You want to feel amazing in your body.
You want to sleep deeply, think clearly, and wake up feeling energized. You want your metabolism to be highly responsive to subtle changes in diet and exercise. Maybe you want to lose some weight, or tone up. You have an image in your head of your dream body: what it looks like, what it can do, and how it feels to live in it.
If you’re like most women, you probably think the reason you don’t have this dream body yet is because you don’t have enough willpower, or because you’re too busy, or because you just love food too much. You allow yourself to be convinced that it’s because you don’t know the right workouts to do, or have the right diet plan.
You’re sure the solution is outside yourself, and that when you finally figure it out, BOOM! Dream body status. But that’s just not how it works.
It’s time to look internally.
For most modern day women, stress is what stands between them and the body they desire. You’ve heard it before, but nobody ever explains why. For myriad physiological and psychological reasons, stress wedges it’s way between you and your goals. Let’s take a look at what’s going on.
1. Stress hijacks your priorities.
We’re always behaving in accordance with our highest priorities, despite the fact that we’re often unaware of what those priorities actually are. Maybe you think your priorities are to get strong, feel healthy, and kick ass at your job. But due to being a survival mechanism, stress has the ability to hit “override” on every other priority. It literally sweeps in and takes control of the ship, prioritizing your immediate “safety” over your long term comfort or happiness. But since our modern day stressors are usually ongoing and internally generated, like guilt, perfectionism, and not feeling good enough, your body’s stress response is often totally unhelpful and inappropriate.
What your body thinks it’s protecting you from (like a lion) is different than what it’s actually protecting you from (like the feeling that everyone in the office is talking shit about you behind your back), but the physiological changes are the same. No matter what triggers it, your stress response increases your heart rate and blood pressure, dilates your pupils, shuts down your sex drive, sends blood away from your viscera (your gut) and toward your limbs, and a whole bunch of other changes. Sometimes it tells you to eat more, sometimes it tells you not to eat anything at all. Sometimes it tells you to run or attack, sometimes it tells you to freeze and play dead. The point is that your stress response evolved to be incredibly powerful. It’s not really appropriate to our modern day stressors, but stress still flips a switch in your brain from “rational and goal-oriented” into “survival mode.”
Therefore if you live with chronic stress (and I know you do), you can rest assured that stress is the commander of your ship, not you. And naturally, stress does not give a damn about you achieving your dream body.
A tough workout is a mental game! Mental fatigue tends to strip you of willpower and the ability to motivate yourself. This means you’re much more likely to skip (or half-ass) a workout when you’re stressed and tired. Plus even if you’re mentally sharp, chronic stress causes physical fatigue, which means you won’t be able to push yourself as hard. And recovery is impaired by stress as well, making it more difficult to recover after a tough workout, so you run a higher risk of hitting a plateau, feeling like shit the next day, or even overtraining.
3. Stress affects what you eat.
According to some new research, chronic stress seems to increase your levels of the hormones Leptin and Ghrelin in many people. Ghrelin is the “hunger hormone,” and is responsible for telling you when you’re hungry, while Leptin is the “satiety hormone,” in charge of telling you once you’ve gotten full. This means that, depending on your unique chemistry, you may feel hungrier when you’re stressed, having a harder time resisting food throughout the day, and/or it will require more food for you to feel full.
On top of messing with your hunger and fullness cue, stress often gives you intense cravings for sugar, carbs, and fatty foods.
Plus being stressed out tends to go hand in hand with being really “busy,” which means less time for home cooking or healthy food prep, and more on-the-go meals. Not to mention, once you start eating lots of sugar and junk food/fast food, it becomes difficult to stop! Eating sugar creates more sugar cravings for many people by making them more insulin resistant, and junk food is literally designed to tantalize your palate into wanting more.
4. Stress affects sleep.
Stress impacts your ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and go to as deep a level of sleep. Lack of high quality (and appropriate quantity) of sleep creates a whole cascade of issues, like a slower metabolism, lowered insulin sensitivity, more cravings, more hunger, lower immune system, lower willpower, lower inhibitions, less motivation, heightened sensitivity and irritability, and worse workouts. Plus lack of sleep is, in and of itself, a stressor, triggering a spike in cortisol, which will in turn make it more difficult to sleep.
5. Stress slows you down.
Stress has an immunosuppressant effect, meaning that it’s so focused on getting to safety now, that it doesn’t much care about keeping you healthy later. Therefore, instead of wasting precious energy on keeping your immune system running high, it focuses on other stuff, like making sure you can run or fight for your life. This shortsightedness is great when it comes to being attacked by a lion, but it doesn’t do much good for our ongoing modern stressors like guilt, comparison, and body-shaming. Chronic stress makes you more likely to get sick, and take longer to get healthy. It also makes you take longer to recover from injuries, minor or major, and exacerbates many painful and uncomfortable physical conditions like ulcers, multiple sclerosis, migraines, IBS, and more.
