Stress plays a HUGE role in our ability to lose weight and keep it off, and a basic understanding of what happens in your brain is vital to your successful weight loss.
The stress response begins in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is also known as the emotion center. When it perceives danger (think coming across a bear in the woods), it sends out a warning signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus acts like the “command center” and communicates with the rest of the body through the sympathetic nervous system. When you’re in danger, the body obviously perceives this as a stressor and all systems are on high alert to make sure you have enough energy and resources to prepare you for “fight-or-flight” mode. Your adrenal glands get a message to produce adrenaline, to keep you fired up, which can result in increased blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. The extra adrenaline and cortisol also tell your liver and other storage sites in your body to release extra fats and sugars into your blood to be used as fuel to handle the emergency.
If you were truly in physical danger (ie: coming across a bear in the woods), the fight-or-flight response would be extremely beneficial. The adrenaline would keep you fired up and ready to flee, and the extra sugars and fats released into your blood would provide energy to your muscle cells so you could run. When you were safely away from the bear, your parasympathetic nervous system would kick in and you would no longer be in fight-or-flight mode. Balance to your mind and body would be restored.
For way too many people (myself included at times), modern-day stressors are CONSTANT and the body feels under attack 24/7. Unfortunately, this keeps us in what I call chronic fight-or-flight mode. Until you find a new way of reacting to the stress, the cycle never ends.
With respect to weight, the fight-or-flight response is disastrous and “stress” just makes it worse. Because cortisol promotes the breakdown of fats and sugars for energy during “emergencies”, chronically high levels of this hormone indirectly contribute to the storage of fat tissue and weight gain. Your brain doesn’t know you’re not actually running from the bear in the woods, and your body has to do something with all those sugars and fats that were released into your blood. Your insulin levels also rise in response to the increases in blood sugars and you’ve just set the stage to store belly fat.
How many times per day is your body in stressed out, triggered, or in fight-or-flight mode? If you’re reaching for carbs to tranquilize your emotions, then chances are your sympathetic nervous system is running the show more often than not. Consider the following scenarios (or reflect upon your personal stressors) and notice your physical reaction. The nursing home called and left you a message that your mom has pneumonia. Your teenager is flunking math and is sulking in his room. You check your account balance on your phone and notice that you’re in the overdraft – again. You’re late for work but you really don’t care because your coworker has been a pain all week. You look in the mirror and comment with disgust about your thighs.
And that’s just the stress that we’re conscious of. Each day our subconscious mind processes millions of thoughts, and it’s these thoughts that tend to run the show. Your subconscious mind is like a huge memory bank that stores everything that happens to you and then retrieves this data upon command. For example, if your learned response to soothing your stress was to eat, then each time you’re triggered you’re likely to repeat that pattern.
Similarly, if negative, critical, judgmental, and abusive persons were (and still are) the major influencers in your life, your subconscious may be programmed with belief systems and patterns that are not serving you well. They are likely blocking you from success in many areas of your life, including your weight.
The medical world is finally starting to recognize the role of stress and life traumas on weight. A Kaiser Permanente study that tracked more than 30,000 mostly middle-aged obese adults since 1982 showed that those who were most successful in losing weight were also most likely to later drop out of the weight-loss program and regain the weight. “We unexpectedly discovered that histories of childhood sexual abuse were common, as were histories of growing up in markedly dysfunctional households,” wrote the authors. “We slowly discovered that major weight loss is often sexually or physically threatening and that obesity, whatever its health risks, is protective emotionally.” Other social workers and psychologists quoted in the story went on to agree that if you grew up with trauma – emotional, sexual, verbal, or physical – you found a way to survive.
As we know, for many, surviving means coping with food. From birth, we use food to gain nourishment but we also use it to feel warm, safe, and secure. Recall from our earlier lessons that food triggers the release of those major “feel-good” neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Both of these chemicals help to tranquilizing our anxieties and negative emotions.
Thus, it’s quite understandable why so many of us turn to food to soothe ourselves. But, as we know, the consequences are less than desirable.
One of my favorite statements is “tapping is serotonin without the carbs”. Remember to use your tapping for any and all of your stressors. Indirectly they are tied to your weight.