A few weeks ago, we looked at how stress impacts weight–stressful situations generally cause weight gain, and especially, increasing fat around the middle. We also looked 3 easy and effective ways to reduce stress. (If you haven’t read those posts, they’re a good place to start.)
Today, let’s look at specific steps to take to reduce the overall feeling of stress in your life, and specifically those actions that will also address the weight. Rather than being in-the-moment stress relief techniques, these are going to be long-term, holistic strategies to address the causes of stress and the consequences of that stress that result in weight gain (such as bingeing and emotional eating.)
7 Steps to Stress Less to Weigh Less
Change the Mental Chatter
Stress may be caused or exacerbated by the thoughts that happen in our heads. This is also true of binge eating–do you beat yourself up after eating too much? Is your self-talk constantly negative? Do you worry, blame, or belittle yourself? Do you tell yourself you’re not enough or unworthy? Do you put yourself down when you overeat, for gaining weight, or for not having the perfect body or ideal weight?
All of that just compounds every other form of stress. And that means you’re more likely to continue to feel stressed, continue to overeat, continue to be hard on yourself, and and emotionally eat.
It’s time to change the mental chatter–to be more powerful and louder than the negative voice inside your head. How? Try a nightly gratitude journal–write 3 things you’re grateful for–or a morning gratitude practice reciting 1-2 things you’re grateful for. Here’s an idea: all the good your body has done for you–carried you through the day, caught you before you could fall, allowed you to share a meal with a loved one. Another idea would be to repeat mantras to yourself all day–“I am enough,” “I am beautiful,” “my body is a divine peace of work,” “everything will work out,” or whatever feel true to you at the time.
Changing your thoughts can have a ripple effect on your stress levels, how you treat your body, and how you feel about your body. It may sound like a stretch now, but you can love your body in any size or shape. It starts with how you speak to yourself.
Find Quiet, Stillness, and Grounding
Sometimes when we’re constantly on the go, we feel overwhelmed and stressed, and then eat to slow down. Our modern world also promotes living in our heads, instead of in our bodies and we feel out of touch with the beautiful physical form we live in. Anxieties, worries, and to-dos begin to run our life, causing stress, disconnection, and mindless eating.
To help slow down, to feel what it’s like to live in and trust our bodies, and to settle the nervous system back into feelings of safety and security, it’s necessary to take a few quiet minutes. If you have experience meditating, picking up (or extending) a meditation practice is a great way to do this. Yoga–linking breath with movement–is another great way to reconnect with the body. If neither of these suit you (or you feel you don’t have the time or focus for them), try this: stare out the window, let your eyes de-focus as you slow your thoughts, and just breathe. Take a few moments to just be still. These practices have helped me tremendously to get out of my head, back into my body, and to reset my stress levels.
All of these help create that quiet in the mind, allowing you to observe your thoughts. They also allow for a stillness in the body, which calms the central nervous system. Finally, all of these, but especially yoga, are very grounding, helping to connect mind and body, body and earth, and improving feelings of trust around our body and our lives.
Just Say No
All of our lives are so full and so busy. Women, in particular, are constantly serving others, giving all of themselves, and shortchanging their own health to care for others. You have full permission to say “no” to organizing that party, to going to that irrelevant event, to picking up around the house. As Marie Forleo says, ‘get your first class ticket on the “no” train.’
It’s time to say “no” to overexercising, no to hardcore workouts, no to restrictive diets, and no to putting others first. If you’re not cared for, if you’re not doing well, you have nothing left to give to anyone else. You must prioritize your own self-care. As they say on every airplane, “put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.”
Once you can learn to say no, you free up your time and your headspace to find the quiet, stillness, and grounding, to cultivate a gratitude practice, and to craft meaningful mantras. You reduce the overwhelm, the busyness, and the stress. And you take care of you, so that you don’t need to turn to food for comfort.
Get off the Blood Sugar Roller Coaster
For the rest of this post, we shift to look at some of the physiological factors that contribute to stress and stress-induced weight gain, and what can be done about them.
If you live on a mainly carb-based diet, there’s a good chance you’re on the blood sugar roller coaster. Too low of blood sugar causes your body to secrete cortisol and adrenaline in an effort to release glycogen stores from the liver (to boost circulating glucose/sugar/energy). Likewise, too high of blood sugar also stresses out the body as the pancreas works overtime producing insulin and trying to clear the excess sugar.
These wild blood sugar swings often create carb cravings as the body tries to re-up and stabilize blood sugar. Stress, likewise, creates cravings for sugar and carbs, because these help increase production of serotonin, the brain’s “feel good chemical.” This double-whammy makes it incredibly difficult to cut the carb cravings and get off the blood sugar roller coaster. But it is absolutely essential.
Start every morning with a protein-heavy, carb-minimal breakfast. This will start your day off with stable blood sugar. From there, choose meals balanced with protein, fats, and whole food sources of carbs like fruit, vegetables, squash, and sweet potatoes. Avoid all refined sugar in beverages and sweets, as well as refined grains. Yes, easier said than done, but committing to this during low-stress periods may make it easier, and taking a probiotic can also help make a lower carbohydrate diet more attainable.
