Is Stress Making You Fat?

Earlier this year, the American Psychological Association (APA) released it’s annual Stress in America Survey Report. The results of the 2013 survey “portrays a picture of high stress and ineffective coping mechanisms that appear to be ingrained in our culture, perpetuating unhealthy lifestyles and behaviors for future generations.” What was most troubling about their latest report, is the level of stress among teens in the US, which in many cases follow a similar patter to those of adults.

How Does Stress Impact Weight?
Many people can recognize the symptoms of stress, such as: headaches, neck/shoulder pain, decreased energy, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, depression and anger. But did you ever equate your weight gain with stress? I’m not talking about eating horribly because you are stressed and gaining weight as a result of a poor diet. I’m talking about weight that packs on even when diet and exercise are in check. What’s to blame? A sneaky little hormone called Cortisol.

Cortisol is a hormone that is released by the adrenal glands in response to fear or stress. It is part of the widely-known “fight-or-flight” mechanism. Our bodies release cortisol in the presence of both good stress (Eustress) and bad stress (Distress). Now, unlike distress, eustress creates a heightened state of arousal, which is invigorating and is often attached to a tangible goal. Once that goal has been reached, or a specific task has been completed, cortisol levels return to normal. Not so with distress. The free-floating anxiety that accompanies distress doesn’t provide an outlet for the cortisol, which builds up over time, causing weight gain, lower immune function, high blood pressure, heart disease, memory loss and depression.

Stress Is Contagious?!?!
It’s bad enough that we have to manage our own stress levels, but new research suggests we need to watch out for others’ stress as well. A 2014 study from the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Technische Universität Dresden finds that stress can be super contagious: being around a stressed person can not only mentally “stress you out” – it will physically stress you out by RAISING your CORTISOL levels!!! During the study, test subjects were paired with loved ones and strangers of the opposite sex and then divided into two groups. One group was given challenging arithmetic questions and interviewed in order to induce direct stress. The group of 211 observers simply watched the test and interviews through a one-way mirror and via video transmissions. As expected, 95% of the people placed under direct stress showed signs of stress. But 26% of observers had an increase in cortisol as well as a result of empathic stress. The impact of stress was particularly high when a subject was observing a romantic partner in a stressful situation (40%).

Get Real and Kick Your Cortisol to the Curb!
So how can you combat negative stress and resulting weight gain, among other undesirable side-effects? Implement these tried and true techniques for kicking elevated cortisol levels to the curb:

1) Get Regular Physical Activity – Physical activity reduces cortisol levels by completing the fight or flight equation. Any aerobic activity (walking, jogging, biking, etc.) will create the “flight” outlet while boxing, sparring, or weight lifting will create the “fight” outlet.

2) Just Breathe – You don’t need to go to extremes to reap the benefits of meditation. Even simply taking deep breaths will engage the Vagus nerve which triggers the signal within your nervous system to slow heart rate, lower blood pressure, and decrease cortisol.

3) Be a Social Butterfly – Isolating oneself from social networks leads to increased levels of cortisol and the potential for a cascade of mental health problems, especially in adolescents. Make plans to enjoy time with friends and family – just make sure they keep their stress in check too!

4) Laugh a Little – Dr. William Fry, an American psychiatrist who has been studying the effects of laughter for over 30 years has found links to laughter and lowered levels of cortisol. Try to find ways throughout your day to laugh and joke and you will be on your way to balancing that stress horomone.

5) Move to the Music – Music is extremely powerful, and listening to genres that you enjoy has been shown to lower cortisol levels as well. Want to kill two birds with one stone? Get your groove on and burn those calories!

Want to Learn More? Check out these resources:
“Science Says Stress Is Contagious”
Stress In America