This Is Your Body on Stress

“You are a pleaser! You are co-dependent!  You’re stressing right now about letting me down!  You’re anxious!  You’re tense!  And it’s *BLEEPING* you up!” Jillian Michaels

Ouch!  Apologies for the Jillian Michaels quote--she’s the sadistic trainer from The Biggest Loser whose effectiveness in getting people to lose 100’s of pounds might lie simply in their intense desire to get her to stop yelling.  But honestly, she really gets to the heart of the matter here. Stress is the ugly monster that has many of us in the stranglehold that prevents us from having the things we really want in life, including and especially a healthy weight. If you are carrying the weight of the world, it really is weighing you down.

What is this ugly monster called stress?  Hans Selye, pioneer of stress research right around the turn of the last century, defined stress as, “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand, whether it is caused by, or results in, pleasant or unpleasant conditions.” He identified 3 stages our body goes through in the face of a stressor: Alarm, Resistance, Exhaustion.  The Alarm Stage is the fight or flight response, which involves a physiological reaction that prepares us to act fast.  The Resistance Stage involves attempts to cope with the stressor if it persists, also utilizing physiological resources. Finally, the Exhaustion Stage is characterized by impairment, illness, and often long-term physical damage. Damage?  Yes, damage.  And this damage has a significant impact on your body and ability to lose weight.  Let me explain how stress really is bleeping you up.

Do you ever feel like your life is like being on a treadmill that only seems to be moving faster over time? If so, you probably are in a chronic state of stress. Stress is primarily a problem when it is chronic. Unfortunately, chronic stress probably describes most of us. Juggling jobs, kids, spouse, household responsibilities, aging parents, and other family responsibilities is a way of life for most Americans. Let’s take a walk through your body to get a look at how stress is taking a toll. Then let’s figure out how to fix it.

Hans Selye talked about the Alarm phase, this is your initial fight or flight response to stress.  In this stage, stress hormones fire to “alarm” your body to mobilize into action.  That’s a good thing.  If you were walking down the street and about to get hit by a bus, it is important that your body is mobilized into action. Cortisol is the main stress hormone that pulls the alarm and sends signals to all systems of your body. Your heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration increase.  Blood is channeled to your muscles to ready you for action.  Glucose (sugar) is released into your blood stream to give you energy to fight or flight. Your mind is sharper. The problem is that most of our modern day stressors do not require us to fight or flight, at least not in a physical sense. As a result, we don’t need many aspects of the stress response.  For example, if you aren’t physically dealing with a stressor (e.g., jumping out of the way of a bus), you have no need for the increased sugar in your blood. In fact, heightened blood sugar stimulates the release of insulin. Cortisol increases your insulin levels, which is a problem because chronically high insulin levels lead to insulin resistance, a condition where your insulin actually becomes less effective at balancing your blood sugar. Do you see where this is going?  Type 2 diabetes. Stress is strongly associated with the development of type 2 diabetes. Ugh.

It gets worse. Do you remember the insulin response caused by cortisol?  Hold your breath:  it also stimulates your appetite. (insert screams).  Have you ever noticed that after something very stressful is over, you have an increased desire to eat?  It’s not psychological (and I’m a psychologist, I want EVERYTHING to be psychological!).  Stress (emotional) eating is a physiological response involving elevated insulin levels.   Making matters even worse, this causes weight gain. Cortisol (our friend who is now full blown betraying us!) facilitates storage of excess glucose as belly fat.  This is the fat that snuggles up to our internal organs, located in the midsection. Curse you cortisol!  Now you have gone too far!  You make us eat and now you are making those calories go to our belly? You are officially more annoying than Jillian Michaels.

I’m exhausted from all the bad news. I think my cortisol just went up. How about some GOOD news?  Let’s start with cortisol tricking us into having a chowfest at PF Changs after a tough week.  Studies of rats have shown that if you stress the little buggers out, they will act just like us, they eat a ton!  However, they only do this when high-fat, high-sugar foods are offered to them. If all they have access to is their regular chow diet (healthy food in the rat world), they do not eat any more than normal.  This means that one way to avoid the effect of cortisol on our appetite is to make sure that we have minimal access to no high-fat, high-sugar foods. This is tough because this type of food is everywhere, but there are things you can do to keep yourself out of trouble. For example, avoiding PF Changs on a stressful week, and by all means, never keeping high-sugar, high-fat foods in your home. (See my post on Willpower for more on the importance of removing tempting foods from your house).

