Stress Comfort: How High Stress Leads to High Food Intake & Weight Gain

As the world around us becomes less and less dangerous, as a society, we are becoming more and more stressed.

That’s a crazy thing for me to say, right? I mean, have you seen all the craziness in the world lately? How much more dangerous could it be?!

Well, let’s look at some facts…

The number of violent crimes committed in America has been cut in half over the last 30 years…

The number of robberies over the last 30 years has also been cut in half

Even the rate of deadly car accidents has dropped by 30% over the last 30 years.

So, if it’s obvious that our lives are becoming safer and safer, why in the world are we getting more and more stressed?

To help answer this question, let’s take a look at the different types of stress and what causes us to become stressed in the first place.

I’m so STRESSED, I Just Want to Pull My Hair Out!!

It wasn’t all that long ago, our ancestors had to worry about being eaten alive…literally. With predators roaming in the bushes, your great, great, great, great, great…. well, you get the point…grandpa Jack of about 10,000 years ago had to watch his back all day, every day.

Now, I don’t know about you, but being attacked by a lion is something that I wouldn’t necessarily enjoy. So, it’s understandable that grandpa Jack was scared for his life.

Fast forward to today. Let’s say you got cut off driving to work this morning. Would that stress you out? Would that cause you to go into a fit of rage? Why? I mean, you’re not getting chased by a lion, so what in the world are you stressed about?

If only it were that simple. Even though those 2 examples are leading to the same result (stress), they are completely different in context. 10,000 years ago, Grandpa Jack had to worry about the lion jumping out of the bush to have him for lunch. It meant him living another day.

Today, we don’t have lions, tigers, and bears (oh MY!) roaming around freely. So, our minds have to find other things to worry and stress about. Which is why the person who cut you off, and the project that’s due tomorrow, and having to hustle to get your kids to soccer practice raises your stress levels. Because that’s the modern “lion” lurking in the bushes.

Short-term VS Long-term Stress

The problem is, even though Grandpa Jack had to worry about getting eaten by lions, he didn’t really have much else to worry about outside of that. So, although he was at maximal stress while being chased by Simba’s great, great uncle, he had little to no stress outside of this.

Today, on the other hand, our minds look for every opportunity to freak out. Whether it’s something as simple as misplacing your phone, or something more time-sensitive, like a project deadline, the mind can find a way to get you stressed out and stressed quick.

To understand this idea a little better, let’s look at the difference between acute and chronic stress. Acute stress is short-term stress, meaning it lasts for short periods of time. For instance, exercise is acute stress.

But acute stress can also last for a couple of days. For instance, pushing to finish a big project that’s due on Friday is acute stress, as well.

Short-term stress is necessary for any type of growth. Whether you’re wanting to get stronger, build your career, or grow a family, you have to go through short bouts of stress in order to succeed in these areas.

Conversely, chronic stress is long-term stress. This is stress that typically lasts longer than a couple of weeks. And this is when your body starts to get into trouble.

Chronic stress is what makes you sick. It gets you irritated. It makes you sleepy, dopey, grumpy and everything in between. It can also cause you to gain weight (more on this in a sec).

The problem with chronic stress is, many times, it’s not caused by one simple thing. With acute stress, for instance, you can typically pinpoint one area that’s making you more stressed than usual.

With chronic stress, there is usually a cumulative effect that happens over time. Many of us don’t even see it because it happens slowly but surely. Until one day, it just seems like everything around us isn’t working, your health is worse off, and you can’t seem to focus on any particular task at one time.

The Cause of Weight Gain with Chronic Stress

Like I mentioned above, weight gain is one side effect that can come about from chronic stress. There are many factors that go into this effect, but most of it can be boiled down to one, single hormone. And that’s cortisol.

You’ve probably heard the term cortisol before. This hormone has been labeled the stress hormone because, well, when you stress, your cortisol levels increase. And when your cortisol levels increase over time and stay at those high levels, it has a deteriorating effect on the body.

One such way chronically high cortisol levels can wreak havoc on your body is through weight gain. Sometimes this weight gain can be seen pretty quickly, and sometimes it happened over the course of months and years.

