Let’s just go ahead and answer this one right off the bat: no — it’s not just all in the mind. No, you’re not crazy, no you’re not imagining it. Stress is all-consuming, real, can change the way you treat others, can affect your eating & sleeping patterns, and so. much. more.
But first, let’s just start with this: you’re not alone. According to a recent study from Everyday Health, “Almost one-third of those surveyed say they visited a doctor about something stress-related. 57 percent of the survey respondents say they are paralyzed by stress; 43 percent say they are invigorated by stress.”
“But that can’t be”, you might think. “There’s no way so many of us are plagued by this?”
Oh, there is. The study goes on to say that more than 33 percent of survey respondents say their stress comes from work, whereas more than half of respondents say their stress comes from money issues.
How stress shows up in the body
When I’ve been stressed, it’s pretty obvious. I develop canker sores in my mouth, get a slight twitch in my eye, lose sleep, and get a bit of an acne flare-up. And sometimes, all of this happens and I don’t even realize that I have been stressed.
All of that to say the body is miraculous, smart, and knows more than you’re even cognizant of. Sometimes, it develops a response to the stress on your behalf, or when you can’t emotionally or mentally process it. Which is both neat and frustrating.
Physically, the most common ways that stress shows on your body are:
- Muscle tension
- Food habits
- Sleep issues
- Chest pain
Most of all, stress affects your mood. You might feel:
How stress affects your fitness goals
Stress can also have a huge impact on your fitness goals, too, leading to an overproduction of hormones associated with overeating. According to a recent report from Harvard Medical School, here’s how it works:
“The nervous system sends messages to the adrenal glands atop the kidneys to pump out the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). Epinephrine helps trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response, a revved-up physiological state that temporarily puts eating on hold.”
So that doesn’t sound exactly like overeating, but they say that if the state of heightened stress continues, your body releases another hormone — cortisol. Cortisol increases motivation, as well as appetite. And there you have it.
Not only that, but stress can quite literally change your dietary preferences. According to that same report from Harvard, studies on animals have shown that stress increases the intake of foods that are high in fats and sugars.
The difference between anxiety and stress
So what about people with anxiety? How does anxiety differ from stress and how does anxiety impact our relationship with food?
Let’s set this record straight. Stress is typically a short-term reaction to an external situation. That’s why when you’re stressed, you often feel fight-or-flight (epinephrine) kick in. And then motivation or hunger (cortisol) after that.
With anxiety, it’s more about your long-term reaction to the stress. For many people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), this is not something that can be helped by just changing your attitude or putting on a happy song. The fear/panic response, often symptoms of anxiety, are hardwired in the amygdala. They look like:
- Increased heart-rate/blood pressure
- Panting, shortness of breath
- Corticosteroid (hydrocortisone and cortisone) is released
For those with GAD, there is typically a link between a lack of production/reception of either serotonin, norepinephrine, or dopamine within the brain’s neurotransmitter pathways.
In layman’s terms? Your brain just isn’t producing the right chemicals it takes to get you out of fight-or-flight and back into a sound place of calm and peace.
You know how we talk about the gut being the “second brain”? How it’s constantly linked to your moods and vice versa? Well, many people with GAD develop poor eating habits as coping mechanisms, whether that’s long-term overeating or undereating.
So while both stress and anxiety are very different, both operate super similarly in how it affects your gut health (among other things).
How to manage your stress
- Evaluate your stressors — there are always two ways to respond to every situation, no matter how stressful: change your reaction, or change your situation. If the situation is untenable, change the situation. If the situation is tenable and you can work on your reaction, then put your focus there. Just don’t stay at the status quo.
- Rely on your circle — as the Beatles said, I get by with a little help from my friends. Your friends and family are there through both the good times and the bad. Ask them questions, let them know what’s going on and they can support you in the way they know you best.
- Focus your attention on healthy nutrition — acute stress can squash your appetite, while longer-term stress can make it go into overdrive. Keep a diet that’s high in a variety of nutrients — from greens to proteins to healthy fats; this can help keep your gut healthy and balance your blood sugar, meaning you stay energized longer and can better respond to life’s daily stressors.