Feed­ing On Fear

Are your stress lev­els mak­ing you gain weight?

Women's Health (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - BY LES­LIE GOLD­MAN

If, like Sihle, you’re sus­cep­ti­ble to work and home-life stress eat­ing, there’s a chance that you could now be trig­gered by trou­bling cur­rent af­fairs too. Stud­ies found that the sor­did com­bi­na­tion of heated po­lit­i­cal spar­ring and 24/7 news cov­er­age of world calami­ties and crises – made worse by the at­ten­dant so­cial me­dia chat­ter and trolling – has driven more than half the US pop­u­la­tion to eat, drink or smoke as a re­sult. “Eat­ing habits are greatly in­flu­enced by stress, anx­i­ety and other neg­a­tive emo­tions, re­gard­less of what trig­gers them – pol­i­tics, work or per­sonal re­la­tion­ships,” says psy­chother­a­pist Dr Steven Stosny, who coined the phrase “head­line stress dis­or­der.” Crime stats, wa­ter re­stric­tions, load shed­ding and cli­mate-change warn­ings – they are all nerve-rack­ing. Stosny says, “[these sit­u­a­tions] cre­ate a war-zone men­tal­ity in your brain, with each head­line seem­ing like a lit­tle mis­sile at­tack you’re hop­ing doesn’t hit you.” Small won­der that Ash­ley Womble, a 36-year-old com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor, has been avoid­ing the gym. “They play news non-stop,” she says. “I lis­ten to mu­sic on my head­phones, but when­ever I look up from the tread­mill, all I see is the news.” Womble es­ti­mates she’s now run­ning eight or so kays a week, as op­posed to the 16 to 24 she was log­ging a year ago. In Amer­ica, some have called post-elec­tion weight gain the “Trump 15”, but head­line-in­duced anx­i­ety is non-par­ti­san: a post-elec­tion sur­vey by the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion found that na­tional stress lev­els saw the sharpest rise in 10 years, with 59 per­cent of Repub­li­cans and 76 per­cent of Democrats beg­ging for a Brexit from re­al­ity.


It’s not un­com­mon to put on ki­los in re­sponse to ma­jor life stres­sors, some­times called “weight shocks” by re­searchers, whether the shocks are per­sonal or global in na­ture. Ger­mans call weight gained from emo­tional overeat­ing kum­mer­speck – lit­er­ally, “grief ba­con.” Sim­ply think­ing about a stress­ful event that you’ve ex­pe­ri­enced makes you burn 416 fewer kilo­joules – which could equate to an ex­tra five ki­los per year – per a study in Bi­o­log­i­cal Psy­chi­a­try and the study au­thors ex­pect that a sim­i­lar ef­fect could hap­pen when we ru­mi­nate about a nerve-rack­ing head­line. One cul­prit is hormones, says Dr Fa­tima Cody Stanford, an obe­sity-medicine physi­cian at Har­vard Med­i­cal School in the US. “When you’re up­set, lev­els of the stress hor­mone cor­ti­sol rise, prompt­ing crav­ings for sweet or high­fat foods.” Those urges are a throw­back to pre­his­toric times, when we would stock­pile kilo­joules in an­tic­i­pa­tion of famine. Sim­i­larly, when you freak out over cur­rent events, “your body thinks, ‘some­thing I care about is at stake’, and it com­pels you to eat,” says di­eti­cian Re­becca Scritch­field. You’re likely to choose com­fort foods like lasagne or dough­nuts be­cause carbs act “like ed­i­ble an­tide­pres­sants” she says, “stim­u­lat­ing the body to pro­duce the feel-good chem­i­cal sero­tonin.” Big-eye emoji!


A so­cial-me­dia habit can also make you lose sleep, an­other path­way to ex­tra ki­los. When you lag be­hind in Zzzs, your body can re­lease ghre­lin, the “feed me!” hor­mone, says Scritch­field. Late-night scrolling com­pounds the prob­lem: the head­lines may get your blood boil­ing and the blue-screen light from your de­vice af­fects how much and how well you sleep. Chris­tine Knapp, a 39-year-old mas­sage ther­a­pist, blames her re­cent yo-yoing weight on bad bed­time rit­u­als. “I look at the news on Twit­ter and I’m mind­lessly munch­ing and sud­denly an hour has gone by. I crawl into bed and can’t fall asleep, then I wake up with night­mares.” She’s gained back two of the five and a half ki­los she’d lost. Sleep depri­va­tion also hin­ders your great­est weapon in the fight against head­linein­duced stress: ex­er­cise. Not only does work­ing out spur en­dor­phins, but it fu­els emo­tional re­siliency. “When you work out hard,” says Scritch­field, “your mind of­ten says, ‘I want to stop.’ But if you press through those push-ups or those last five min­utes of a run, it’s like strength train­ing for your brain. It builds men­tal tough­ness.” So the next time you’re faced with an emo­tional chal­lenge – like read­ing an up­set­ting ar­ti­cle – and you want to eat a bis­cuit, you re­alise, “You know what? I’m stronger than this.” And you are.


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