Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Stress Loop

I don't think I have ever met a person who is at a weight which does not satisfy them who has not said, "I eat when I'm stressed." In fact, it's one of those things that people commonly say they have to conquer in order to succeed in their weight loss goals. Well, I have bad news for everyone who has felt that way; it is in your nature, your very biology, to eat when you feel stress.

All animals react to stress by consuming energy if they have access to it. Bees will gorge on honey when stressed. Coral gorges itself when subjected to the bleaching effects it experiences due to global warming. Humans may indulge in a pint of ice cream. Stress causes the body to dive down to glycogen storage in the liver and muscle to get more glucose and to get more glucose from substances in the body other than carbohydrates. The body wants to replenish the stores from these effects. It wants you to eat if you can because the expectation is that experiencing stress means you will soon have to act, and you will need energy to act.

In modern humans, we experience stress related to mental rather than physical threats. In fact, it's no exaggeration to say that we experience worse stress than our ancestors as the years go by. Part of the reason for this is that civilization takes a toll on us. We can't act on our frustration or aggression by murdering a competitor or running away from our problems. We have to sit there and take it for days, months, or years. We have to endure the stress without reacting to it. Our ancestors could escape and return to a less stressful state of being. We cannot.

Since each person responds to stress with a different intensity of reaction (based on their nervous systems and resulting sensitivity), one person may blithely go about their day feeling no suffering. Another, in the same circumstances, may be consumed with anxiety. We cannot choose to be oblivious. We can only choose how we respond, but even then, our biology is directing us to eat.

So, why isn't everyone who experiences stress on a continual basis overweight? Well, more and more people are becoming overweight in developed nations everyday. In addition, the aforementioned differences in sensitivity to stress play a part in whether or not you have a stress response. In order to want to gorge as a result of stress, you have to perceive the stress and we aren't all equal in that regard. Additionally, some people are better at ignoring those cues to eat due to stress or consciously pursue other outlets (such as exercise, sex, or emotional outbursts).

The thing that occurred to me today as I took a long walk for exercise and was gawked at, laughed at, pointed at and treated disrespectfully by far more people than one might imagine was that those of us who are already overweight are stuck in a stress loop. Being fat means you are subjected to stress that thin people are not. You may want to control your eating, but your body is responding to the stresses you feel every time you step out of the house by cuing you to eat. You eat because of that stress and stay fat or get fatter which in turn makes certain that you continue to suffer stress (either externally imposed by judgmental strangers or internally so from your own self-rejection or physical suffering as a consequence of your weight) which again makes it harder not to eat.

I feel anxiety every single time I leave my home, and varying degrees of stress depending on how the winds of fate treat me when it comes to the amount of abuse I suffer and my particular sensitivity on a given day. My life has been a barrage of stress every moment I'm not safely cocooned in my home.

In knowing the biological response to stress, I believe we can gain power. The first point about this from which we can draw strength is in knowing that wanting to eat when you are stressed is not a character flaw. It is nature. The bees aren't beating themselves up for gobbling down honey until they are so bloated they cannot move. You are smarter than a bee, so you can plan a mental response, but you shouldn't berate yourself up for a physiological cue to eat when stressed, nor castigate yourself for resisting and failing anymore than you should be angry at yourself for responding to a grumbling stomach by eating something.

The second way in which this benefits us is that we can control our responses when we can predict them. If you know you are going to endure a stressful situation (like a visit to the doctor or a job interview) and will want to eat, you can plan to eat something after the experience. You can even plan to offer yourself "comfort food" and you can know that there is no need to punish yourself for wanting to comfort yourself with food. If you diet, you can plan a day of maintenance level eating or find some sort of lower calorie "treat" to give yourself what you need. Control does not mean you resist every impulse and bodily cue, but rather that you deal with them in a healthy manner.

For me, this is going to mean some mental work. I'm a very sensitive person. Again, this is not by choice. It is merely my biology. I cannot become less sensitive because I want to anymore than someone with their ear pressed next to a speaker turned up to level 10 can decide to not experience the volume of the sound by will. I've long thought that I should practice meditation to make my overall resting state more relaxed, and I believe this realization about eating and stress makes the need rather more imperative. Though I can't change my nervous system, I can mentally prepare myself to disconnect more effectively from the world around me or at the very least learn to return to a state of mental and physical peace more rapidly through making myself familiar with relaxation techniques. The stress will still be there, but I hope to train myself to "calm down" from it or react differently to it. It may or may not be effective, but it is worth exploring the options.

