Could Stress be Slowing Down your Weight Loss?

Kristin Davis RD

Stress is one of the many excuses people have for gaining weight. They aren’t sleeping, they’re worried and they eat. But what if you could break the power that stress has over you?

In the book Hijacked by your Brain, Dr Julian Ford and Jon Wortmann discuss why stress is so powerful and what we can do to recognize and then move out of our brain’s survival mode to a more peaceful, useful space.

First it’s important to know that stress is part of human survival. It’s an alarm inside our brains that makes us pay attention. If you’ve ever been stuck in traffic that suddenly comes to an abrupt stop, you’ve felt the panic of your brain’s alarm. The problem with stress is that the alarm continues even after the urgency of the moment passes. So once you’ve hit your brakes, you become hyper-aware of the traffic around you, and the running commentary in your brain leaves you shaking your fist at other drivers. Another example of stress is feeling overwhelmed. When this happens we tend to shut down, reach for something soothing (insert comfort food here), and just check out. We’re tired, exhausted even.

You can think of the brain’s alarm as a childlike presence that has wants and needs. It lets us know that it needs attention, and pushing it away, or repeating the mantra “everything’s fine, stop being so worried,” does nothing to quiet the child.  The child needs reassurance and then it can let go and let us get on with life.

The good news is that besides our child-like alarm, our brain has a high-functioning, thinking side. It’s the side that comes up with solutions to problems. When we engage our thinking brain, our alarm will automatically wind down, allowing us to pass through the stress and onto something more productive.

Ford and Wortmann recommend the S.O.S. acronym when stress puts us into either tension mode or shut-down mode. The first step is to recognize that you are acting out a stress response. Then you can follow these steps to get past the stress and engage the thinking brain.

S – Step-out: You must separate yourself from the stress in order to get past it. It can be as simple as three deep breaths, closing your eyes, or even sitting quietly while looking at your surroundings. This process gets some distance between the event and the stress itself. The point is to clear your mind.

On a side note, this is one of the reasons (besides the addicting component) that smoking is calming to some people. There is the stress, then the act of pausing to open a pack of cigarettes, the careful lighting-up, and the few breaths of smoke-filled air. The same could be said for food as we disconnect from our problems to rummage through the cupboard and open a pack of goodies.

O – Orient: You then refocus your attention on something that feels good. It should be that one important thing in your life. Anything. It can be a memory, a person, a favorite pet. The point is to focus in detail about that one thing. And then you can begin to think, rather than react.

S – Self-check in: Using a 1-10 scale, rate your stress level. One is total calm. Three – eight is where you might be at any time throughout the day. Make a note and move on. Nine-ten means you need to decide to deal with the emergency situation in your life.

Self-check in also means not just checking in with stress levels, but also with your control in that moment. Here, a one means that you can’t focus or control your actions. Three-eight means you have a feeling of some personal control. Nine-ten means that you are in total control.

Checking in helps direct you to your next move. Still out of control and completely stressed out? Then it’s time to redirect your focus on what’s most important in your life right now. Then you can check in again.

By implementing the S.O.S. system, we can begin to recognize the stressors in our lives and take back control instead of spiraling downward. We’ll be ready for those stressful moments and be in tune enough to sense our stress level rising before it gets out of control.