With the madness of midterms having just subsided, are you noticing a few extra inches have been added to your midsection? If so, you’re probably not alone: Prolonged periods of pressure cause many people to pack on extra pounds. Read on to learn why your body stockpiles fat under stress and how to stay slim when you’re feeling strung out.
Fight, flight or fat?
Stress triggers the “fight-or-flight” response, a physiological reaction designed to get you moving quickly in a physical emergency. When your brain panics, it signals your adrenal glands to start producing the stress hormone cortisol. The hormone heads to your fat cells, tells them to quickly release energy, and your muscles are fueled up to flee or fight. Once the danger has been averted, cortisol levels stay elevated to encourage your body to replenish its energy stores, and they then return to normal levels. This system works super if you’re chasing down the last shuttle bus at Loyola late at night: It gives you a quick jolt of energy, which you recover from quickly after you’re safely in your seat. But problems arise when the stress response doesn’t deactivate. If you’re constantly pumping out cortisol, your body’s constantly being told to store fat.
If you’re persistently under pressure, you may notice a few of cortisol’s other adverse affects that can wreak havoc on your waistline:
When you’re stressed and cortisol is coursing through your veins, your body is relentlessly reminded that it needs to refuel. You also experience an increase in insulin, the hormone that controls blood sugar levels, so your hunger and satiety cues are hopelessly hindered.
I highly doubt that celery sticks make you salivate when you’re feeling frazzled. When you’re in a crunch, it’s all about comfort foods! Fat- and sugar-laden treats like cake, cookies, ice cream and candy are appealing when we feel anxious because they stimulate the release of opioids, the feel-good chemicals that temporarily ease tension.
If you’ve been keeping up with my column, you already know that sufficient sleep is a major player in the battle of the bulge. It’s no wonder then that the stress-induced worrying that keeps you up at night can trigger hormonal changes that’ll pack on the pounds. Skimping on shut-eye causes a spike in ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates hunger, and lower levels of leptin, a hormone that signals fullness.
Breaking the stress cycle
Most of life’s ups and downs may be beyond your control, but you can take steps to lessen the effects of stress on your body.
Don’t be reluctant to reach out to family and friends. Support is essential when you’re feeling strained. Another outlet for pent-up anxiety is journaling, which can help you further explore your emotions and perhaps pinpoint specific sources of stress. Other tension-melting techniques include:
Mental imagery has been shown to help people ease both physical and psychological pain. Try imagining your stress as an identifiable object that you can “grab” and “throw” away from body. You might also consider taking a mental vacation. Picturing yourself in a peaceful place will leave you feeling relaxed upon your “return”.
Taking slow, deep breaths and focusing your mind inward on the expansion and contraction of your lungs is a surefire way to reduce your blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle and mental tension. Whenever you feel stress sneaking up on you, exhale slowly and concentrate on emptying your lungs of air. Inhale to a count of four and exhale to a count of six, repeating the process at least two or three times.
Keeping your glass half full
Whoever coined the phrase “mind over matter” was really onto something. You have a great deal of power over your perception, and making a bit of effort to see the positive side of potentially stressful situations will go a long way towards easing your anxiety.
Next time you notice your fave jeans getting a bit snug, take a step back and assess your level of stress. You might be surprised at how tension translates into a tighter fit, and would be well-advised to take control of your concerns before the pressure starts to pile on extra poundage.