How I Learned To De-stress, Gained Energy, & Lost Belly Fat

I lead a pretty busy life: I’m a real estate agent in New York City (which means I’m constantly on the phone or running around or filling out paperwork), my social life is important to me, and I travel often to see family and friends in different states and countries.

Some people thrive emotionally, and even lose weight, from always being on-the-go. For me, though, leading a busy life means carrying around a good deal of stress. I find it virtually impossible to regulate my worrying and just turn off, which my doctor says is a recipe for all sorts of problems, like high blood pressure and insomnia and cortisol overload.

Did you know that cortisol contributes to belly fat? Yeah, I didn’t either—until my gut started getting out of hand when my stress levels grew. The science doesn’t lie: An extract from a study published in Obesity Research found a direct correlation between both stress and cortisol levels and “greater abdominal fat depots.” According to Harvard Health, belly fat isn’t just an aesthetic issue, either—it’s linked to high blood pressure, cardiac disease, and problematic blood sugar levels.

I genuinely wasn’t aware of the terrible lifestyle habits that were linked to my stress until recently. For one, I was too busy to care. Secondly, I wasn’t brought up in a healthy family. I wasn’t raised to eat healthfully, nor was I raised to exercise or be mindful of my body. These just weren’t things my family prioritized, and that sort of thinking stuck in my adult life. Long day? Fried chicken. Lots of paperwork? Sit hunched over at my desk, totally sedentary. Bedtime? Stay up late stress-binging Netflix until 3 a.m. It all contributed to a giant, overbearing sense of disconnection, feeling crappy, exhaustion, and yes, weight gain.

I was clued into needing a change when I realized I was literally living for my job and ignoring everything else. A friend pointed out how stressed I seemed, and how much I’d changed, which was the wakeup call I needed.

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I decided to see both a doctor and a therapist. I needed someone to tell me exactly how bad things were getting—and how to fix the issues. My doctor urged me to eat better, and to eat more frequent, smaller meals. So, I complied.

Instead of eating a burger or pizza or fried chicken whenever I was feeling super-stressed or hungry, I grabbed a fruit shake or smoothie every few hours when I was feeling an energy dip. I won’t lie: I’ll never be in love with nutritious eating, but paying attention to what I’m eating (and when) allowed me to keep my energy levels up and not experience inevitable sugar crashes and stomach distress. I also started adding daily multivitamins to make up for gaps in my diet.

The nutrition aspect was only one part of the whole, however. My therapist suggested I try to “live in the moment” every once in a while. When I had a good day or experienced something pleasant, she suggested I close my eyes and let that thought wash over me. (She also suggested I take that approach every so often with food: sit down with my food instead of inhaling it, being more mindful of the food itself, as well as the experience of eating.)

When it came to managing and de-escalating feelings of overwhelm or stress, she recommended that I take a few deep breaths, acknowledge the stress, and break down my tasks into organized steps. The result? Instead of feeling like I was drowning in a million phone calls or emails or appointments, I was able to separate myself from the moment and then tackle my to-do list with a clear mind.

The last thing I did was disconnect from physical objects, like my phone and my computer. I’d take strategic breaks throughout my busy day. No social media. No news. No emails. I’d let my mind dissolve and I’d just be in the moment. I’m no Zen guru, and I’ll never be “good” at disconnecting (mostly because my job requires me to be connected), but giving myself a few moments to turn off has helped immensely with my stress levels.

Related: 3 Physical Signs You’re Way Too Stressed

Armed with my newfound ability to live in the moment, I didn’t want to disrupt or take away from my efforts by going and throwing it all away at some fast food joint. I even started adding a few workouts to my week. It’s amazing how a new perspective and set of coping tools can refresh your definition of “living well.”

There were many tangible things I noticed after about four weeks of practicing mindfulness. For one, I had more energy throughout the day. At night, I fell asleep at a reasonable hour, instead of letting my thoughts race through my mind, and I slept more soundly. Plus, my gut had actually gotten smaller! I was able to fit into my favorite pairs of jeans and trousers without my belly bulging over the top, and I felt more confident in my workwear. As a real estate agent, you’ve got to look polished and smart, so this was a real win for me.

Before learning (both from my doctor and from my own experiences) that there is a legitimate connection between our bodies and our psyches, I was really risking it with my own sanity and health: Eating what I wanted, whenever I wanted, never stopping to take a moment for myself, and neglecting my body’s needs could never be sustainable, and I’m so glad I made the effort to improve my lifestyle before I put my health at even greater risk.