Can Stress Stop You from Reaching Your Health Goals?
Posted Apr 08 2012 10:53am
In my last few years working as a health as wellness coach, the most common issue that women bring up is “I am working so hard in the gym, and eating all the right foods, and I still am not happy with my body!” We often know the “rules” of being healthy: working out plus eating a stellar diet SHOULD equal perfect health, right? In many cases though, we forget that high levels of stress, anxiety, tension, and lack of sleep can contribute to negative health effects in our body. When we are experiencing stress, it is our body’s way of trying to tell us something is wrong. For example, many people get migraines or stomach upset when they feel negative emotions. Other people can’t sleep, feel depressed, or may gain or lose weight.
In our society, we are constantly under pressure to work more, play less, and succeed. We are often expected to accomplish more than we possibly can in a twenty-four hour period of time. This can lead to chronic feelings of anxiety and stress. As a result, I see many women either abandon healthy eating choices or exercise routines because they feel that there is “just not enough time” to take care of themselves. On the flipside, many women will sacrifice sleep or get overly obsessive about their diets in order to get the “perfect” body. Many women are unaware that the body will suffer under chronic stress, despite making smart food and exercise decisions. That is why it is key to work on stress reduction techniques in collaboration with diet and exercise.
When we are under stress, our body goes into what is known as “fight or flight” mode. This quite simply means that we make an unconscious choice to fight something, or to run away from something in a stressful and time-sensitive situation. When we experience this intense stress, our body creates a quick burst of energy that alters metabolism, blood flow, and other chemicals in the body. Most specifically, the hormone cortisol is released to prepare us to manage the stressful situation. This is all well and good when we experience occasional stress. However, since many people are in a state of chronic stress due to the pressures of everyday life, the body is continuously pumping out cortisol.
Chronic stress can affect our health in many ways:
It decreases energy metabolisms, which alters the way our body uses the calories that we are ingesting. It increases cravings for foods with more fat, salt, and sugar, as these foods cause the body to release pleasure hormones such as dopamine to counter-effect the stress. In other words, our bodies try to balance out the dip in pleasure chemicals in the brain by reaching for foods to give it a burst. It also alters blood sugar levels. When blood sugar is not consistently leveled, we may experience things like mood swings, feeling tired, and feeling shaky and irritable. Finally, chronic stress affects where we store fat. People who are under constant stress have shown to have higher levels of abdominal fat. Researchers have shown that higher levels of fat around the abdomen are associated with chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease and diabetes.
It has become very clear to us that beyond exercise and healthy eating, it is equally important to discover and learn ways to improve one’s emotional health. A great place to start is by identifying emotions and trying to understand what is causing a particular emotion. By simply identifying emotions we can catch ourselves when we are starting to get negative and learn to see the triggers that cause negative thought patterns. The next step is to learn how to express our negative feelings in appropriate ways. When we keep our feelings inside and hidden, we often feel worse than if we were to share out emotions with others by simply talking with a friend/family member, or journaling. Another valuable piece to having optimal emotional health is living a balanced lifestyle. This means practicing a healthy work to life balance, finding pleasurable activities that reduce stress, eating healthy foods and exercising consistently, getting adequate sleep, and spending quality time with loved ones.
Finally, I can’t stress enough how important it is to put yourself first and practice what we coaches call "extreme self-care". Many people who struggle with negativity by letting their emotions affect their daily lives tend to put other people first. It is important to realize that only you will suffer as a result of this type of thinking. Think about what is important to you, and focus on increasing your daily positive interactions with other people and with things you enjoy. It is important to find stress management techniques that work for you in order to keep our stress levels tolerable and our bodies and minds functioning optimally. Regular meditation practice and other forms of relaxation can not only be very healing during stressful times, but can actually prevent stress from getting out of control. Most importantly, find things that you love to do, and focus on expressing a sense of gratitude for all of the positive things in your life.
Interested in improving your emotional health and well-being? Here are some quick tips that you can always use to help manage stress:
Practice letting go by making a conscious choice not to become angry or upset by stressful situations or people (don’t sweat the small stuff).
Breathe slowly and deeply. Ideally, we start to incorporate at least 15 minutes of meditating per day, but even 3 minutes can make a difference! If you have a hard time sitting still, try doing a walking meditation, or simply tuning in to your breathing as you complete activities around the house.
Practice taking things more slowly than usual, and become more mindful of your actions and behaviors as you go about your day.
Try to find and implement an effective time management strategy, and avoid multi-tasking if you can.
Get outdoors for a break. Being outdoors can be very soothing, and studies show that getting some fresh air for a few minutes has many health benefits and can improve your mood.
Drink plenty of water.
Make sure you are not depriving your body of the nutrients it needs. We sometimes tend to go overboard with the “healthy” diets, and many are chronically under-eating. On the flipside, many turn to quick and easy processed foods, which leave us overfed but undernourished. Try to focus on foods in their whole, natural state, and avoid overdoing it on the processed stuff!
Do a quick posture check. Hold your head and shoulders upright and avoid stooping or slumping.
Plan something rewarding for the end of your stressful day,
Ali Weinberg is a certified health and wellness coach and licensed psychotherapist in the Boston area. She is Director of Wellness Coaching at Engin Coaching and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.