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April 9, 2014 | Fitnovatives Blog

How Stress Affects Your Waistline

stressed out

“My job is so stressful,” “My boss is driving me crazy,” “This commute is the most stressful thing on the planet,” “I’ll never pass this test, I’m so stressed out over it.” Sound familiar? Of course it does, because we all think these inaccurate thoughts.

Inaccurate? Duh. Sure, they are inaccurate. You see, these thoughts put the responsibility for feeling stressed on some outside event, work, the boss, the traffic or the test. Yet we know full well that there is no such thing as stress until and unless you think about events in a way that creates it and invites it to live in your head.

As if stressful thinking isn’t enough of a problem, that thinking is also creating the need to go shopping for new clothes. Huh? Because those thoughts are slowly but surely adding weight around your middle, and everywhere else.

In the face of stress-creating thoughts, our brain-body connection typically first curtails our appetites, but as short-term stress turns into daily chronic stress, our neuroendocrine system doesn’t do us any favors. Adrenaline, corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) and a disrupted cortisol rhythm go to work and, over time, increase our appetites, causing us to have more active and passive eating as we sit and stew. Get that? Sit. We expend fewer calories while we are busy eating more and more, irrationally thinking this relieves stress. That’s emotional eating or “above the neck,” at it’s best.

All of this stress-inducing thinking and cortisol raises our blood sugar, creates cravings, reduces our ability to actually burn fat, increases the rate at which we store fat, causes hormonal imbalances, leaves our cells less sensitive to insulin, increases abdominal fat (the most risky for our health) and raises our levels of fat and triglycerides. Enjoy the picture of a growing risk for “diabesity”?

This type of emotional stress-related eating has several key indicators:

1. It comes on suddenly and is urgent (“I must eat right now”).
2. It’s often for a specific food rather than for different foods (“I have to have pizza and nothing else will do”).
3. It’s based in your thoughts about a certain food instead of on rumblings in your stomach (“I can’t stop thinking of that cupcake”).
4. It’s based on an emotion such as stress, instead of a physical need (“I’m so stressed I have to eat something to calm down”).
5. Feeling full doesn’t stop the eating (“I’m still upset so I’ll still eat”).
6. The eating is often mindless or automatic (“I didn’t even realize I ate that doughnut”).
7. Often ends with guilt-feelings (“I can’t believe I ate that whole pizza…ugh”).

The best thing we can do is PREVENT, not manage stress. Feel stressed? Immediately ask yourself, “What am I thinking that’s making me feel stressed?”

The most effective way to prevent a negative emotion from living inside your head for too long is to answer that question and then rapidly catch your irrational thoughts, challenge the truthfulness of the thoughts and change them for more accurate, logical and rational beliefs.

Of course, this may remove the excuse for shopping for new clothes. Then again, the money you save on doctor bills can be put to good use—like buying a new pair of running shoes!

By Michael Mantell
Dr. Michael Mantell

Michael Mantell earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania and his M.S. at Hahnemann Medical College, here he wrote his thesis on obesity. He’s served as the Chief Psychologist of Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego and the Chief Psychologist for the San Diego Police Department. He provides breakthrough strategies to help business leaders, athletes, individuals and families create healthy, fit and happy trajectories in life. He is the Senior Consultant for Behavioral Sciences for ACE, an international behavior science fitness presenter, an Advisor to numerous companies and fitness organizations, on the Sports Medicine team of The Sporting Club of San Diego and is featured in many international media outlets. He is listed in the 2013 “The 100 Most Influential People in Health and Fitness.”