The second piece of good news (yes, there’s more!) is that we have 3 tools that we can use to combat the physiological effects of stress. One tool shuts off the stress response before it gets too bad. The other tool offsets the damage of the stress response once it has already happened.  The third tool involves avoiding the stress in the first place.

Breathe.  To limit the impact of stress on your body you can shut off the stress response by consciously intervening on your physiology. Remember the stress response involves stress hormones, increased heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration.  Which one of these can you control?  Respiration, or your rate of breathing.  If you slow your rate of breathing, your heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones will follow.  Think of all of these things as linked in a chain. If you tug on one, the others follow.  As a stressful situation is coming upon you, slowing your breathing down will prevent your body from going into a full blown stress reaction.  For example, if you are stuck in traffic and anxious because you are now 20 minutes late to an appointment, your body will likely launch into a stress response. If you breathe deeply (inhaling for 3 whole seconds, exhaling for 3 whole seconds, and repeating for about 5 minutes), you will buffer yourself from the stress reaction.  You are turning the stress switch off.  Stay the course, stick to the breathing, and you can spare yourself the stress cycle.

Exercise.  Already lost your cool?  Oops. It happens. The stress cycle just ran its course. Perhaps you had a fight with your spouse that you weren’t expecting, but now you feel all worked up and stressed out. Is the damage done?  Maybe not. I scanned the fine print and found an escape clause.  Your damage control tool is exercise. If you can engage in a physical activity the very day that you experienced a high level of stress, you can offset the impact of stress on your body.  Remember how cortisol increases blood glucose which then causes an insulin tsunami? If you go for a brisk walk or engage in any physical activity, you will utilize that blood sugar and lower your cortisol level. Exercise immediately utilizes circulating blood sugar (since it is the most highly available form of energy). Even better, cortisol levels fall after you exercise. And hip hip hooray, exercise actually reverses insulin resistance (by increasing our sensitivity to insulin).  (I’m so excited about this I just started jogging in place.)  By exercising on your most stressful days, you may be dodging the bullet.  Unfortunately, most of us skip exercise on the most stressful days and choose more relaxing days to exercise (like weekends).  Really wanna buck the system?  Strategically place exercise at the end of a stressful day.

Cut it Out. I’m concerned about your knee jerk “yes” response to my “Really wanna buck the system?” question.  All you stressed out system buckers, please consider taking a step back. You can use exercise and deep breathing (and you should), but this approach is also a bit like bailing water out of a sinking row boat to keep from sinking. Bailing will help but it’s a lot of effort, and it’s not the only way. You might consider patching the hole that is letting the water in. What I mean is, getting rid of some of the stressors in your life. Here’s the challenge:  Think of the 2 largest sources of stress in your life. Be specific about what they are. On a scale of 0 (not stressful at all) to 10 (worst stress of my life), how would you rate each? Now, think of a realistic, do-able change that would reduce each stressor by 2 points.  For example, I worked with a patient who found that the 2 hours she spent every evening helping her kids with homework was a source of much conflict and stress. She can’t just stop helping, but what can she do to reduce the amount that this is taking a toll on her each day?  Several ideas come to mind.  Perhaps she could have her spouse or a tutor take over 1 or 2 of the days per week?  Perhaps she could change the structure of the homework sessions to avoid points of conflict?  Perhaps she could ask the child’s teacher for some ideas?  If you find that the situation you have identified has no possible solutions and you are really stuck, a place to start is to discuss with a friend or counselor. This in itself can reduce stress in the short term, even if it will take a long time to overcome the stressful circumstance. Big changes may need to be made and those need to be broken into small steps.

Jillian was right.  Stress is bleeping us up, but the good news is now you know how this is happening. You also know that you are in control. If you are carrying the weight of the world, lighten the load, and your load will certainly lighten...

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