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.
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 great 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.
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 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 new 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.
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