Making Changes When We're Stressed

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Lately I have really felt the need / desire to implement a good stress-management program at the office.  Some people may not see the benefit here and ask "why?  How is that helpful?  What will your metrics be?  Why don't you do another fitness, nutrition or weight loss challenge?  To which I would reply, "Because how could we not?  How can we not even consider implementing a challenge or program that helps us cope with and be mindful of the very thing that usually makes us need those fitness & weight loss challenges to begin with?  It seems appropriate to me to create a challenge that targets the main reasons that we "stress eat", stop exercising and gain or have trouble losing weight to begin with. On top of that, whatever we are stressing over probably occupies the majority of our thoughts anyway and so why wouldn't we want to take a focused amount of time to tackle that so that we can fully turn and focus on our desired health goals?.

Often we look at weight, high blood pressure, and elevated blood sugars as the root problem.  Thus, we immediately turn to exercise, nutrition or medication to help us "get healthy".  For some, changing diet and adding exercise is easily incorporated and 100% the solution and that is excellent.  However, for many of us, we have to dig a little deeper because the "fix" 'we are searching for actually lies somewhere beneath overeating and under-exercising.  When I see individuals for nutrition coaching, an initial consult goes way beyond food and exercise.  We talk about work life, home life and any stressors associated with both.  We talk about sleep patterns and schedules and what is going on in life before ever diving into nutrition recommendations.  Why do I do this?  I do this because beginning a change during life's more stressful stages is setting yourself up for a frustrating road with higher chances of failure, which then leads to greater stress and self-frustration down the road.

Many times (but certainly not always) I see the root cause of high blood pressure to be stress, often accompanied by limited physical activity, and the root of unintentional and unwanted weight gain, which can incorporate other health concerns like type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, etc., to be stress-eating.  While some people decrease their intake and unintentionally lose weight when stressed, many others may begin to stress-eat and overeat. Not only might we overeat when we are stressed, avoiding our natural hunger and satiety cues, but when we eat out of stress we also choose foods that will calm us down such as those foods high in carbohydrates (but are also typically higher in calories and sometime simple sugar) or foods high in fat and sugar that blunt the "stress feelings" with "happy feelings" for the time-being.  On top of that, the fact that we are stressed causes us to store fat around our abdominal area, which increases our risk of heart disease.  

I'm certainly not trying to cause more stress in anyone reading this.  I'm only trying to call out the importance of managing our stress.  In sessions where I find that the client is under some serious stress...that's the first thing I address.  There may be a food / nutrition component to my recommendations, but nothing drastic in terms of diet, unless medically necessary, is recommended at this initial visit.  In the first weeks we talk about coping and recognizing stress and ways to respond without using food (of course if it's more serious stress or anxiety, I refer out to a certified counselor).  I also never mention food as good / bad.  Food is food - first let's deal with the stressor.  We'll start working on weight loss or other big diet changes and a structured exercise program once we can develop a few stress management practices to help during the stressful time.  Of course exercise is welcomed as a stress reducer, and I encourage it when appropriate.  However, I do not recommend initially if the thought of having to find a way to fit it in the schedule causes more stress in itself.  

So, with all of that to say, what is your stress level right now on a scale of 1 to 10?  Are you trying to make big diet and exercise changes during stressful times?  I encourage you to put those aside just for a short time and focus specifically on your tackling your stressors.  It could be a week, two weeks, or two months - you be the judge.  After that is when bigger diet modifications can come into play.

I know that this isn't easy.  When I'm stressed I still catch myself saying "tough it out", you'll get over it.  However, when I do this and don't stop to take a moment and incorporate some stress-reducing practices, I find it only makes things worse. 

People can show stress in different ways and it's important to know how stress manifests itself in you specifically.  For me I've realized that stress makes itself evident to me through:

  • headaches / migraines

  • stomach aches

  • feeling tired when nothing has changed in my schedule

  • I get short with people (I may not verbally express it, but mentally it's not good)

  • Small requests begin to feel like a burden

  • I have trouble focusing

  • My hunger and satiety cues get way off. For me I typically lose my hunger cues.

Days or weeks that I'm really stressed or anxious, my most helpful stress-management practices are:

  • carving out alone time - to read, to write, to process

  • carving out time to create - to brainstorm recipes, articles, and get-togethers with friends

  • calling a family member or friend who I know will listen and who can make me laugh

  • cooking and eating home-cooked meals

  • inviting close friends over for dinner

  • going on a walk or jog

  • reading my Bible and journaling

  • going to bed on time

  • and sometimes only dark chocolate will do the trick :)

Do you know when you're stressed?  What are your signs and symptoms?  Do you know that your stressed but at the same time you're working on major weight loss, diet, or lifestyle changes?  If you are, or even if you are not,  I encourage you to take a little time this month to take note of your emotions and any actions you find yourself habitually taking in response to those emotions.  Are those actions nurturing and life giving?  Are those actions something that can help reduce your stress and stress response long-term?  Or are they short-term fixes that can be harmful to your long-term health?  

Try making a self-care checklist for stressful times and stick to if for a month or so.  Feel the difference and feel confident in your coping before setting bigger weight-loss, fitness, or wellness goals.

And as always, share in the comments if you have practices that work for you!  We all learn best from each other.

Take Care!