Feeding On Fear
Are your stress levels making you gain weight?
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!
NO REST FOR THE WORRIED
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.
EMBRACE YOUR FEELINGS, DON’T SWALLOW THEM.