So you’ve been following a healthy diet and exercising regularly for a while now, but you still feel like you’re million miles away from your ideal body – you might start to blame yourself for not trying hard enough or even start thinking that this goal is impossible. But before you sink too deep into negative thoughts, let’s reconsider the importance of one of the main obstacles that could be standing in your way to your dream physique: stress and its effects on the body.
Yes, stress is a fact of life and there’s nothing we can do about that. While a bit of stress can push us to perform better and keep us safe, chronic and overwhelming stress can cause damage to our health and ability to enjoy life, including weight loss goals. Yet, if we alter our perceptions to stress, we can influence the way our body and mind react to it.
This useful skill takes some time to perfect, but it’s one of the best things you could to protect your health and improve your quality of life in all possible areas. Here’s why.
5 Effects of stress on the body
1. Stress keeps you in “survival mode”
Above all, stress is a survival mechanism and its main function is to keep you safe from impending danger. Today we don’t have bears and lions to worry about, but your body doesn’t know that – it activates the same physiological reaction no matter how real the perceived danger is.
For example, if you’re having a huge fight with your partner and he/she threatens to leave you, your body will react on the same way it would if you were in the middle of an earthquake – the heart starts racing, the blood vessels dilate and increase the amount of blood pumped to large muscles, the muscles tense up and your endocrine system increases the production of cortisol and epinephrine, which then influence the liver to produce more glucose and provide energy for an efficient “fight or flight” reaction to the dangerous situation.
Most often, this physiological reaction is completely unnecessary and unhelpful, because the majority of modern stressors are psychological by nature and don’t require this kind of reaction in order to be effectively handled.
So, stress plays a very important protective role by preparing our bodies for a quick and efficient response to danger, but in relation to the most prominent stressors of the modern world (such as impossible work hours, sadistic bosses and making ends meet), it can be detrimental to our choices and decisions instead of helping us cope better.
Experiencing the effects of chronic stress means that you constantly feel under attack and your body is constantly switched to “survival mode”, which can be very exhausting and leads to impulsive actions that push you even further away from your goals.
Furthermore, this continuous “survival mode” means that the stress-response system is activated for too long, disrupting almost all your body’s processes and putting you at greater risk of many health problems like anxiety, depression, heart disease, diabetes, digestive disorders, migraines, weight problems and memory impairment.
2. Stress can kill your workout
Recent studies have found that if your brain is tired, the rest of your body will be tired as well. Turns out, the physical and mental fatigue affect the same region of your brain. This means that if you’re chronically stressed, your muscles may feel tired even before you hit the gym, while the mental fatigue will decrease your overall motivation and ability to push yourself to your limits, lessening the quality of your workout.
In other words, chronic stress impairs your body’s ability to respond to acute stress, such as exercise, because its resources are pretty much used up. A study published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology found that mental burnout significantly affected physical performance, including impairing your ability to recover after a strenuous workout and increasing your risk of overtraining. In addition, research has shown that stress can increase your risk of exercise injury because of the impaired concentration and increased muscle tension.
3. Stress makes it harder to lose weight
Have you ever noticed how stress makes you hungry? Uncontrolled chronic stress can easily turn you into an emotional eater, or someone who turns to food for comfort and stress relief rather than to satisfy real hunger, leading to a higher risk of overeating and unwanted weight gain. In the short term, stress can shut down appetite, but if the stress persists, your levels of cortisol and ghrelin (also known as the “hunger hormone“) will peak and stay elevated for a longer period of time, leading to a significant increase in appetite.
The combination of increased appetite and mental fatigue, which weakens your willpower, means that you’ll have a harder time resisting food when you’re stressed. Not surprisingly, stress seems to affect food preferences as well – studies have shown that emotional stress leads to an increased intake of caloric dense foods high in fat and sugar, i.e. junk food. Sounds familiar?
On the other hand, chronically elevated levels of cortisol make it harder to lose fat. Cortisol is responsible for signaling the body to store fat (remember, your body is preparing to deal with danger and intense action requires big supplies of energy), so overexposure to cortisol over the long term leads to weight gain. And this type of weight is usually gained around the waistline, because the fat cells in that area are more sensitive to cortisol.
4. Stress disrupts your sleep
Sleep is a crucial human function, allowing our bodies to rest and recharge. One of the negative effects of stress on the body is the insomnia. The sympathetic nervous system doesn’t shut down and your brain remains hyperactive, keeping you wide awake late into the night. When you don’t get enough high quality sleep, you’re tired and easily agitated, so you become more stressed, and the cycle goes on.
Stress can both decrease the quality of your sleep and rob you of sleep entirely, which leads to an endless list of troubles such as impaired cognitive functioning, slower metabolism, lowered insulin sensitivity, increased appetite and irritability. And chronic sleep deprivation can contribute to a big number of health problems, including obesity and cardiovascular diseases.
5. It’s a downward spiral
Here’s the thing. When you let stress get the best of you, there is virtually no going back. You will sleep less, eat more, breathe shallowly, skip workouts, enjoy less of your activities, get anxious and depressed more often and fail to meet your expectations. All of this will create more and more stress and dissatisfaction, thus giving birth to a vicious cycle – and you may not be aware of it until it drains all life out of you.
In order to escape from your troubles and soothe your aching mind, you might seek comfort in numbing activities such as emotional eating, drinking or laying on your couch and watching junk TV all day long. When your mind has had too much to handle, the only way it can cope with a persistently overwhelming situation is to not feel anything. Of course, this will make you feel even emptier instead of bringing you real pleasure or relaxation. And the worse you feel, the more numbness you crave.
In turn, this shut down of awareness can easily create a disconnection between you and the signals of your body, impairing your ability to recognize these messages and act accordingly. If you are no longer able to recognize your feelings of hunger and fullness, you are more likely to overeat. If you are no longer able to recognize your emotions, you are more likely to make bad decisions.
And when you’ve lost control over your mind and body, you will lack the willpower and determination required to turn your dreams into reality, including your ideal physique. Instead of that, you are more likely to become overweight and have less self-confidence.
So, how to fight it off?
The truth is that the effects of stress show all over your body and brain and it would be foolish to ignore it if you’re serious about perfecting your body. Rather than letting stress take over your life, you could train yourself to apply positive practices to prevent its negative effects on your health and mind.
First, you need to be aware that stress begins with your perception of it. Your reaction to stressful situations is learned and brought to an almost automatic level – but you can successfully unlearn it and replace it with a more relaxed approach to life’s challenges.
Re-frame the stressful situations you encounter with the help of a positive mindset and learn to become more self-assertive. Remember, you always have a choice, so just choose to react differently than what you are used to. Try to change your viewpoint and see things in a more positive light.
Become aware of your thought pattern and recognize the negative ways of thinking that keep you in a chronically stressed state of mind, such as catastrophizing and thinking in terms of all-or-nothing, and replace them with healthier ones.
Get to know your emotions and learn how to let them go. Master the art of self-forgiveness and don’t hold onto feelings of guilt and failure – these will only keep you chained to the past. Learn to smile even when you don’t really feel like it!
Also, try to organize your time and energy in a more efficient way so that you can gain a feeling of control over a hectic lifestyle. Divide your big goals into smaller, more easily obtained ones. Spend more time in nature, surround yourself with more people who make you feel good and engage in activities that help you relax. No matter how clichéd that sounds, those things really help.
And whatever you do, don’t forget exercise – it’s one of the most powerful tools for fighting off stress and anxiety, as well as becoming strong and fit. It’s crucial to take good care of your body – you only have one and it needs nourishing and activity in order to perform at its best.