Is Stress Making You Fat?

Cora Whalen

by | Updated: December 4th, 2016 | Read time: 4 minutes

Not fitting into your skinny jeans may be a sign that you’re under stress. Biological and psychological forces can cause stress to get in the way of staying slender.

It’s important to understand the traps of the stress-and-weight-gain cycle. Then it’s up to you to find a way to keep your worries from adding inches to your waistline.

Is Stress Causing Your Weight Gain?

What stress does to your mind and body

When everyday anxiety and workday hassles have you reaching for the ice cream, your hormones are playing a role in this craving.

As Melanie Greenberg PhD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Author, explains in Psychology Today, a taxing or nerve-wracking event triggers the release of stress hormones, which include adrenaline, corticotrophin-releasing hormone, or CRH, and cortisol to prepare the body for a “fight or flight” response. After the initial adrenaline rush subsides, cortisol lingers and signals the body to eat up to replenish its food supply.

Historically, extra fat supplies from another round of food meant survival for our hunter-gatherer ancestors who used up the energy escaping dangers. But today, it translates into belly fat for modern, more sedentary humans. We’re just not burning off that extra energy sitting at a cubicle.

Consuming comfort foods is a widespread reaction to life’s pressures. According to a 2013 “Stress in America” study by the American Psychological Association, or APA, 49 percent of Americans overeat or eat unhealthily on a weekly basis or more often to cope with stress.

“Some people may feel powerless when faced with a sugary treat. Sugar can have same effect as a drug,” says Kathleen Gettelfinger, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Gettelfinger Therapy, LLC, in Chicago, Ill. “We’re learning how the brain reacts to stress and coping strategies like eating. We’re finding that many times emotional eating can release feel-good neurotransmitters, including dopamine. So you get immediate gratification, something that working out or meditation can’t offer as quickly or as strongly.”

Indeed, the brain is wired to rouse knee-jerk reactions to stress. “The amygdala is the brain’s reflex center that drives impulsive behavior,” said Dr. Greenberg in an interview, “You reach for the candy bar when you’re not thinking before acting. Thinking before acting happens in the prefrontal cortex, but it takes more time for information to reach that part of the brain.”

And it’s not just an eating issue. Stress can trigger other habits that lead to weight gain. The APA study also found that most adults turn to screen time over exercise to relieve stress, with 62 percent reporting that they go online, watch TV or play video games to tune out worries. Stress has caused 43 percent of Americans to lie awake at night unable to sleep.

Activity levels, sleep and diet are big influencers in weight management, and they have compounding effects on each other. As Dr. Greenberg elaborates in Psychology Today, sleep deprivation can erode the willpower to exercise and may disrupt ghrelin and leptin, chemicals that control appetite. And giving into fatty cravings can incite inactivity as it leaves many feeling sluggish or lazy, the APA reports.

Realistic and healthy coping strategies

For all the hurdles stress hurls, it can still be confronted and controlled. Approach stress management as a marathon, not a sprint. Overcommitting on the onset to fix your diet and exercise all at once can lead to burnout. But baby steps that embrace moderation, balance and control can stand the test of time.

“Instead of telling a person they shouldn’t do this or shouldn’t eat that, a more effective approach is to add a positive behavior to someone’s current routine,” says Gettelfinger. “Continue enjoying your treats for now, but add in a 30-minute walk each day.”

Bad behaviors can be pushed out as positive ones are implemented. “Simple, small changes build up over time,” says Dr. Greenberg. “Good habits can eventually overcome bad ones, or create more balance between them.”

Results won’t happen overnight. “Natural rewards, like feeling good from a workout, happen with time,” says Dr. Greenberg. “You can use artificial rewards, like a sugary snack after exercising, until your natural rewards kick in. Blend goal-oriented activities with rest and rewards.”

The devil’s in the details when you develop a plan to implement a new routine. “Committing to working out 30 minutes a day is easy to say, but hard to do,” says Gettlefinger. “Address the obstacles you’ll be up against each time you work out. Do you have equipment or a gym membership? Proper shoes? Will you run into child care issues? Is the morning the best time of day for you to exercise, and do you need to get up earlier?”

Envisioning what your plan will look like in practice step-by-step helps you overcome stumbling blocks before they manifest themselves.

Along with hanging onto the occasional food goodie, you don’t have to kiss your screen time goodbye, either.

“It’s OK to watch an hour or so of TV to relax, but people get stuck there,” says Dr. Greenberg. “Use an external aid to develop self-control. Set the alarm on your smartphone to queue you to turn off the tube. Or decide on your goals for that evening. Do the hardest things first. After doing dishes or an hour of work, enjoy some TV.”

And try to get some shuteye. “A lot of insomnia is worry,” says Dr. Greenberg. “Taking a warm bath, reading or listening to soothing music or nature sounds before bed help soothe your mind.”