The great Stoic Philosopher, Epictetus, once said:
“People are disturbed not by a thing, but by their perception of a thing.”
Google the definition of stress and you will get hundreds of hits with just as many different definitions. In context to a wellness and weight loss journey, stress can be defined as a change or circumstance that exerts physical, mental, emotional or psychological discomfort or strain. What these changes or circumstances are depends on each person and how they perceive or handle it. Stress can be positive (changing your exercise and eating habits) and negative (being under pressure to get a project done or not having enough money for groceries this week).
What Causes Stress
Past studies have identified money and the future of the country as two main contributors of stress. This statistic came before 2020 and the pandemic it brought with it. Today, the changes and circumstances an invisible enemy has imposed has undoubtedly found its way to the number one cause of stress in America. One must also recognize that the non-pandemic stressors have not disappeared; on the contrary, one may argue they have gotten worse. I truly feel there has been no other time in our life that has been more challenging than now. So what do you do about it?
The Stress Response
Allow me to start with the "why" should we recognize and adopt strategies to reduce stress.
The human body has adapted in so many ways generation after generation. Fun Fact: did you know the appendix gets smaller with each new generation and researchers believe at some point humans may be born without one?
One function of the body that has not changed since our cave man ancestors is the Fight or Flight response. In simple terms, your body has the ability to use glucose (blood sugar) to give your body superpower strength and speed in order to fight a threat (think angry lion) or flight (get the hell out of there!!). Pretty cool, right?
While this was great for the hunters who sometimes became the hunted, rarely do we find ourselves face to face in such a life threatening situation, with the exception, perhaps, of going to the grocery store when there is a threat of a New England blizzard. Godspeed, my friend! However, as Epictetus eluded to over 2000 years ago, sometimes our perception of current circumstances and change feels like we are looking in the mouth of a hungry lion.
When there is a real or perceived threat, your body's defense mechanism is alerted and the Stress Response is triggered. The adrenal glands that sit just above the kidneys secrete two hormones, adrenaline and cortisol.
ADRENALINE: "causes air passages to dilate to provide the muscles with the oxygen they need to either fight danger or flee. Adrenaline also triggers the blood vessels to contract to re-direct blood toward major muscle groups, including the heart and lungs. The body's ability to feel pain also decreases as a result of adrenaline, which is why you can continue running from or fighting danger even when injured. Adrenaline causes a noticeable increase in strength and performance, as well as heightened awareness, in stressful times. After the stress has subsided, adrenaline’s effect can last for up to an hour." Cue the Superhero Music! https://www.hormone.org/your-health-and-hormones/glands-and-hormones-a-to-z/hormones/adrenaline)
CORTISOL: triggers the body to release glucose which provides the energy to fight or flight.
What does this have to do with weight gain?
While the stress response was great for our ancestors, the constant triggering due to traffic, deadlines, kids and a million other triggers do not really require an epic "fight to the death" battle. Unfortunately, your adrenal glands cannot tell the difference between "angry lion" and "angry boss". The response will be the same.
The difference? Once the angry lion had been defeated, the stress was over and the body could pump the brakes and go into "rest and digest" mode. The angry boss, the endless housework, bills, appointments...these never seem to be defeated.
The adrenal glands are constantly pumping out cortisol, never allowing your body the time to rest and recover. Because cortisol triggers the release of glucose (sugar) and insulin levels slow down (the body's way of controlling blood sugar) your body begins to store the extra glucose in...you guessed it...fat cells; mainly those in the lower abdomen as belly fat. You can read more on sugar and insulin's role in weight gain here.
Rest and Digest
So what is the antidote? What tools and weapons do you have to combat the invisible stressors? There are a few things you can begin doing RIGHT NOW to trigger your Rest and Digest response.
Health and Happiness!
I'm Liz. Mom, wife, teacher, Health Coach. My passion lies in everything health and wellness. When new research and trends pop up, you can bet I am finding the best resources to information, weeding out the not so good and making the great easy to digest. From meal planning and recipes to exercise and mindfulness, wellness touches upon so many dimensions. Your path to optimal health is out there and I can help you find it.