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Overeating Trigger #1: Stress – What is Stress Anyway?

By Michelle May, M.D.

stressed womanWhether I’m speaking, facilitating a retreat, or having a conversation on Facebook, stress is always mentioned as one of the top two triggers for overeating. (Boredom is the other one.) Clearly, learning to recognize, manage, and prevent excessive stress is critical.

Stress is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, stress can:

  • Protect you from harm.
  • Help you react quickly in threatening situations.
  • Signal you to respond to changing circumstances.
  • Motivate you to perform to the limits of your ability.
  • Add excitement to your life (think roller coasters!)

However, when you experience excessive or chronic stress, or lack adequate skills to cope with stress, it takes a toll both physically and emotionally. Since a stress-free life is not possible or even desirable, it’s important to learn to manage it, before it manages you.

What is Stress?

Stress is your body’s response to an event or situation that is threatening, overwhelming, or harmful-whether real or perceived. That is a critical point because much of the stress people experience results from their perception of a situation. That’s good news because that means that you can change your perception and change your level of stress. More on that later…

Stress results from your body’s natural instinct to protect itself: the “fight or flight” response. Such reactions were useful when your ancestors frequently faced life and death situations. In today’s society, few situations are life and death, yet your body still reacts as if they were.

When you’re faced with a challenge, whether it is true physical danger, a deadline, or a traffic jam, the hypothalamus sends impulses through the endocrine (hormone) and autonomic nervous systems. These signals produce a surge of energy by making various organs dump stress chemicals, specifically cortisol and adrenaline, into the bloodstream. This will boost your heart rate and blood pressure, dilate your blood vessels, and release glucose (sugar) into your blood stream. It also causes hyperventilation, muscle tension, perspiration, dilated pupils, and relaxation of the rectum and bladder, and will stop your digestion as blood is shifted from the gastrointestinal tract to the skin and muscles.

This response is intended to mobilize you for quick action. However, when the response is out of proportion to the actual threat, or when mobilization isn’t possible or helpful, you will experience dis-stress. For example, when you over-react to small hassles or you allow little frustrations to pile up, you’re less able to handle situations effectively.

This type of stress can wear down your body, exhausting you, and weakening your defense against disease (dis-ease). As a result, you may experience gastrointestinal problems, depression, anxiety, headaches, insomnia, high blood pressure, and heart disease. It can also lead to distress habits like overeating, smoking, drinking, or drug use.

Action Plan: Notice the real and perceived sources of stress in your life. Pay attention to the effects of stress on your mind and body. Read Stress Management 101 and this post about one my stressful experiences, Taking My Own Advice.


About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.

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