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Can Stress Make You Fat?

June 2nd, 2020


“Our greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” - William James

A person holding many cookies, wearing a shirt that says stress

Defining Stress

Stress is the body's reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses. Stress is a normal part of life. You can experience stress from your environment, your body, and your thoughts. Stress is a problem that affects many people, and without healthy remedies for relieving it, it can have a strong bearing on your life, and waistline!

Types of Stress

In terms of the types of stress, there are three major classifications:

Acute Stress

The most common form. It comes from demands and pressures of the recent past and anticipated demands and pressures of the near future. Acute stress is thrilling and exciting in small doses, but too much is exhausting. This can be for example if you are running late and get stuck in traffic, left your work project to the last minute and now risk delivering it late, or getting a call from your child’s school telling you they have gotten in trouble.

Episodic Stress

This occurs when someone takes on too many tasks, becomes overwhelmed by all the demands with an inability to meet those demands. They seem to have many different disastrous situations, live in chaos and disorganization. People with this type of stress typically feel overwhelmed and not sure how to manage all of life’s challenges as they feel they are dug deep into a hole. This can be particularly degrading to relationships or to your work, and overtime can cause serious illnesses like heart disease or clinical depression.

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress is the response to emotional pressure suffered for a prolonged period in which an individual perceives they have little or no control (poverty, racism, etc.). This can manifest in people’s lives through unresolved feelings from a traumatic childhood event or having a fear of contracting or healing from a serious illness.

Results of Stress on Your Body

Stress is a real response in the body. When we are in heightened stages of stress, the body increases adrenaline production, speeds up the heart rate, dumps glucose into the blood for energy, and increases muscle tension and nerve transmission speed.

The result? Your body is primed to run, or fight for your survival. After doing one or the other, and having removed yourself from the source of stress, your body recovers and soon returns to its pre-stress state. Your heart rate returns to normal, as does your blood glucose levels.

Our body is still living in the old days when we needed to rely on these stress responses to avoid being eaten by wild animals or attacked by a neighboring tribe. However, now in the 21st century when we don’t have to be worried about whether we will live through the day, most of us live with ongoing underlying stress brought on from work, family, and relationships, and we have fewer outlets since we generally move around less.

When our Cortisol (stress hormone) levels are high, our body believes that it has uses calories to help deal with stress (aka run away from the jaguar), but since nowadays our stress is more likely a blaring alarm clock, rush hour traffic, or a looming deadline, our body giving us signals that we’re hungry is false; and when we reach for the food to help satisfy our hunger pangs (typically foods high in sugar and fat), we end up overeating.

A businessman in a suit using a computer while eating a cheeseburger and fries

Do this often and over time you can start to see how stress can cause weight gain, obesity, depression, migraines, diabetes, heart disease, and a myriad of other negative results.

Ways to Improve Stress Levels

  1. Learn to accept that there are events that you cannot control.
  2. Practice relaxation techniques; try meditation, yoga, take a hot bath, or write down your thoughts in your journal.
  3. Exercise often. Physical strength will help your body better to fight stress, plus it will relieve some pent-up tension.
  4. Clean up your diet. Ensure 80% of your diet comes from whole, unprocessed foods and you have a healthy ratio between protein, carbs, and fats.
    Learn to say NO to things and people that aren’t serving you. You don’t have to attend every event or be every person’s savior. Pick and choose where to spend your energy.
  5. Prioritize rest and sleep! Your body needs time to recover from all of the things that you do to rejuvenate.
  6. Always make time for hobbies and doing things you enjoy just for the enjoyment and pleasure you receive from them. This may be going for long walks, painting, reading, knitting, etc.
  7. Surround yourself with positive, upbeat, supportive people. Seek out help from them if you are feeling like you need support.
  8. Seek treatment with a psychologist or other mental health professional trained in stress management or biofeedback techniques to learn more healthy ways of dealing with the stress in your life.

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