I think that the link between stress and eating is one that people already understand on a basic level, but they tend not to go beyond the level of blaming themselves for eating in response to stress. In my opinion, lasting weight control needs to adopt an effective plan for dealing with the reality of the biology of stress rather than focusing on simply stopping the fact that we feel compelled to eat under stressful conditions. I have no confidence in "sheer force of will" when it comes to denying the body's basic urges, but I do have faith in our ability to adopt an effective plan to handle them once we become aware of the full scope of the issue.


RedPanda said...

Another thought-provoking post!

It sucks that you experience anxiety literally every time you leave the house.

You may benefit from Tai Chi or Chi Gong. I find that they are wonderful for stress relief. There are lots of great DVDs you can use at home.

You may like the DVD "Breath & Chi Kung with Scott Cole" available from Amazon. It includes an 11-minute segment of deep breathing and stress reduction techniques you can practise in a chair.

screaming fatgirl said...

Hi, RedPanda, and thanks for your comment. I wouldn't feel anxiety if I didn't live in a foreign country where they think it's just fine to discriminate against outsiders and to objectify them. People think everyone in this country is nice and polite, but it's a whole other world when you're not a tourist and paying people who have to be nice to you because you're a customer and when you're fat. Living in a residential area is worlds removed from being a tourist in more ways than one.

I've got some DVDs and CDs with guidance about relaxation around, but I find them actually distracting. I don't want to listen to someone else tell me what to do while I'm trying to clear my head and find a deeply relaxed state. I think it just doesn't work for me. I'm going to focus on just taking time and essentially emptying my head of thoughts for the time being. However, if I can't manage, I'll look into your recommendations. :-)

Anonymous said...

Sometimes when I read your posts I have to stop part way through to contemplate the implications. This post scares me. Since I have been out of school, I have been able to lose weight even though I am not as physically active now. I believe this new ability is related to the reduction in stress.

A great percentage of the stress and pressure I felt during my most recent bout with college was related to my obesity. The nursing program put enormous emphasis on the perils of being fat. One teacher asked the class if we thought obese people should have to pay more for health insurance!My mind swims thinking about that discussion and how many times I heard the phrase "noncompliant patients", uttered with contempt or frustration. Grrr...

My very best teacher in nursing school was morbidly obese. (Not the same one who asked the above question.) During my third year in the program there was a purge in the department, and all the other fat nursing teachers disappeared. Who knows where...

The heaviest patient I ever cared for in the hospital weighed over 600 lbs. She felt so guilty and ashamed, she said, because it took three of us to help her to the bathroom. She said, "I don't know how I let myself get this big."

That was a heart wrenching experience for me. Instead of being able to just focus on healing and recovering from her surgery, she actually had to worry about what the nurses and other health care workers thought about her as a person. So much added stress.

I'm afraid that starting a new job in the near furture will tip my stress level to the point where I will once again want to turn to food for relief. I never feel like I have this process all figured out, or that I won't regain, no matter how confident I feel on any particular day.


RedPanda said...

Perhaps the people where you live would be nasty just because you're a "foreigner", regardless of your weight?

And yes, emptying your head of thoughts is definitely easier said than done!

screaming fatgirl said...

RedPanda: In part, you are correct, but I know what they are saying and doing, and I know how they treat me relative to other non-fat foreign people. They'd likely look, but they wouldn't say the mean and clueless things they do about me if I weren't fat.

Rebecca: I know how you feel in terms of such realizations making one scared. This scares me a bit as well, but that fear does nothing productive so I'm trying to look at it in a particular, constructive way.

I'm losing weight now under nearly ideal circumstances, and that life change I mention in 2012 is going to turn my whole world upside down (new job, new home, new environment). I'm also afraid I'll lose control at that time, but I'm also hopeful that my patterns this time and my processes of coping will be more firmly in place and that I won't overeat due to stress. I have never approached weight loss through continuous and relatively accurate monitoring of my food intake. I've never deeply explored my feelings and how food relates to my psychological life. This blog is, pretty much, my psycho therapeutic process. This is the work I do in order to increase the chances of success in the future, including when my feet are to the fire.

That being said, I feel the fear that you feel, and I think it's important to respect that fear because it is an indication that reality is a part of our lives and we're not blithely making marks on weight loss charts, counting lost pounds and patting ourselves on the back. I think short-term success and long-term failed is written in overconfidence (so many women I read about lose 5 lbs. and suddenly adopt this attitude of "I'm doing it and others are not") and ignorance.

Getting it all out there is my attempt to cut failure off at the pass. Will it work? I really don't know, but it's worth trying. But, yeah, I'm scared, too, but I think that's probably a good thing. Fear will help me prepare.

Thanks to both of you for your thoughtful and interesting comments.