A few years ago, a woman came to me desperately wanting to lose weight. She was a busy Office Manager who lived with 2 dogs. Kristen had become very serious about getting healthy: in fact, she had a list of things she did every single day to try and improve her health. She also described herself as stressed out, overwhelmed, and anxious most of the time.
Stress is often defined as a threat or expectation of future harm. Please note this isn’t limited to physical danger or even actual danger: much more often, it’s mental and emotional and likely to be based on fears, beliefs, and assumptions.
It’s easy to understand that when we’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, we’re more likely to make poor decisions when it comes to when and what we’re eating. But being in a stressed state has other impacts on our metabolism, our calorie burning capacity, and consequently, our ability to lose weight.
You’ve all heard of stress being called the “fight or flight” response. Personally, I like an analogy presented by Dr. Elizabeth Lipski (in a book called Digestive Wellness): she describes living in a chronic state of low level stress like being at the starting line of a race; all crouched down, ready to explode out of the gate when the signal comes. Yet that signal never comes, and we remain in this heightened state.
Close your eyes and picture that for just a moment. Does it feel familiar?
When you’re stressed, your mind-body system is prepared for that fight or flight moment: your brain directs blood to your extremities; hormones like cortisol, insulin, and adrenaline are released into your blood stream. With this setup, you are certainly well prepared for the race. And, your digestive processes are effectively put on hold. The implications? Regardless of how healthy you eat, the nutrients from your food won’t be extracted well, you’ll store more fat, your blood sugar levels will increase, and it will likely be a struggle to meet your weight loss goals.
As you might imagine, Kristen had several very good things on her list that could improve her health. In fact, when I asked her to share, she had about FIFTEEN things—which she tasked herself to do DAILY—with a full-time job, a commute, a household to run, and 2 dogs to care for. Like many of us, if she didn’t complete all the items on her list, the negative voices in her head started up, causing her to feel bad. Sounds like even more stress, doesn’t it? We worked together to rank order her list; to choose the top 5 most valuable things; to do some things on weekends only. Kristen felt like a weight was lifted from her—over the next several months she more easily did the healthy things she wanted to. When she actually lost weight by doing less, she was very pleasantly surprised!
There are 2 points in Kristen ’s story: first, we often unconsciously add to our stress by trying to do too much. Second, stress has a significant impact on our metabolism and ability to lose weight.
Now I’d like you to take a Stress Inventory. First, draw a line vertically down the center of a sheet of paper. Label the left side “Stressors” and the right side “Relaxors”. List out as many Stressors as you can imagine in the left-hand column. Make no judgments: these can be small things like your neighbor’s constantly barking dogs, or big things like your mother’s failing health. Take a few minutes. Second, list out as many things as you can that Relax you in the right-hand column. Again, big or small. Now, make note of any themes: e.g. are all your stressors related to a similar concept, person, place? Do you have the same item in both columns? Finally, circle your top 3 in each list. Work to reduce, or change your attitude toward the stressors, and/or work to incorporate more of the top relaxors in your life.