldn’t rule your life. Next time you find yourself in a time of high stress, take a step back. Breathe. Think about the things you can control and give yourself some grace as you navigate through it.
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