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11/13/18

How Stress Can Lead To Overeating And How To Manage It

I’m currently in San Diego and I’ve been here for about a week. Most of it was to learn about things like writing, marketing, and how to make sure that all of you wonderful people keep getting better and better stuff from Stronger U.

But also, it’s San Diego. It’s not like I need too much convincing to come out and hang out in a beautiful location for a week, right? I mean, Mike didn’t exactly force any of us to go to Bermuda with him in April for the same reason.

But while I’ve been here I’ve been thinking a lot about stress, and more specifically how we interact with the stressors of our day to day lives — and how the terrible California drought of 2011-2017 might be able to teach us a couple of lessons about how we handle that stress, why it can set us back, and why it can influence us to overeat.

Stress is something we all have to deal with on varying levels every single day.

Stress could be sudden, like you dodging an oncoming car because you accidentally walked into traffic while Facebooking.

We’re typically good at handling this sort of immediate stress because we can tap into the what’s known as the fight or flight response. Meaning we either face what’s coming our way head-on or hightail it out of there.

The other form of stress is chronic stress, and this is the kind of stress that most of us are typically much worse at handling. We can’t just up and fight or flight our way out of a chronic stress situation, much as we may like to.

For example: think about when your boss has been on you for 2 months now about turning in your TPS reports, and all you’re worried about is that red Swingline stapler.

While you may want to fight or flight your way outta there, that’s usually not a good career move, so you deal with it.

Listen, I’m well aware I’m probably not telling you anything new right now. Everyone knows stress is something we need to cut back on and avoid, but we really don’t know how it affects our lives, how it impacts our eating choices, and what might be the causes of stress.

Stress is a bit of a murky subject.

Stress isn’t all bad, you know. Eustress is a term coined for a positive kind of stress. The kind that causes us to rise to occasions and to dig deep within ourselves at times. We adapt to the stress and are better because of it.

Maybe it’s a major deadline at work that tests you in a number of different ways. Maybe it’s a major event in your family in which all of you rally around each other, drawing closer thanks to the stress that brought you there. Or maybe it’s just trying a new PR in the gym, hitting it, and getting stronger afterward.

Keeping watch over your stress reservoir.

Much like the state of California had a seriously depleted reservoir during the middle of their crippling drought, when we live lives of chronic stress, our own stress reservoirs become depleted.

All during the day, you’re pulling from your stress reservoir to deal with daily nonsense. Maybe you woke up late. Or maybe there was an emergency you had to deal. Or maybe it was just the fact that the person in front of you at the coffee shop has the longest and most complicated order and you’re late for an appointment.

(Side note: why don’t coffee shops have two lanes? One for people ordering straight up coffee/espresso and the other lane for people ordering more complex drinks? It seems like a no-brainer.)

See, when it comes to stress, we all inherently understand that we need a bit of it. We all knew that the first time we were in a class that may have been a bit over our heads, studied to learn the material, and then grasped what we were talking about. That’s a positive development in reaction to stress.

What we don’t understand is the ways that stress can keep us from reaching our goals in the gym or in the mirror.

Remember the stress reservoir? Everything pulls from that stress reservoir. Chronic stress like your boss and immediate stress like driving in traffic.

Or more specifically, like dieting when you might not be ready to.

Now, understand I am not about to tell you when you can or cannot go on a diet. That’s not my job, and that is a choice that is ultimately up to you.

However, that being said, something we all need to understand is that dieting, in and of itself, is a form of stress. Remember, when you’re dieting with the intention of losing weight or body fat, you need to eat less food than your body needs on a daily basis. This is where fat loss comes in, but it’s also where stress comes into play.

That intentional under-eating can be a stressful thing for many people — and sometimes it might just be adding a bit more stress onto an already heaping pile.

Why?

You’re draining the stress reservoir faster than you can fill it. If you’ve got a ton going on in life like a new job, family problems, work problems, all hitting you like a perfect storm of stress — then sometimes it’s wise to not add any more stress.

