Well, it’s a very interesting stress connection. When the brain perceives the famine, the sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight stress response) switches on. When the brain perceives a threat, the same thing happens. This is the heart-racing-adrenaline-pumping feeling we get when something scary happens. To the brain, these two things are virtually the same – in high stress, the body doesn’t expend energy on complex digestion, it flicks into “don’t waste calories” mode, storing excess because there’s a present threat we may need to run away from fast (thus excess calories will be handy) and if the threat happens to be famine, excess calories are also handy!
But here’s where we humans have lost the plot of this very life-saving natural mechanism. When animals experience threat (or famine) their stress responses click in and they respond, in the present moment, as they need. When the threat (or famine) disappear, because animals only live in the present moment, they don’t carry residual post-event stress or fear of future recurrence. The wonderful gift of language, however, has enabled humans to live in past and future, in our minds. And this allows us to re-stress ourselves, over and over and over, even when there is no actual threat in the moment.
We have perfected the art of not allowing our minds to respond to the immediate reality and instead, we respond to thoughts that continue to scare, worry or stress us. And so the stress response doesn’t turn off.
Add to this the constant human experience of stressful living, with busy schedules, jobs, deadlines, family needs, traffic stress, relational stress and even relatively simple things like driving (in which the brain is taking in lots of information quickly and staying alert to dangers), watching drama and fear-inducing things on tv, not getting enough sleep (another trigger to our animal brains that things are not safe) – you can see that most of us are walking around in a constant state of low-medium stress.
This is not the way nature intended and it is not healthy!
And, it sets us up for a life-time of retaining more weight than we need, because the brain is still being stressed and therefore assumes we should still be in a state of stress response – prompting the body to retain weight and binge of sugar and fat. Add to this the fact that sugar and fat are readily available to us, and you have a recipe for disaster. (and that’s not even looking at how we self-medicate stress relief with alcohol, not only adding weight but also other health issues to our body).
So what can be done?
As I discussed in the last blog post, stress relieving activities, such as deep breathing, meditation or fun exercise, are a great place to start. But this is only part of the answer. Without learning to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system (that is, turning the stress response off and the “peace” response on), you’ll be in a continual battle. Deep breathing, meditation and exercise can do this for periods of time, but without removing your tendencies toward thoughts that induce stress, you’ll be right back in stress mode when you stop.
The first step in retraining the way your brain “talks to you” is to start paying attention to what it’s saying. Keep a note book with you, or use your phone, and whenever it occurs to you, notice what thoughts are going through your head, and jot them down. What are you thinking about while waiting in line at the store, or sitting on the bus, or standing in the elevator on your way into the office. Notice whether these thoughts are positive or negative, whether they leave your body feeling more tension or more relaxed, whether they feel like fun or like a burden. Just noticing your thoughts can help you realise how you talk to yourself, and raise your stress levels.
Changing self talk is a much harder tasks, so it’s important that you allow yourself a lot of grace. No point telling yourself a lot of nasty, stressful insults because you didn’t manage to successfully stop stressing yourself …. that negativity is stress inducing. I recommend the work of Byron Katie and her Inquiry method of questioning the truth in the things we’re telling ourselves or believing. This is a powerful tool for busting your brain out of ruts of thinking that are causing stress and unhappiness.
There’s one further important step to changing the stressful environment of our minds. Speaking to ourselves negatively, about ourselves, is one of the most stress inducing things we do with our minds. So it’s a good place to start your stress-reduction work! When you notice thoughts that put you down, think poorly of yourself, when you’re telling yourself you’re not good enough, you’re too fat, you’re not pretty, no one likes you etc etc, stop yourself, take a breath, and say something close to the opposite, something kind and loving and tender.
This alone will change the atmosphere in your mind considerably. Self kindness creates a safe environment within us, rather than a stressful one, and is the beginning of being able to be truly kind to others. Try repeating these statements to yourself, see how it feels to actually say something kind:
“I am a lovely person. People like me”
“I am OK just the way I am, right here, right now.”
“I’m a good person. I am doing a good job of life. It’s been hard and I’m still here, doing ok. I’m a good person.”
“I’ve done a good job today. I’ve coped really well with things. I’m doing well.”
and my personal favourite:
“How I feel matters. What I long for matters. I matter. My happiness matters. I deserve to feel good.”
The final blog post in this series will take a look at that last comment in more detail, exploring how finding a life you love living is essential to lowering the stress that causes weight gain. [Read the blog here]
Do you recognise internal stress-inducing thoughts as part of your normal internal dialogue? Have you tried the self-loving, kinder thoughts I’ve suggested? Have you tried Byron Katie’s method of questioning beliefs? How’s that all going? I’d love to hear where you’re at, what you’re struggling with and to give you some help in cracking this tricky connection between internal stressors and weight gain, so let me know you’re questions, in the comments below.