Why Do We Often Gain Weight during Periods of Prolonged Stress?

Periods of prolonged stress can impact our weight

Stress is a normal part of life at all stages, appearing in numerous places like our job, schedule, family obligations, finances and even health. Have you ever found yourself mindlessly eating during a particularly emotional occurrence? Have you ever faced a prolonged period of stress and found that the number on the scale only continued to climb? Unfortunately, too much stress in our lives can impact our weight, but the good news is that it’s not entirely your fault. The better news? You can prevent weight gain with a few defense mechanisms.

Stress and Weight Gain: The Biological Perspective

Your body is highly sensitive to your environment. When you’re under stress, it triggers what is called the “fight or flight response.” In other words, your body releases various hormones from your adrenal glands to either handle the threat directly or escape from it entirely.

Perhaps one of the most recognizable effects of the fight or flight response is your body’s release of a hormone called Adrenalin. Your heart begins to race, your blood pressure rises and your breathing quickens. In the short-term, Adrenalin may stop your hunger as blood flows to your organs. But as it wears off, another hormone called Cortisol stays for the long haul. Cortisol in particular is a tricky hormone because it cues the body to replenish its food supply and hang on to fat and glucose, even if it doesn’t really need it.  If we’re not working off enough energy, the extra fat hangs around and builds around our belly area. We tend to put on weight.

Additionally, stress can impact everything from our metabolism to our quality quality of sleep. All of these factors play a role in weight management. It goes without saying that stress and anxiety are more than just mental concerns, as they affect our physical health profoundly.

Stress and Weight Gain: The Psychological Perspective

The brain also plays an important role in weight management as it relates to stress and anxiety. When under pressure, we’re more likely to crave sugary, salty and fatty foods that are heavy on carbs and calories. This is why you might find yourself reaching for a bag of chips or a box of cookies as you’re cramming to meet an important work deadline or worrying about a specific problem. Stress eating is also a large part of the “emotional eating” equation.

But beyond emotional eating, stress also affects our lifestyle by cluttering our schedule and impacting our ability to go about our normal, daily lives. For some, this might include putting-off exercise or sleeping too often to avoid facing a problem. It can strip us of our motivation, deplete us of all energy and leave us with a host of unwanted feelings. In this state, we aren’t primed to make healthy decisions or lifestyle choices that positively impact our weight.

What You Can Do

Just because stress is a normal part of life, doesn’t mean you have to let it control your weight. There are a variety of ways you can combat/prevent  stress and protect your health:

  • Exercise often with both cardio and resistance workouts
  • Write in a journal to express your emotions 
  • Confide in a close friend, family member or mental health professional
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet as part of your routine lifestyle
  • Set aside time for self-care and rewarding activities
  • Manage your time as effectively as possible

The key is recognize stress before it occurs and have a game plan to tackle stress when it approaches. There will always be bumps, valleys and roadblocks along your journey, and though you can’t always prevent life from happening, you can do your best to react in healthy ways.

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