What is stress?
Stress is the adverse reaction we feel when under unrelenting pressure. Stress isn’t always bad – we need to feel small amounts to get motivated for anything that doesn’t come with instant gratification like getting up in the morning and going to work. A little bit of heightened stress for short time periods can also be pretty useful. This stress can help us achieve more and reach difficult deadlines adding to our productivity and usefulness. And when felt only for a short time and without the absence of control, stress does us no harm at all in the long run.
But that’s not the stress we are talking about here. We are addressing the continuous stress that nibbles away at us day in and day out. The sense of low or no control and an unmanageable, never decreasing burden that drags at us like an anchor. Or the stress that comes from feeling pressured by others who cannot be pleased or who have some level of control over our circumstances and us. This is bad stress, plain and simple. Or distress.
The body reacts to stress very quickly. We release chemicals into our blood stream including adrenaline and cortisol which when coupled with unpleasant thoughts make us aware that something is wrong. We need more oxygen to deal with any threat as extra oxygen will force more out of our muscles and our heart beats faster to get the oxygen around the body. Now think about jumping on a rollercoaster at a theme park. As we near the ride we release the same chemicals and experience the same bodily changes but we don’t experience distress, as there are three significant differences. Number one, you are in control of your choice, number two, the thoughts are pleasant and you relate them to excitement not distress and number three, you know the roller coaster ride will come to an end and the physical response will cease. The reactions actually increase our enjoyment rather than turn the experience into a bad one. Assuming you like rollercoasters of course.
Now imagine getting a message from the boss saying they would like to meet us later and they don’t say why. The thoughts here are very different to the coaster scenario. We might jump to conclusions for example and begin to imagine the worse wondering if our job is under threat or thinking we might have done something wrong and are now in trouble. We are not in control of this situation, the boss is and we don’t know if after the meeting our stress will go away or actually ramp up. This is not the same as excitement although the physical reactions are. Science has recently mooted that anticipatory stress of this kind is worse than actually facing a very real threat for our physical and mental health. If this kind of thing happens frequently, we have a stress problem.
But can stress affect our weight? Like most aspects of weight management the evidence can be difficult to assess and often seems contradictory. But one landmark study, Whitehall II, which examined just under 8000 employees of the UK government identified quite clearly that men who were overweight to begin with gained further weight when exposed to work related stress whilst men considered to be slim lost weight under the same circumstances. Interestingly, women showed no change in this study. Other research has added to our understanding. Stress, personality factors and life satisfaction have all been shown to affect weight but in amounts that vary significantly across population groups. A Finnish study examining the effects of stress on weight gain found that higher levels of stress were a good predictor of weight gain over a 6-year period (some people were consistently heavier when weighed again at 15 years). Neurotic traits and low levels of life satisfaction were shown to be a good indicator of weight gain in more mature women. So we can, it seems, begin to point some accusatory fingers at stress. We certainly are heading towards identifying another good reason for reducing stress.
So what is actually happening? One culprit is our old enemy, cortisol. Whilst the stress is at its peak, we are actually unlikely to feel very hungry but as the initial surge of adrenaline diminishes the cortisol hanging around in our blood triggers a ‘resupply’ cry which drives us to fuel up and store – remember we are still cave dwelling denizens deep down. As mentioned above, today’s stresses are more cerebral whilst 100 000 years ago they would have been more physical – think bears and sabre tooth cats – and running away from large toothed felines used a lot of energy. Sitting in a comfy chair hoping the boss hasn’t got adequate reason to fire us doesn’t use many calories at all. Consistently high levels of cortisol also cause drops in insulin leading us to crave high-energy foods usually loaded with sugar. Not what the weight loss doctor ordered at all. Sweets and biscuits don’t play a huge part in the diets of those who maintain a healthy weight.
Some of us eat more when emotional. Not all of us, but some, and this is something that we might need to address as something to change if we are to get to grips with the psychology of weight loss. Do you reach for the fridge door and take out the cake and chocolates when upset, worried or fretful? Recognise the comfort eating issue for what it is and change it.
Summary of stress on weight
It seems there is a definite link between overtly stressful lives and weight control issues with a number of factors coming into play. Stress affects our physiology and our behaviours and when combined they might just add up to a powerful poundage piler and a recipe for heaping on some timber.
All is not lost.
Next week we will be publishing a guide to managing stress for weight loss and weight management with key tips from all of our regular contributors.
Have you been affected by stress? How have you managed it? Please contribute in the comments below – we love to hear from you.