It’s in busy times like these where we have a lot going on where we might choose to pull back a bit. Maybe instead of working to lose weight, we work with our Coach on maintenance and lifestyle mode, so we can try to adopt productive behaviors, habits, and awareness — setting us up for success when we’re actually ready to diet.

When the stress reservoir runs low and overeating.

We have to replenish the reservoir when it runs low and to do that we need energy. Where do we get energy, you ask?

Food.

Sound familiar? Ever been really stressed and thought eating an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s Americone Dream was a good idea? I have. Did you feel like Jabba The Hutt after? Me too.

The tricky thing is that’s a physical response that’s hardwired. We know we need to replenish our stress reservoir, and we need to do it quickly, so we seek out the densest source of energy we can find and proceed to mainline it.

Now, research hasn’t completely decided on if we actually seek out highly-palatable and refined foods in response to stress. Conventional wisdom tends to tell us that when we’re stressed that’s when we reach for the candy, cake, or whatever else does it for you. But research is just starting to examine this, and as they study stress-related overeating in larger and more diverse population groups, we’ll sure know more.

However, even if research can’t confirm that stress causes you to eat candy, you can probably confirm what stress causes you to do. All you have to do is think back to the last time you walked through the door at 9pm, utterly exhausted from the day. What did you have then? What was the food that became a source of comfort for you at that moment?

And if you’re like me, after you go crazy in response to stress, you later on stress over the fact that you ate so much food that you know didn’t support your goals or values. Can you guess what happens next? If you guessed leads to more stress, you may pass go and collect $200.

Some actions to stop stress dead in its tracks.

Battling stress is a tough fight. It’s something that we have to continually work on, and we’ll never be perfect at. We’ll always be fighting varying levels of stress.

However, that doesn’t mean we can’t have a few action points in place to fall back on. Getting better at managing stress can help us succeed with our diet. But when you typically read things about handling stress, most of the recommendations are lame blanket recommendations that we’ve all heard a million times before. So I wanted to try and find a few strategies that fit in the same vein but aren’t exactly so generic.

  • Talking to old friends on the phone.

Talking to old friends, actually talking, is one of the best activities there is in the fight against stress. I mean, just think back to that time an old friend called you and were actually free and in a mood to talk on the phone. Remember how great you felt after? Remember how you probably said to yourself, “I need to make more time for this.” A 5-minute conversation can shift your outlook on the day.

  • Pets, friends, and family.

Getting in touch with your social circle, your pets, or your family does wonders to combat stress, especially physical touch. Physical touch causes the release of oxytocin, which in turn makes you happy. Go cuddle your dog. They’ll love you for it. If you don’t have a dog, you can borrow mine. Bowser is an A+ dog.

  • A 10-15 minute walk.

Physical activity is an excellent stress reliever. Bonus points if you can get outside for a short little walk. Good things tend to happen when we spend more time outside. Who would’ve thought?

Now we’re starting to get a little weird, but meditation has shown time and time again to be excellent at helping people handle stress. Just a few short minutes each day can help you remain mindful and handle the issues of the day with ease.

  • Working out.

Yes, working out does add to stress levels and high stress makes recovering from a workout more difficult. But sometimes when you’re really stressed, there’s nothing better than picking up some heavy weights and slamming them back down.

  • Meditation.

This is the part where I let it be known that I’m actually a hippie that likes to eat vegetables and meditate every day. I know, I know. It’s the lamest thing in the world, but here’s the reality: it works. Sitting still and being with yourself for 10 minutes might sound like the most miserable thing in the world, but it’s also something that we know can help us more effectively manage a very wide array of challenges we all deal with, including over-eating.

But the most important thing you could possibly take away from this rambling diatribe about stress and how it impacts overeating is this: you’re not going to get better at this right away. Effectively managing our stress so that we’re mindful and aware of the food choices we’re making isn’t an overnight change. It’s more like a continual evolution that we’re all on, and that continual evolution is filled with plenty of missteps and mistakes. That’s okay. A misstep or mistake isn’t the same as a stop sign, it’s just a bump in the road.

Tanner Baze
Director of Content