Chronic stress can make it hard to control your weight. Here’s how therapy can help

Chronic stress can make it hard to control your weight. Here’s how therapy can help

Chronic stress can make it hard to control your weight. Here’s how therapy can help

There are many things that can lead to excess pounds, and recent studies have shown that stress is one of them. Learn how stress impacts hormones that trigger weight gain—and what you can do.

The Found Team
Last updated:
November 17, 2022
5 min read
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Let’s face it, some amount of stress is unavoidable. Because: life. But if you constantly feel frazzled, cranky, anxious, tired, or depressed, well, that’s next-level stress. And that kind of pressure can cause weight gain that seems to come out of nowhere. 

There are many things that can lead to excess pounds, and recent studies have shown that stress is one of them. Highly processed sugary and salty foods and inactivity are often blamed for the obesity epidemic. And yes, they’re definitely a factor. But research has also put a spotlight on another factor. You guessed it: chronic stress.

How? “Stress can affect a person’s appetite, metabolism, and many other physiological functions, linking the negative outcomes that poor mental health can have on physical health. In fact, research has shown that more than 80% of people with serious mental illnesses have overweight or obesity,” said Sarah Jones Simmer, CEO at Found. Because of this connection, it’s important to address stress as part of your weight care. (Deep breaths, everyone!)

The link between stress and unhealthy habits

When you’re stressed over a tight schedule or a jam-packed to-do list, healthy choices often give way to less-than-ideal options that may lead to weight gain.People tend to reach for more sugary or high fat snacks if they’re feeling frazzled—and it’s especially true among those prone to emotional eating, a 2018 article in the Annual Review of Psychology explained. Others might turn to fast food to save time on a crazy-busy day. And we get it. The idea of turning on the stove and cooking a healthy meal when you’ve got a million other things going on is a real challenge. 

Stress-induced weight gain can create a feedback loop, as well. For example, if you’re anxious about a lack of progress with your weight care goals, negative feelings might make you reach for extra food, which could in turn stress you out, and…you get the idea.

The science behind stress weight gain

So we’ve talked about the emotional side of stress and weight. But there’s a physiological one, too. When you experience stress, your adrenal glands produce more of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. This triggers a “fight-or-flight response”—a burst of energy and strength (and increased appetite, BTW) that helped us survive in the days when we needed to run from saber-toothed tigers. It’s a perfectly natural response and your hormones return to normal once the threat is gone. 

But chronic stress releases these hormones continuously, which can wreak havoc on your body. And these changes could cause a slow down in your metabolism. We all know that a slower metabolism burns fewer calories. So that can make it easier to gain weight, even if you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet.

Insulin also plays a role. Cortisol causes an increase in blood sugar levels, and this rise in blood glucose means that your body needs to pump out more insulin. However, too much insulin for too long leads to insulin resistance (when your body struggles to process blood sugars), and your blood sugar levels go up. Those extra sugars are stored in fat cells, leading to weight gain.

What’s more, high cortisol levels can cause fat to be deposited in the stomach area. This belly fat—also known as visceral fat—and these fat cells contain more cortisol receptors, so excess fat is more likely to be stored in the abdomen at a higher rate than elsewhere in the body. Here’s why that matters: Visceral fat is linked to conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Identifying stress

Sometimes, stress manifests itself with different emotions or even with physical ailments. So it’s important to identify the signs. They may include:

  • Muscle tension
  • Anger or irritability 
  • Mood swings
  • Headaches
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Depression
  • Use of drugs and alcohol as a coping method
  • Fatigue
  • Losing focus or motivation

On its own, a symptom may not indicate stress. But if several of them hang on for a while, it’s time to address your stress. 

Ways to manage stress

There’s no magic wand that will completely eliminate stress from your life. (Sorry.) And again, some amount of it is totally fine. But if you’re chronically stressed, these suggestions can help you manage it while supporting your health and weight care journey.

Rest up

Did you know that sleep and weight loss are correlated? When you’re stressed about due dates, getting some quality Zzzs can seem counterproductive. But a good night’s sleep will leave you feeling recharged and ready to tackle anything. It also helps regulate hunger hormones, so you’re less likely to overeat and are more apt to choose healthier foods. (Lack of sleep has the opposite effect.)  

Meditate

Meditation is the practice of focusing awareness and attention. It can be guided or self-led. Either way, a short meditation session can help you clear your mind and leave you feeling renewed. Other potential benefits include anxiety management, decreased blood pressure, and improved cardiovascular health.

Move

Stress can make physical activity seem like the last thing you want to do. The pull of Netflix is bound to trump the idea of pulling on workout clothes and going for a jog. But getting your body moving is known to increase levels of feel-good endorphins that alleviate stress. Even activities like gardening or taking a walk around the neighborhood can make a huge difference in stress levels. You can do it! 

Socialize

There’s nothing like happiness to alleviate stress symptoms. And that’s where your friends and family come in. Socializing with people that lift your spirits is a terrific way to combat stress. Research shows that positive feelings are linked to a dip in cortisol levels. So, surround yourself with people that make you think positively and watch your stress melt away.

Therapy for stress management

While a stress-free life isn’t likely, taking the time to manage it can help with weight care. Get this: In a two-year study of 45 adults with obesity, a group that participated in an 8-week stress management program had an average Body Mass Index (BMI) decrease of around 3 points—compared to a control group that dropped less than 2 points. Bonus: Those who learned stress management techniques also showed decreased levels of depression and anxiety. 


About Found

Found is among the largest medically-supported weight care clinics in the country, serving more than 200,000 members to date. To start your journey with Found, take our quiz.

Published date:
November 17, 2022
Meet the author
The Found Team
The Found Team

Sources

  • Behan C. The benefits of meditation and mindfulness practices during times of crisis such as COVID-19. Ir J Psychol Med. 2020 Dec;37(4):256-258. doi: 10.1017/ipm.2020.38. Epub 2020 May 14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7287297/
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