Help Patients Understand & Recover from Stress Related Weight Gain

2.7 Stressed / Rushed

Stressed/Rushed

When we feel stressed, often there are mounting pressures or demands that are causing a state of tension. Rushing is how we’ll likely try to keep pace with multiple demands. Most of us try to accomplish more than is practical on any given day. We do so with the earnest desire to do everything well with the hope (or expectation) that others will be happy and appreciative of our efforts.

Relentless dysregulated states of stress cause premature aging at the cellular level affects all systems in the body, contribute to numerous health problems, and produce the worst symptoms in our most vulnerable areas (pain in the low back, shoulders, stomach, head, etc.). Solid evidence suggests that stress significantly influences the development of obesity, metabolic disorder, and disordered eating patterns. Chronic stress can also trigger or exacerbate various psychological disorders, such as anxiety, depression, panic disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder.

The Body’s Stress Response System

The body’s stress response is a highly adaptive neurological system that allows us to divert energy to cope with actual or anticipated danger instantaneously. Initially, after we experience a stressful event, there is a (corticotrophin-releasing-hormone) suppression of food intake. This diverts our body’s resources away from less pressing needs (such as finding food) and prioritizes our fight-or-flight behaviors. When stressed, cortisol (the primary stress hormone) increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream and boosts the brain’s use of glucose. In this phase of the stress response, we’re quickly depleting our available energy resources. However, several hours following the event there’s a glucocorticoid rebound which stimulates hunger and an increased drive to consume foods rich in carbohydrates [21].  This rebound effect is what prompts us to urgently seek and eat HFS to quickly restore our energy resources.

Excess Stress Puts on the Pounds

When stressors are excessive, the increased frequency and effect of these neurochemical responses become detrimental to our well-being. Chronically elevated glucocorticoids stimulate appetite, energy conservation, and excessive weight gain [21 ,22, 23]. Activation of this circuitry also interacts with the HPA axis to suppress its further activation, meaning not only can stress encourage eating, but for a while, eating will then suppress the feelings of stress [21]. This chronic response to stress is circular. Excessive glucocorticoid production and/or elevated basal glucocorticoids lead to energy conservation (couch) and appetite stimulation (eating). Chronic stress also increases the perceived reward value of high-glycemic (HFS) food items making them seem even more attractive to us! [21]

The Relationship Between Elevated Cortisol & Weight

Stress and stress-related disorders have a high risk for addiction to substances and a significant risk for cycles of relapsing behavior [24]. Here’s a simplified look at weight-related problems caused by elevated cortisol levels:

  • Activation and an increase of glucocorticoids (glucose+cortex+steroid)
  • Increase in appetite (via action in the hypothalamus)
  • Visceral fat accumulation and weight gain
  • Desensitization of the brain to leptin release
  • Altered decision making

In the Solution

Western culture promotes the ability to “multi-task.” We’re supposed to take pride in how well we juggle several tasks simultaneously. But in reality, for most of us, it means we may do a lot; but we feel tense, anxious, or stressed when things are seldom done as well as we’d like. We’ve become creatures of habitual multi-tasking. If you sometimes wonder if you have attention deficit disorder, you’re not alone! A 2017 workplace study revealed that people tend to switch activities every 3 minutes during a typical workday.

When we feel rushed or overwhelmed, we’re typically stressed. We may experience a temporary decrease in appetite, but it doesn’t last. When rushed, we tend to eat whatever is in front of us or easiest to obtain. Instead of going out for lunch or taking time to relax and restore, we walk to the vending machine and work through lunch to meet the day’s deadlines. After a while, we become so accustomed to eating from the vending machines that we convince ourselves that it’s good for us with the justification of how much more we can get done.

Prioritize Your Health & Set Boundaries

It’s a myth that we’ll ever meet all our deadlines or get to the bottom of any list before we start another. If we don’t set boundaries for ourselves and self-care, we never get back the time we give away. When rushed, we’re much more likely to reach for the leftover squished chocolate bar that seemed so unappealing earlier in the day. We’ll meet the unpleasant demand for energy with whatever source of HFS we can find.  The antidote to stress and being rushed is to SLOW DOWN, even if only for a few seconds of conscious deliberation. We must become aware of when we’re trying to do too much and learn to prioritize realistically. An effective approach to ending compulsive task-oriented behavior is to prioritize as follows:

  • What has to be done today?
  • What can be done today?
  • What would be nice to get done?
  • What can (or should) be done by someone else?

If it has to be done today, then get it done. Managing stressors is significant to recovery from both anxiety and depressive disorders. Generally, we get in trouble when we do “nice” first. Procrastination increases self-imposed stress and anxiety. That said, the hardest thing for many of us is to admit we need help. As soon as you realize that you can’t get something done…communicate or call in the cavalry! There’s nothing worse than the pervasive sense that if we don’t get it done…we’ll disappoint someone. Most people understand that we have limitations, make mistakes, get run down, and overcommit.

What can be done are those errands or projects that are short-term or that support us in the course of our week. If you’re driving by the cleaners or the drugstore and you have time, you may as well take care of an errand to avoid a frantic trip later in the week. Or, if you know a monthly or quarterly report will be due in a few weeks, you may be able to complete some of it ahead of time.

What would be nice to get done are activities like deep-cleaning the house, sorting through clothes for donation, organizing the attic or garage, uploading photos into a software program…etc. These are things that only we can do, but nothing adverse will happen if they have to wait a while. (One exception is if you have been waiting five years for your spouse to upload your wedding photos – then adverse is okay.)

What others can or should do are the chores or activities that others can do that then allow us to make time for pleasurable activities that help us reduce the effects of stress. The point here is that there are things we don’t do well, lack the patience to do well, or simply don’t have the equipment or interest to do well.

Author’s Note: I iron far more wrinkles into clothes than they start with. With no distractions, I’m lucky if I manage to iron one shirt per hour. This isn’t a remotely rewarding use of my time. When we think about it, most of us increase our stress by not asking for help or putting what’s “nice to do” ahead of “what has to be done.”

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