When stressors strike, the brain responds by activating our fight-or-flight response. In modern times, stressors are different requiring neither fight nor flight. Instead, hormones are released and unused because of our sedentary lifestyles. Our brains responses for survival are instead… slowly killing us all.
Understanding Stress and Its Effects on the Mind and Body
Hans Seyle, an endocrinologist renowned for his work in stress research first discovered how the brain reacts to stress back in 1926. He was the first to discover that the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) is the area of your brain responsible for releasing hormones in response to stress.
Two types of hormones can be released depending on how the stress is perceived. When the stressor is perceived as challenging but something you can cope with, norepinephrine is released. When the stressor is not something you think you can handle, epinephrine is released.
The type released determines which of the fight-or-flight response your body needs to adapt to. In a challenging situation, norepinephrine becomes your bodies assistant to overcome the challenge. It’s the body’s stay-in-the-fight response. If on the other hand, danger is perceived and something you can’t handle, the HPA releases epinephrine; pumping adrenaline through your blood, giving your body the fuel it needs to flee.
The epinephrine is cortisol and it was handy when people lived in the wild and had to hunt prey for lunch, or be the prey of the wildlife… the brain fuelled the body for survival. The problem we have today is our primal instincts are outdated because we’re living sedentary lifestyles.
As cortisol’s purpose is to fuel your muscles, it does that by triggering your liver to release glucose, which is why chronic stress levels left unmanaged can lead to Type 2 Diabetes, among many other health problems.
The reason stress turns to pounds is because in response to your brain fuelling your body to flee from stressors that are perceived as threats, the fuel isn’t being burned. When cortisol is released, there’s no takebacks. The energy needs to be used because if it’s not, it can only stay put and the easiest place for it to go are all the areas around your waistline where you don’t want it.
The only way to stop the unnecessary weight gain or loss that is to find healthier ways to manage stress and burn calories when you feel stressed.
6 Techniques to Prevent Piling on Stress Fat
1. Find healthier snacks to nibble on
Stop comfort eating on fatty or sugary foods.Stress induced comfort eating is known to lessen the effects of stress. It’s why they’re called comfort foods. The pleasure is short-lived though because stress busting foods are most often those that are high in caloric value, sugar loaded and packed with fat. By trying to chew stress away, you’re going to pack on pounds.
When you feel stressed, your body will crave food for energy. However, that craving will come on suddenly and you’ll probably crave a specific food. The reason for that is because of the higher levels of cortisol being released in your body. Your nervous system is crying out for “salty, sweet and fried foods” to provide an additional source of energy.
Pay attention to your emotions to recognize emotional eating. If it’s a sudden craving, it’s not hunger. Eating healthier snacks may help, but you likely won’t find much comfort from them.
Instead of eating to satisfy emotional urges, consider practicing mindful eating.
2. Don’t drink coffee to waken up
Did you know your bodies cortisol levels are regulated by your circadian rhythm? Whatever time you’re used to waking up, your body will naturally go to work releasing energy to help you become more alert. For most people, that’s in the morning so if you tend to load up on coffee before you go to work in the morning, you’re probably not doing yourself any favors.
3. Just breathe: It’s still exercise
Anything can be exercise that elevates your heart rate beyond the norm. You don’t have to be pumping iron, running circuits or speed walking around the block to exercise.
Your heart rate and your breathing are linked. When you take deep breaths, your lungs expand, thus increasing blood flow. The opposite happens when you exhale. Research shows that there is an instant effect to slow breathing exercises, particularly when you exhale for longer than you inhale, such as inhaling for 5 seconds and exhaling for 15 seconds for five minutes as that’s enough to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as ‘rest and digest’. A healthy way to manage stress.
A couple of mind and body exercises that involve breathing techniques include pilates and yoga.
4. Get a good night’s quality sleep
High levels of stress will lead to disrupted nights with a lot of tossing and turning. The lack of sleep exasperates the problem triggering a cycle of restless nights.
There are things you can do to encourage a better night’s rest such as using lavender oil on your pillow or listening to soothing music as you drift off to sleep. However, those may only be band aids for emotional-avoidance as one study concluded that emotional-awareness can improve sleep quality. In other words, if you’ve been putting off sorting out your finances, or perhaps worrying about what to say in an awkward conversation you need to have with someone, stop avoiding the issue and find a way to deal with it. If you have anything top of mind that remains undealt with, deal with it. Get it off your mind to unload the burden so you can get a better night’s rest.
5. Laugh your stress away
Ever heard of gelotology? It’s the science of laughter and the first scientist to examine its effect on the body was DR. William Fry back in the ‘60s. In one study, he found that even fake laughing intensely for 20-seconds can double your heart rate for as long as five minutes.
6. Listen to music to alter your emotions
As the real issue with stress eating is emotional rather than stress itself, music is another science-backed method to alter your emotional state. Some tunes will resonate with happy memories from your childhood, whereas, a song played a loved one’s funeral service will evoke the opposite emotion leaving you reaching for a dose of comfort food.
Have a list of go-to happy, mind soothing tunes so you can press play and soothe your stress by altering your emotional state with the right audio cues.