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Commentary | Nov. 5, 2021

Stress Management Strategies for Weight Loss

By Human Performance Resources by CHAMP at the Uniformed Services University

Stress and weight loss have a complicated relationship. At times, high stress can lead to unhealthy and often-temporary weight loss caused by skipping meals or being overly active. Frequently, weight lost in this fashion usually returns. Chronic and uncontrollable stress can undermine your efforts to eat healthy, exercise, sleep, and develop healthy habits. And, unhealthy weight-loss patterns usually intensifies the stress. 

In fact, stress can create many physical challenges and changes in your body if not managed properly. For example, when you’re stressed you might find yourself eating more junk food, or “stress eating,” even when you’re not hungry. Stress can also slow your metabolism and make it harder to burn fat, particularly belly fat. Unhealthy stress can also lower your self-regulation, making it harder to exercise and maintain healthy habits. Sleep and stress are often connected in a vicious cycle: stress causes sleep loss, making you feel more vulnerable to it, which intensifies your sleeplessness. Luckily, you can develop the skills to help lower stress when it’s unnecessary.

Make stress an ally
While most people believe that stress is seriously harmful to their health, it turns out that your “stress mindset,” or how you think about stress, influences whether your reaction to it will impact you positively or negatively. When you think about stress as your ally, rather than your enemy, you can train yourself to experience more of the positive effects of the stress response. For example, healthy stress causes you to stick to your exercise routine, your meal plan, and it is what triggers you to even bother getting out of bed in the morning. Your heart rate naturally accelerators from stressors—this means that your blood vessels relax, inflammation decreases, and the pumping mimics exercise, which helps to boost your cardiovascular health.

Although stress can be good, it’s also important that you know how to recognize when your stress levels are unhealthy. By developing the skills to activate your relaxation response, you can lower your stress levels and stay in control. Once you learn different relaxation response skills, choose one to practice every day for at least a week. Like any skill, you will get better with practice, so it’s important to practice these skills “to calm you down,” even when they aren’t needed. In the same way, you wouldn’t want to only practice your swimming skills during a rescue. 

Reframe threats to challenges
Next time you’re in a stressful situation, you can choose how to interpret it. Is it a true threat? Is this something that will bring you down? Or you might view the threat as a challenge and think, “This is an opportunity to learn something.” It’s your chance to prove that you have the resources to deal effectively with this situation. Shifting the lens from threat to challenge—from adversity to opportunity—can open-up your perception.

Embrace anxiety
Nervousness can feel unpleasant, and the emotion and physical embodiment of anxiety often becomes a source of stress. Many have been taught to “relax away the symptoms” when they’re feeling stressed. However, research shows that trying to calm down can negatively impact your performance, so reinterpret your anxiety as excitement. Tell yourself that the sensations you feel are helping your mind and body prepare, rather than they be a sign that you can’t handle what’s going on. The reframe will help you to boost your performance and enable you to feel more confident and composed.

Relax when needed
Recovery is essential to help you stay robust while you cope with stress. When your stress response is chronically on overdrive, it can drain your energy and make you more susceptible to illness and injury. Use mind-body techniques such as deep breathing, imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation to activate the “rest and digest” system to balance out your fight-or-flight response. Also, prioritize sleep because it helps you feel armed and at-the-ready to manage your stress.

Connect to bigger-than-self goals
It can be a challenge to find meaning in day-to-day hassles like the ones you experience at work and home. When you’re feeling burned out, turn your self-focused goals into “bigger-than-self” ones by connecting to those values and life aspirations that matter most. What’s driving you? How will a healthier lifestyle contribute to the world and those around you? What kind of positive impact can you make? Is it honorably serving your nation? If you have children, is it raising them to be compassionate? Focus on something larger than yourself.

Exercise more
The energy you feel when overly stressed can be overwhelming. As you notice the effects of stress in your body, such as your heart rate increasing, you can unknowingly intensify those sensations. However, you can put that energy to use by exercising more. Exercise can help you calm your nerves, distract you from your stressful thoughts, and assist you in losing weight.

Help others
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, it might seem counterintuitive to invest time in helping others. In addition to the fight-or-flight response, there’s “tend-and-befriend,” which can encourage you to reach out, protect others, and strengthen social bonds. Caring for other people creates hope and courage, as well as, buffers against the harmful effects of severe traumas and life-threatening stress. When you reach out to reduce suffering in others, you create meaning and connection. You build resilience too.

Stress management isn’t “one size fits all,” so it’s important to know what works for you. Take the opportunity to learn new strategies when you can. The Human Performance Resources by CHAMP offers many resources to help you and your family cope with stress. You can also learn more about how your stress mindset can influence your physiological and psychological well-being.

Additional resources, learn more: