Regaining Control

Words by Annie Darling

5 min read

Does stress make you gain weight? That’s the question researchers at University College London (UCL) have been trying to answer. Many see mindfulness as an emotional and practical weapon against never-ending daily onslaughts; but, be that as it may, the majority of us know the relentless rhythms of anxiety well.

We all have stressors we hope food might alleviate; they result due to everything from blunderous emails to high-profile clients, awkward arguments with friends, and painful relationship breakdowns. Sometimes, we reluctantly revel in the exhaustion, regardless of whether it’s healthy. Stress can be addictive in that way, an emotional currency that proves your worth more than a monthly pay cheque. Nonetheless, anxiety often becomes debilitating, particularly when the typical antidotes – taking a break, exercising, and going on holiday – prove ineffective. We live in an era in which we’re hyperconnected; most of us have a personal iPhone as well as a Blackberry for work, in addition to an office desktop computer and a laptop at home. Besieged by longer working hours, it’s rare for us to let an hour go by without looking at a screen. “Prolonged periods of stress can result in poor judgment,” explains Emily Tan, who is a master trainer with the interactive fitness platform, PRAMA, at Fairmont The Palm, Dubai. “Stress levels vary from person to person, since we all perceive stress differently.” 

It’s well established that mental pressures take a toll on our physical wellbeing, but previous studies have relied on measurements that fail to capture lasting levels of the so-called ‘stress hormone’, cortisol. The latest scientific research, published in the journal Obesity, is the first of its kind to assess a lock of hair from each participant, which enables the examination of deep-rooted, chronic stress. The spearheading results prove, for the first time, that there’s a tangible link between long-term anxiety and weight gain. Although we’re in the midst of a growing obsession with mindfulness as the secret to health and happiness, obesity is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. “Most of us resort to something of comfort [when stressed], unconsciously seeking something that’s soothed us in the past,” claims Tan.

Tina Krombach is a homeopathic and naturopathic medicine practitioner at Motion Ladies Fitness Centre, with over 14 years of experience. “Ongoing, long-term stress makes you more likely to be overweight, simply because stressful conditions most likely lead to irregularity in nutrition, lack of exercise, trouble sleeping and deficient restoration,” she affirms, before suggesting that people should look to ways other than eating to ease their chronic stress, such as meditation and yoga. “We tend to eat more during times of stress, or we eat less consciously, too hastily or on the go, and miss chewing the bites properly, all making us more likely to snack between meals. Cravings for a sweet fix are also more common to provide the brain and muscles with a quick sugar high.” A tempting impulsion for working women, who must stay focused and juggle various responsibilities. Meanwhile, the American Psychological Association has found that multitasking leads to lower overall productivity, and technology has made it easier than ever to limit our attention span – we order takeout while watching television; pay the bills while stuck in traffic; answer work emails while out socialising with friends.

Standing Tall, photographed by Seiji Fujimori, MOJEH Issue 18

Standing Tall, photographed by Seiji Fujimori, MOJEH Issue 18

There are also emotional reasons behind the increase in our eating, adds registered dietician and life coach, Kelly Lynch. “Eating distracts us from acknowledging the negative feelings of stress,” she tells MOJEH. “Food can bring us instant enjoyment and indirectly lower our stress hormones momentarily.” Psychologists at Indiana State University and at Duke University conducted a study of mindful eating techniques for the treatment of binge eating, and found that strategies that examine and regulate emotion help with weight loss.

Dr Mario Aoun, a clinical psychologist for Healthpoint Abu Dhabi, has 10 years of experience in the field of psychotherapy. “Weight gain is usually the result of psychological stress, but it also has physical consequences,” he clarifies. “This psychological change is what triggers the physiological change. Psychological stress can trigger sensations of emptiness or hunger, and even feelings of frustration and loneliness. A person may try to compensate by eating and sometimes they may feel weak. For your subconscious, eating is almost like being in love; it’s like a union with somebody.”

Dr Aoun advises self-awareness and noticing when you are stressed. “Seek professional help, express yourself, and try to find solutions to your problems, as well as pleasures,” he urges. “Some people have no pleasure in their life except for food. Their own happiness comes from eating. If they cannot express themselves and their emotions, eating can be a way for them to forget their personal and emotional life.”

It’s tempting to sacrifice our mental wellbeing for long-term gratification and we can subsequently find ourselves repeating the same mistakes. Stress, as well as weight gain, is a vicious cycle linked to our lifestyle and self-esteem, and while the latest research is enlightening, important questions remain unanswered: Is the increase in cortisol a cause or an effect of weight gain? Will lowering levels prove an effective treatment for obesity?

Lynch believes that women need to understand what drives them to eat, and says that the link between stress, cortisol and weight gain is interesting, but not fully understood. “It’s very clear that stress does have a negative effect on our bodies,” she says, before adding that there’s a case for teaching stress management techniques – but, what about those of us who don’t have the time? Perhaps we should stop counting the calories and just relax.