Forty-two year old Sarah nearly tackled me as I stepped off the stage. My presentation, “Still Fat? Maybe It’s Not Your Fault,” had just concluded. An auditorium full of make-it-happen female executives first let out a communal exhale of guilt and self-loathing, then gave a standing ovation. Now Sarah grabbed my arm, tears smearing mascara.
“My boyfriend thinks I sneak sweets at work. My Aunt Shirley tells me, ‘Your sister Beth is still a size 8 and she is four years older. Maybe you should try … ‘fill-in-the-blank whatever fad diet she saw on morning television.’ I eat so little I am always hungry, am a regular at the gym and take the stairs at work. Yet I am twenty-five pounds heavier than I was only five years ago. No matter what I do, I can’t lose this weight. I thought I just wasn’t trying hard enough, or not doing the right things, but you say my belly fat could be more a result of my success than what I eat, don’t eat or how much I exercise. Is that right?”
I put my hand over hers, still gripping my arm. “Not your success. Your stress.”
What is Your Stress Level?
To determine your stress level, honestly answer these five questions:
Scoring: Give yourself 3 points for every a; 2 points for every b; and 1 point for ever c. If your total is:
If you scored in the moderate- to very-stressed range, you have lots of company. According the American Psychological Association’s American Institute of Stress 2014 survey data, stress in the US is endemic. Seventy-seven percent of respondents reported regularly experiencing physical symptoms associated with stress, and seventy-three percent reported psychological symptoms.
Stress Disrupts Cortisol Rhythm
If you are stressed out, it is possible those pounds around your middle have more to do with your stress management skills – or lack of -- than with how many calories you eat or how much you exercise. Stress disrupts multiple cellular biochemical and neurological pathways to sabotage your waistline. Long-term, or chronic, stress is the worst.
Short-term stress stimulates the “I’m-in-danger/fight-or-flight” hormone adrenaline. In response to perceived danger, we experience a burst of energy and a shift in metabolism and blood flow. These physiologic shifts are brief and not long lasting, but can be quite helpful in certain imminent danger situations. For instance, if a bear charges you in the woods or you see a two year old wandering too close to the edge of swimming pool, you will need to act NOW. A cellular-level adrenaline rush will come to your aid. This short-term rush of adrenaline will not trigger weight gain.
Long-term, or chronic, stress will catalyze weight gain. If you are under long-term stress - such as financial pressures, an unhappy marriage, a tense work environment, child or parent-caring responsibilities, among others – your adrenal glands’ production of cortisol goes haywire. Initially, cortisol production goes into overdrive spiking levels unnaturally high. Once your adrenal system’s supply is exhausted, however, cortisol levels plunge into the toilet. Too high or too low cortisol levels is a cellular-level fat magnet.
You are a high-intensity business woman with a full plate. Of course you are stressed out. Maybe you have more to do than hours in a day. Possibly you struggle with work-home-life balance. Perhaps the bills are mounting with more expenses on the horizon. Maybe you find yourself grieving the end of a relationship or loss of a loved one. Whatever the cause, weight gain – particularly around the belly, butt, hips and thighs – is only one side effect of stress; others can include loss of enthusiasm, weariness, lethargy, mood dips and cravings for high-carb, high-fat comfort foods. The issue here is not willpower, or lack of, it is a cellular-level biochemical mental, emotional and physical sabotage. My good news: we can turn that around.
I challenge you to take this first simple, but crucially important, baby-step. Take 3 minutes, 3 times per day to stop, unplug, get quiet and think positive thoughts, or count blessings. In our hectic to and from world, finding 3 minutes can sometimes be challenging. Try these tips:
Skeptical? Studies show that a discipline of spending quiet time thinking positive thoughts can be as important as diet and exercise when it comes to impacting weight, health and longevity.
“Joy is the daughter of calm.”