THE WAY THAT CORTISOL IMPACTS YOUR WEIGHT IS REALLY 2-FOLD:

First, higher cortisol levels will cause you to hold more weight around your midsection. This fat is called visceral fat. This is typically the type of weight gain that can happen quickly when it comes to stress.

Second, and much more dangerous, is the craving effect that cortisol can have on you. Have you ever noticed that, when you get home from a long, stressful day, you want something sweet, salty or fatty? That’s because cortisol is impacting your body in such a way that it’s causing you to crave those foods.

Giving into these sweet cravings can have a much longer-term effect on your weight than the above visceral fat accumulation can. If you are constantly allowing yourself to have something sweet or fatty every day due to stress, it’s more likely that you’ll start putting on excess pounds that will be much harder to get off over time.

3 Steps to Less Stress and Less Weight

What, then, can you do TODAY to start working on your stress and getting your cortisol and cravings under control, so you don’t fall into this weight gain trip? Let’s look at 3 strategies you can implement:

#1) Meditation

Daily meditation practice is something that is easily overlooked. Mostly because the thought of meditation scares a lot of people. Which is understandable.

I know when I first thought about meditation, it seemed like a crazy idea. I mean who wants to sit and try to think about NOTHING for an hour…really?!

But I slowly found out that meditation is not trying to think about nothing. It’s, in fact, the opposite. Meditation is intentionally pulling your attention onto something, whether that be your breath or a thought or a noise. Meditation is being aware when the mind starts to wonder and pulling it back to attention as fast as possible.

So, here’s how to get started: begin with setting aside just 5 minutes a day. It can be whenever you want. Usually, it’s best to meditation first thing in the morning. But you can do it at lunch or night as well.

Once you’re comfortable meditating for 5 minutes, add 1 minute. Then, once you’re comfortable with 6 minutes, add another minute. Do this until you right amount of meditation for you.

Maybe that’s 10 minutes. Maybe that’s 30 minutes. It doesn’t matter as long as you do it consistently!

#2) Be Social

Having strong ties to friends and family is something that we naturally crave as human beings. Yet, we easily overlook this when it comes to relieving our stress. As a matter of fact, I would argue that many of us (myself being the worst offender of all) tend to ignore the ones we care about the most in times that we’re stressed.

Which is why I challenge you to try to spend more time with your friends and family when you’re feeling worked up and stressed out. But make sure it’s with those people who make you feel calm and relaxed.

I mean, we all have those whacky family members who stress us to the max. You know, like Aunt Sallie who talks about your weight all the time. She’s not the one you want to spend time with.

You want to spend time with your spouse, who supports you and cares about you. You want to spend time with your siblings, who show compassion for you no matter what. Those are the people you want to spend time with during your most stressful moments.

#3) EXERCISE! But not too much…

You had to see this one coming. Exercise is a great way to relieve stress especially when done right. On the other hand, when used incorrectly, exercise can actually put you into a more depended state of chronic stress.

I mentioned before that exercise is a stressor. When you exercise intensely, it stresses your body and breaks it down. Then, as you rest, your body rebuilds and strengthens itself, hopefully, to be stronger than it was before the previous workout.

On the other end of this, when you exercise too hard too often, it can have the opposite effect. For instance, if you exercise 2 hours a day, every day, while also having a big project at work and dealing with family issues, it’s likely that your body will go into chronic stress mode. Not good when it comes to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Which is why it’s probably best that you don’t jump into a crossfit workout to help relieve your stress. Instead, shoot for something that you enjoy and that’s slightly less intense. Maybe a low-intensity resistance training workout, or moderately tough bike ride, or even a nice hike.

As you continue working on managing your stress, you will find that you have to change the things you do to keep it under control. Some things will last you a lifetime. Exercise, for instance, will always help you control your stress. The TYPE of exercise you do is what may change over time, and that’s okay.

So be sure to continue to pay attention to those finer details. Always be aware of what stresses you out and what has the biggest impact on calming you down. If you stay on top of this, it will become easier and easier. Eventually becoming such a part of your life that it’s almost effortless to stay on top of.

Are you in your 50s (or close to it!) and ready to build healthier habits into your lifestyle? 

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