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Chronic Stress & Weight Gain vs Acute Stress & Weight Loss

I recently spent approximately two weeks cycling through massive stress hormone upswings & flat-lining that had me hypervigilant in reptile brain & shivering in withdrawal mode when a section of crisis would pass.

I lost about 10 pounds in a week!

Typically when I'm carrying stress, I over eat to comfort myself, packing on the pounds - so what the hell?

This is a common pattern I see in MANY of the clients I've worked with other the past 4 years. The list of reasons for chronic (long term) stress could be any of the following: work is heinous, their relationship is falling apart, they have really low resiliency skills so just 'life' in general is difficult, they experienced a divorce or a death, their work culture is toxic, they are single parenting b/c their partner acts like an extra kid - or all of the above at once. (I've seen it.)

So during the day at their work desk...or most often late at night, while binging Netflix or doing house work to avoid thinking about their problems...they eat. Non-stop.

The weight shows up.

When they try to address it through cutting calories, adding in workouts or making healthier choices...a new problem becomes apparent. They can't seem to lose it. It might no longer be increasing...but what they packed on isn't shedding even though they've made lifestyle changes to their eating & exercise.

This is your arch nemesis, cortisol.

First lets just confirm the understanding that emotional eating is a type of disordered eating. It's a maladaptive (dysfunctional) psychological response used to 'self sooth.' It can create a sense of comfort due to childhood memory patterns, it can create a sense of control through power & decision making & it can create distraction by interrupting stressful thought patterns.

If you're experiencing chronic stress, not only is there a low level or undertone of tension in your body & brain all the time, your insides have this gentle, consistent flow of cortisol in your bloodstream.

This next piece of information is important - cortisol isn't what causes your weight gain. Cortisol is released when we experience stress. Then, after identifying stress, the human brain tries to figure out how to stop the 'pain' & get to a place of 'pleasure.' An immature brain or underdeveloped set of life skills will opt for unsustainable, dysfunctional coping mechanisms (self soothing.) The mature brain or resilient brain will address what is causing the stress for a sustainable, adaptive change in the environment.

BUT - whether you have gained weight or not, if you have cortisol in your system, it can prevent you from 'losing' weight. Cortisol promotes glucose production which also triggers insulin response. This flow of low grade stress hormone is just creating an endless battle inside your body of extra glucose, over worked insulin, metabolism changes, your body storing fat as a protective response, trying to figure out what your new maintenance caloric level is... it's a mess.

Which means even if you start working out & watching what you eat - if you are still battling the 'life stressors' that created your cortisol flow in the first place - fat chance you'll be able to shift your weight in the right direction. You need to shift your stress first.

So what the heck happened to cause my weight loss?

Adrenaline & catecholamines, baby.

These are your fight, flight & freeze hormones. These are the hormones that shut down parts of your nervous system - like your appetite & digestion - in the face of danger.

These two battle tonics (along with norepinephrine & epinephrine) increase your heart rate & blood pressure, keeping you on high alert & vigilant. Just like when you start running, your body temperature goes up as well, creating an internal thermogenic effect. Your burning calories. If there is no external source coming in (not eating) you body goes for the storage unit (your body fat) to make the glucose it needs to keep running on 'high.'

Then, when you burn out of these hormones or the crisis stops, you start feeling really cold, which sometimes shows up like 'shock' after experiencing an emergency situation. Shivering constricts blood vessels, lowering inflammation, but also burn calories.

For for a 2 week time period my body experienced this repeated cycle of spiked, acute stress hormones, lowering appetite & increasing a thermogenic process, then dropping off into shock, creating exhaustion & cold internal temperatures.

None of this is good for a person. This might look like a cool weight loss experiment but the circumstances required to achieve this internal environment for your body come at a serious cost. The recovery for a process like this can be extensive. Along with repercussions like adrenal fatigue, is the mental heath stability repair. When the human brain spends too much time cycling through situations of threat we can emerge with PTSD style symptoms, locking us in unnecessary hyper vigilance, heightened sensitivity, lowered resilience & a lack of desire to engage in normal life activities.

This can also happen from spending long stretches of time with cortisol running in our bodies as well. The symptoms show up slower & can develop as anxiety & depression.

The key to remember is that healthy weight changes only come from a healthy mindset. Although the 10 less pounds was a nice biproduct from an extremely negative circumstance, there are many down sides such as loss of muscle mass & unnecessary recovery aspects that would not be needed had the weight been lost through a healthier process.

If you're struggling with weight loss, in either direction (or weight gain! or muscle gain!) your first approach needs to be addressing your mental health. Life style habits are not limited to our exercise & eating. They include our relationships, our parenting, our work life, our self care, our recovery time & lots more.

Reach out for help & support. Having resilience, skills & tools are what create the foundation of a thriving life. If you don't feel you have this kind of strength, know that it can be learned at any time in your life & it's never too late.


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If you would like to start building your Core Resiliency Skills contact Coach Julia today. You will learn how to Thrive beyond your damage, become a Transitional Character, break abuse cycles in your family line & build the core resiliency skills most often missed when being raised in a low nurture environment.

Julia is a Holistic Health Consultant, holding a Double Diploma in Community Support & Addictions Work, is a Certified Transformation Specialist, Personal Trainer & Nutrition Coach & a Lvl 2 Reiki Practitioner. She specializes in Trauma Informed Practice & Resiliency Coaching and Holistic Pregnancy & Postpartum Health Coaching. 

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