Illness, pain, and physical discomforts will all slow you way down, keep you from your workouts, affect your sleep, and mess up your schedule. They’ll also create more stress, because being in pain and worrying about your health causes cortisol to spike higher.
6. It’s a vicious cycle.
- Stress makes it difficult to sleep, and then not sleeping causes stress.
- Stress creates (or exacerbates) physical tension, and physical tension creates (or exacerbates) stress.
- Stress causes you breathe more shallowly and quickly, and breathing shallowly and quickly causes you to experience more stress.
- Stress causes pain, physical ailments, and all sorts of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. Dealing with pain, physical ailments, and diseases cause more stress.
- Stress makes you feel fatigued, so you skip your workout, browse Facebook all day, and eat junk food. Eating junk food, laying around all day, and skipping workouts creates more stress.
- Stress causes your sex drive to plummet. Less frequent and satisfying sex can cause stress.
Seriously. Stress is a vicious cycle.
7. Stress blocks your body’s messages to you.
With so much noise in your head all the time, it’s impossible to hear the subtle signals your body is giving you, whether that means hunger, fullness, thirst, tiredness, pain, desire, or even your emotions! Your body is meant to be a self-sufficient machine, telling you what it needs when it needs it, but stress makes it difficult to hear those messages.
The main reason is because in order to cope with stress, people tend to tune out their bodies’ signals. They shut down that awareness, numbing their emotions and their physical sensations as best they can, causing them to understand their bodies even less, and to feel even more overwhelmed and alone when it comes to what their body needs.
Being able to listen to your body is crucial for reducing stress for most women, because a lot of their stress is about their bodies! Learning to listen to your body’s messages is the antidote to “How do I know what I should eat, or when, or how much, or oh god maybe I should go paleo, or maybe vegan, and why does my belly always get bloated, and how do I know if I’m really hungry, and maybe I need to do more cardio and ahhhhh!!!”
8. The numbing cycle.
Chronic stress makes people crave escape from the experience of being in their own minds and bodies, so they escape by numbing out. Many people think that they’re “relaxing” when in reality they’re numbing. Some common examples of numbing are mindless eating, netflix binging, laying on the couch all day looking up YouTube videos, or spending hours browsing Facebook. The difference between numbing and nourishing or relaxing is that a numbing activity doesn’t make you feel refreshed, restored, and energized after, like a true nourishing or relaxing activity would.
Numbing tends to make you feel drained, restless, anxious, or wired after, which causes you to seek more numbing! In stress’s true-to-form way of creating vicious cycles: the more you numb out, the more anxious and drained you feel, the more you just want to numb out. Numbing makes you more mentally and physically fatigued, more irritable, less able to sleep deeply, and less able to hear your body’s messages to you.
Important note: it’s the intention that determines whether something is numbing or nourishing, not the activity itself. Think of it as the intention to escape or distract from your sensations and emotions (numbing), versus becoming more present with and tolerant of your sensations and emotions (nourishing/relaxing).
9. Fat storage.
Chronically elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, actually makes it more difficult to lose fat, and it affects where your fat gets stored. That means that stress will change both the shape and size of your body. Cortisol has also been linked to the notoriously difficult-to-get-rid-of belly fat, and to the more dangerous visceral fat, which is fat around your inner organs.
Plus cortisol causes you to retain more water, which will make you feel puffy and bloated, and look less defined and svelte.
10. Negative feedback loops.
Stress helps you fail at achieving your body goals, for all of the above reasons. But what’s even more damaging is the fact that with every failed attempt to reach a goal, you create a negative feedback loop for yourself. That means that when you see “proof” in the world that you are a failure, you start to believe you are a failure. The you start making decisions that will reinforce your belief, causing you to fail again.
Essentially, the more you fail to achieve your dream body, the more likely you are to keep failing. And the more stressed you are about failing, the harder it is to succeed — both from a physiological standpoint, and a psychological one.
So what can you do about it?
I realize that rescuing your life and your body from the perilous grip of chronic stress might sound impossible right now, but I assure you it’s not.
If you’re riddled with internal stressors like guilt, comparison, perfectionism, and negative body image– then getting a massage or playing hooky for the afternoon isn’t going to cut it! You need to learn and practice the skills of how to actually live a life without all the negative mental clutter.
What that looks like will be different for each woman, but some common themes are: adopting a body-positive and growth-oriented mindset, becoming more discerning with your time and energy, being self-assertive, creating strong boundaries, living in alignment with your highest values, becoming friends with your emotions, and listening to your body’s cues and messages.