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5 Ways to Combat Stress and Cortisol

May 31, 2013

It is 15 minutes before you are to leave work and your boss needs you to stay for a high priority project. You need to pick up the kids in 45 minutes and you were going to stop at the grocery store on the way home. Earlier in the day, you had an argument with your spouse. You leave work with minutes to spare before you are due to pick up the kids and get a speeding ticket! After picking up the kids (late), you forget the grocery store and about preparing a healthy dinner and drive through your favorite fast food place, get an extra large hamburger, fries and a hot fudge sundae with double hot fudge.~~STRESS~~

The Fight or Flight of Cortisol, the Stress Hormone

If you’ve ever felt that the walls of life are closing in on you and reacted, then you have experienced stress. All of us experience stress. Stress can motivate us to react in a positive way by exercising, talking to a friend, praying, meditating, or using other relaxing and calming methods. Stress can also cause us to cope in unhealthy ways such as overeating, drinking or medicating the stress away. Forget about ice cream or potato chip therapy. They don’t work for us and our healthy lifestyle. If you can understand  your body’s reaction to stress, it can help you combat stress and deal with it healthfully.

There are ways that stress can lead to weight gain. One way is that it increases cortisol which is a stress hormone. When stressed, the “fight or flight” response kicks into our bodies, which leads to the release of various hormones. When we experience the fight or flight response, our bodies react as though we are in danger and need to fight for our lives. Of course, the fight or flight response is usually due to a stressful event or thoughts we have.

Stress eating (emotional eating) can lead to weight gain. If we stay in the fight or flight mode for an extended period of time due to chronic stress, our propensity to overeat in order to cope is greatly increased. In addition, our health can be at risk due to chronic stress.

Chronic Stress and Raised Cortisol Can Cause Weight Gain

Cravings. When we’re stressed, we tend to crave sugary, fatty and salty foods. The quick “grab and go” processed foods are also more appealing. These foods are not healthy and their consumption can lead to weight gain.

Emotional Eating. Higher levels of cortisol not only make you crave unhealthy foods, but you also tend to eat more than you normally would. Eating out of stress usually results in eating compulsively in binge-type eating behavior.

Junk/Fast Food. When we are highly stressed, we want to combat stress quickly. If we were to interview people waiting in line at a fast food restaurant, a high percentage would probably admit to feeling stressed! Rather than take the time and energy to prepare a healthy meal, quick and easy drive thru’s are more attractive in a stressed out state.

Not Exercising. Stress can wear us out, both physically and mentally. When we are drained and tired, chances are we don’t feel like exercising. For many of us, stress will cause us to plop in front of the television or maintain other sedentary activities rather than exercise or be active.

5 Ways to Combat Stress and Stay on Track

1. Eat healthfully. Prepare healthy meals and stock your kitchen, desk, purse and briefcase with healthy snacks. Turn to healthy food choices, rather than overeat on food choices that are full of empty junk calories.

2. Sleep. Make sure to get enough sleep to give your body (and nerves!) adequate time to rejuvenate and recharge, especially from a stressful day.

3. Exercise. Even if the last thing you feel like doing when you are stressed is to exercise or engage in activity, it is the best thing you can do. The most difficult thing is starting! Once you are busy exercising or engaged in an activity, you will feel better physically and mentally. You’ll have a better perspective and less stress.

4. Learn Relaxation. Practice relaxation techniques daily, especially when you feel stressed : deep breathing exercises, guided imagery, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, tai chi and meditation.

5. Talk It Out. Talk out your stressful situation with a trusted friend or family member. You’ll gain valuable perspective and support by reaching out.

Stress can come from any situation or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, out of control or anxious. What is stressful to one person, might not be stressful to another person. Stress is a normal part of life. Stress can be a motivator for you to be more productive and make positive changes in your life. Make lemons into lemonade!

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cathy wilson


Cathy Wilson, PCC, BCC, had RNY surgery in 2001 and lost 147 pounds. Cathy is a regular contributor to the OH Blog and authored the "Mind Matters" column in ObesityHelp Magazine. Cathy is a licensed pilot and loves flying. She is a member of the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS) and the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC).

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