April is National Stress Awareness month. And while the definition of stress varies among individuals, a common theme is that stress not only prevents you from reaching your weight loss goals, it can do a number on your health in general.
One of the immediate ways stress contributes to weight gain is by tempting you to reach for comfort foods – like pizza or ice cream – that you may not crave if your stress levels were under control. We’ve all heard of emotional eating, right? Although some people tend to lose their appetite under high stress, many have an increased appetite for foods that are just not conducive to a healthy lifestyle.
Chronic stress also causes an increase in cortisol levels. Cortisol is the stress hormone and when your body is constantly pumping it out, it can make it more difficult to lose weight and lead to an increase in belly fat, particularly.
It’s not just weight that is a concern with high stress levels, though. Chronic stress is also linked to metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, to name a few.
Managing Stress Levels
If there’s one thing you need to do today, it’s figure out the best ways for you to lower your stress levels, since managing stress is such a vital factor in taking control of your health. We wanted to make sure that you had a good idea of all the things you could do to help manage and/or reduce your stress levels so that you’d be armed with as many tools as you need – and so that you’d be able to find something or a combination of things that works for you. In today’s fast-paced, modern world, chronic stress has become the norm and we want to work to help you change that.
Once your stress levels are under control, you’ll be able to focus your attention on your eating plan and following the steps to help you reach your goals. Here are a few of our favorite tried and true stress reduction techniques.
This one probably isn’t a big shocker, but it tops the list because it’s simple to incorporate and regular exercise has been shown to be just as effective as anti-depressants in some studies. Exercise increases endorphins, which are the feel-good chemicals in your body that help enhance your sense of well-being. To benefit from the stress-relief effects of exercise, you don’t have to hit the gym hard for 2 hours a day, 7 days a week. A thirty minute light walk in the morning or after dinner is enough to do the trick.
When you’re particularly stressed, it’s often tempting to hole yourself up and remove yourself from the world, but this can actually increase your stress levels. Social contact provides a distraction from daily stressors and your social network can serve as a support system. An added bonus – you’re more likely to laugh when spending time with family and friends whose company you enjoy and laughter is its own stress reliever. Laughter promotes physical changes in your body that can reduce your stress load and help get you feeling better.
When you’re stressed, you tend to take quick, shallow breaths that come from your chest rather than your abdomen. When you breathe deeply from your abdomen instead, you take in more oxygen which helps you feel less anxious, less short of breath, and more relaxed. Learning how to take deep breaths can take practice, and this is how you do it:
- Sit up straight or lie on your back somewhere comfortable. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Take deep breaths in through your nose. You should feel the hand on your abdomen start to rise, but the hand on your chest should move very little.
- Exhale through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can. Repeat this process until you feel your body start to calm down.
Research suggests that daily meditation may alter the brain’s neural pathways, reducing anxiety and making you more resilient to stress. There is no right or wrong way to meditate so don’t let your preconceived notions about what meditation is supposed to be deter you from starting your own practice. If you’re new to meditation, you can start by following along with some guided meditations. There are a plethora of videos available on YouTube for free to get you started.
Get a Massage
A relaxation massage not only works out the knots and tension that can build in your muscles following a period of chronic stress, the touch of a massage also helps release oxytocin – a neurotransmitter that helps make you feel good. Schedule a weekly or monthly relaxation massage and allow yourself to fully enjoy this treat.
We get a little opposition when we mention the word yoga and we think it comes from the same misconceptions that surround meditation. Like meditation, yoga is a practice. There is no right or wrong way to do it. You don’t have to be flexible or zen to start. You develop these things once you get deeper into your yoga practice. Over time, yoga helps to reduce stress and anxiety and brings together body and mind.
We’ve said it before and we’ll keep saying it until you start doing it – get enough sleep! When you’re stressed, it’s easy to skimp out on sleeping in favor of getting work instead. Don’t do it! Sleep is the time when your brain and body repair and recharge and it is vital to managing your stress levels. Sleep also contributes to mood, energy level, and ability to concentrate. Make sure you’re hitting the sheet by 10 PM and getting 7 to 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.
Listening to or playing your own music decreases stress hormones, reduces muscle tension, and provides mental distraction. Even if it’s just for 10 minutes, crank up the volume on your radio and just let loose. Bonus points for dancing along to the tunes.
Stress depletes the B vitamins in your body, which help you handle stress. In times of chronic stress, you should take a multi-vitamin or a B complex supplement, like this one, or schedule regular B12 injections to replenish these critical nutrients daily so that your tank doesn’t run out.