Chronic Stress can harm your health more than gaining weight or obesity

How Stress Impacts Your Health More Than Weight

Stress contributes more to illness and disease than weight. In fact, weight gain is often a side effect of stress! Keep reading to learn why the world focuses more on obesity than stress as the culprit to poor health outcomes. How to know if you’re experiencing chronic stress. Plus 21 tips for how you can start lowering your stress levels today.

What is Chronic Stress?

Chronic stress, according to Yale Medicine, is “a consistent sense of feeling pressured and overwhelmed over a long period of time.” Although the length of time isn’t defined, it’s typically over the course of several weeks or more. Chronic stress is generally triggered by deeper situations and experiences such as socioeconomics, a toxic job situation, racism, divorce, trauma, financial struggles, a medical diagnosis, loss of a loved one, a pandemic, etc.

Acute stress is a short burst of adrenaline when your flight-or-fight sympathetic nervous system kicks in. Such as that heart-stopping moment you had to swerve to avoid a fatal car accident. Or an intense panic thinking your child is missing when 20-seconds later you find them playing with a toy in the next aisle of the store. Feeling nervous ahead of a big presentation at work. Acute stress can even be triggered by HIIT workouts.

In other words, the triggers of acute stress are quickly resolved. But the triggers of chronic stress linger due to extended circumstances. In our fast-paced, burnout-prone, 24-hour-news-cycle society, chronic stress is becoming more and more common. And it’s severely impacting our overall health and wellness.

Chronic stress causes cognitive, emotional, physical and/or behavioral symptoms such as:

  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Low energy
  • Sleep issues (insomnia or abundance)
  • Brain fog & trouble concentrating
  • Change in appetite (under-eating or binge eating)
  • Increased alcohol and/or drug use
  • Body aches & pains
  • Frequent illnesses
  • Irritability, mood swings & outbursts of anger
  • Sense of tightness or pressure in chest
  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach and other GI issues

Resources: Yale Medicine, Verywellmind.com and Mayo Clinic

Weight Gain is a Symptom; Not a Disease in Itself

Knowing that stress can be chronic or acute. As well as the negative impact high cortisol levels can have on a person’s health and daily life. Why does our society still focus so heavily on how obesity is the leading indicator of health issues?

I don’t know the precise answer, but I have an educated guess.

Weight can be quantified, stress cannot.

Bodies come in all different shapes and sizes. Some people in larger sizes are very healthy. And some people in smaller sizes are very unhealthy. We cannot tell someone’s level of health by weight despite what the BMI Scale claims. Because actual indicators of health aren’t visible such as organ functionality, mental health, blood sugar, hormone levels, sleep patterns, hydration, sex drive, etc. The only person who can know if something feels “off” in your body, is you!

So those who report symptoms of stress may not have “physical evidence” yet. Typically chronic stress must exist for a long time before it potentially materializes in high blood pressure, Diabetes, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Hypothyroidism, acne, ulcers, and/or cardiovascular events like heart attack, stroke or heart disease. And because weight gain is often a side effect of stress, it’s easier to point to weight and blame every resulting illness on being obese or overweight on the BMI Scale.

Obesity Epidemic or Mental Health Crisis?

In my opinion, we’re largely in this mess of blaming weight due to lazy science and lazy statistics. If symptoms of chronic stress (and other ailments) could be better quantified, we could skip the whole obesity conversation. But because it reduces everyone’s health down to a simple number, it makes it easier for our for-profit healthcare insurance companies, life insurance companies, healthcare systems and diet culture to keep focusing on obesity. But we don’t have an obesity epidemic. We have a mental health crisis. Those who are living healthy lives in larger bodies are meant to be that size. And those who are unhealthy in larger bodies need mental health support, equal access to quality healthcare, and help discovering sustainable, healthy behaviors that intuitively serve their own body’s needs. Not a diet.

We don’t have an obesity epidemic. We have a mental health crisis.

Meridith Oram

How to Reduce Stress

I’d like to think we collectively learned a few things throughout 2020. Like the importance of prioritizing mental health. But we still have so far to go. Diet and lifestyle companies were quick to capitalize on “the covid 19 lbs” to sell more products and programs. So instead of shifting focus to how we can reduce stress and lead healthier lives. The conversation still remains around losing weight, reducing food intake, and exercising for the purpose of fat loss.

But these very approaches cause more stress! So here are some tips you can start practicing today to begin reducing your chronic stress levels.

21 tips to reduce your stress levels:

  • Prioritize your mental health above all else.
  • Recognize triggers that are within your control and create a plan to reduce them.
  • Recognize triggers that are out of your control and learn coping skill to deal with them.
  • Set boundaries that help you honor your body and what it needs.
  • Consider if perfectionism and “hustle culture” has wormed its way into how you value yourself.
  • Change the way you view the world & how you speak to yourself.
  • Go to therapy. It’s as important for preventative health as it is prescriptive health.
  • Prescribed medication (there is no shame in this!)
  • Massage, reflexology and/or acupuncture.
  • Properly nourish yourself with a wide variety of food.
  • Move your body in ways you genuinely enjoy.
  • Focus on appreciating what you do have—anything from air in your lungs to socks on your feet.
  • Be mindful about time spent on social media, answering email, texting, etc.
  • Stop watching the news.
  • Listen to positive mindset podcasts and recorded books.
  • Journal about your situation. Can be full narrative, bullet points, drawings, list of feelings, etc.
  • Identify your values and look to see where you’re out of alignment in your life.
  • Establish a self-care routine beyond bubble baths & at-home facials.
  • Practice meditation, prayer, manifestation and/or stretching.
  • Consider working with a Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist (it’s like next-level meditation!)
  • Create time for hobbies and rest.

Your mental health matters most!

Stress is a serious ailment to our health. And chronic stress can be debilitating. Know that you and your life are important and of high value in this world. You were put here with a purpose. Life has ups and down. And I can imagine how impossible it feels when it feels like you’re constantly being handed a crappy life circumstance. If your chronic stress is turning into emotional distress or a suicidal crisis, know that help is always available. Speak with someone today at 1-800-273-8255.

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The impact of chronic stress. How to know if you're experiencing it. And tips for how you can start lowering your stress levels today. Go to loveyourselftowardshealthy.com

Meridith Oram
Meridith Oram is an anti-diet nutritionist at Love Yourself Towards Healthy where she helps chronic dieters heal their relationship with food, fitness and body image by ditching diet culture and finding freedom in their God-given intuition. Focusing on behavioral change and Intuitive Eating, Meridith helps her clients unlearn diet culture, stop negative self-talk and set wellness goals---not appearance goals. Follow Meridith at @loveyourself2healthy on all social channels.

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