Once you’ve gotten off the blood sugar roller coaster, you crave carbs a lot less, your body will not be under this sort of stress, losing weight will be easier, and belly fat will diminish. To truly shrink your waistline, you must break the stress-carbs-belly fat cycle, and though it’s challenging, it can be done!
Make Healthy Easy
Sometimes it’s hard to be healthy–to eat right, to workout, to sleep enough, to do all the things we know are good for us–especially when we’re extremely busy or suffering overwhelming stress. But if you plan ahead, being healthy doesn’t have to add to your stress levels.
First, we already agreed to ‘get on the “no” train,’ so now you should have more time to prioritize your health. Besides using this time to show yourself a little TLC, you can also use this time to sleep more, move your body, and prepare healthy foods.
Here are a few specific ways to make healthy fit into any situation.
- Set an alarm to remind yourself to go to bed (and observe it!). Sleeping well and long enough sets you up for greater productivity the next day; so just go to bed and then you’ll get everything done faster the next day.
- Buy pre-cut, already peeled fruits and veggies. You’ll be more likely to use them if you can just eat as-is or throw them in the pot.
- Prep meals ahead of time: do all the chopping, measuring, and prepping on the weekend, so all you have to do is cook. Or better yet, cook everything on the weekends, store in containers, and then you’re ready for meals throughout the week.
- Don’t buy junk food and then there’s far less temptation (or junk to binge on).
- No time to go to the gym? Then don’t. Find workout videos on youtube, do a few chair dips in your office chair, spend 60 seconds in plank position 2-3 times per day, walk to work or the grocery store.
- Instead of planning a dinner date with a friend, plan a walking date or workout session. Spending time with friends also lowers stress levels.
Healthy can be fast, easy, and stress-free. It just requires some forethought. Bonus points if you can work any of these into daily or weekly habits: try weekly Sunday meal prep or a bi-weekly walking date with a friend. The easier it is to choose the healthy option, the more likely you’ll be to stick to it, which boosts feelings of positivity and self-efficacy, which themselves help reduce stress. In this way, you’ll be heading toward your ideal weight in no time.
What you drink could be just as important as what you eat when it comes to relieving stress and dropping pounds. It is best to avoid coffee and sugary drinks during times of stress as both can increase the effects of stress–sugar via the pathways described above and coffee by increasing secretion of cortisol and taxing the adrenal glands. In both cases increased carb cravings and belly fat result.
You probably know there are many health benefits of tea, but did you know there are many good teas for stress? Both Camellia sinensis, “true” tea, such as white, green, oolong, and black tea, as well as certain herbal infusions can help relieve stress.
A number of studies looking at the health benefits of tea have found that regular tea drinkers recover from stressful events more quickly and may feel the physiological effects of stress less intensely. Tea also helps regulate blood sugar and cortisol levels and increases metabolism. The naturally-occurring amino acid, L-theanine, helps reduce stress and increase focus making tea great for stress relief.
There are a number of herbal infusions that can relieve anxiety, relax you, induce sleep, or otherwise help calm you; generally their effects are quite short-lived and choosing one of the many depends on flavor preference and allergies. More importantly, one classification of herbs you should consider first in your defense against stress is adaptogens. Adaptogens help the body resist the effects of stress, increase resiliency, boost the immune system, and protect the nervous system. Many of them infuse quite nicely to make a very enjoyable stress relief tea. Look for schisandra berries, tulsi, licorice, ginseng, or jiaogulan. Despite being free of caffeine and free of other stimulants, many of these also increase energy and endurance so you don’t need snacks or sweets to keep going during stressful times–a bonus for your waistline.
Finally one more smart beverage for stress relief is magnesium; I specifically like the brand Natural Calm. Magnesium is a critical mineral that’s quickly depleted during times of stress. It’s one of the most important for preventing cravings, maintaining nervous system health and mental clarity, and ensuring relaxation and deep sleep. Try a teaspoon mixed into water before bed.
What you drink before and during stressful times can greatly impact how you handle stress and how your body responds to stress. Try making tea and adaptogens a regular habit now so they’re already part of your routine when stress hits.Your waistline will thank you.
Relax at the End of the Day
When stress amps-up the nervous system it can be difficult to calm down, to shut off the wandering mind, and to shift into relaxation mode. Yet, doing so means better, deeper, more restful sleep. And quality sleep is paramount to reducing stress and losing weight.
To help yourself calm down at the end of the day, try
- The magnesium drink mentioned above.
- Shut off screens and dim bright lights (TVs, laptops, phones, halogens) so that your body knows its bedtime and increases production of melatonin (the sleep hormone).
- Some light stretching.
- Write a gratitude journal.
- Listen to a podcast or audiobook.
- A guided meditation such as a progressive body scan.
Any of these can help settle the nervous system and calm the mind to get it ready for deep sleep. Sufficient deep sleep means more resiliency with stress, more productivity to get things done, increased willpower to say “no” and to make smart food choices, fewer calories consumed, and a healthier weight (as significant research has shown). Make sure you feel relaxed in the evening so you can sleep well.
If you want to weigh less, you first need to stress less. These 7 steps will get you on your way to preventing and managing stress and achieving your desired weight.
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