How Stress Can Undermine Your Goals

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I came across this study in the journal Neuron about how stress undermines self-control and predisposes people to choose foods with “immediately rewarding taste attributes” (code for Ben and Jerry’s). Here is what the authors said in the abstract: “Our results indicate that stress may compromise self-control decisions by both enhancing the impact of immediately rewarding attributes and reducing the efficacy of regions promoting behaviors that are consistent with long-term goals.”

Of course, we all know this from personal experience, and Steve and I hear this in our groups every day. It is still nice to see the science behind it, which helps to take some of the blame and shame away. It is not that we lack will, but rather that stress creates a physiological state where the brain is predisposed to choose ice cream over a salad, and behave in ways that are at odds with our long-term goals. It is nice to see an explanation of what is actually happening in the brain’s decision circuits when we come home from a horrendous day at work and reach for the junk food. Combine that with the hyper-palatability of the food itself, and it is no wonder weight loss is difficult.

This is why one of our key interventions is to help reduce stress. Every program at our center has stress reduction as its mission. If you are trying to lose weight amidst extreme stress, you will have to manage the stress first before the weight starts to come off sustainably. (Not to say that you can’t achieve short-term results–they just won’t last.) Likewise, if you have a dysregulated sleeping schedule—many people are chronically sleep-deprived—you will have to regulate your sleeping schedule first before you can lose weight in a sustainable manner. Otherwise your best efforts will be undermined by stress.

If not mindfully managed, stress will always win. And stress will hurt you in more ways than excess pounds. It leads to chronic inflammation, which is a contributing factor to many serious diseases.

But don’t stress about stress! Start today and start small. I’m always amazed at how responsive the body is to the smallest acts of kindness. The body seems to respond tenfold to even modest efforts at relaxation. Find 10 minutes in the day to do a brief yoga sequence. Go on You Tube and find a guided relaxation meditation. Take a 10 minute walk outside in the fresh air. Bigger steps should include having a regular exercise regimen. A good sweat is the best stress-buster I know. When in the midst of stress, these interventions might seem insignificant, but they can really help.

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