Stress, for me, has always triggered overeating. And when my metabolism took a drastic dip in my twenties, all of my weight gain went straight to my belly. I knew that if I kept up this lifestyle of living on stress and cheeseburgers, I was going to be in terrible health by 40.
Stress and belly fat are a potent pair: It has long been believed that cortisol, a hormone which our body releases in response to stress, plays a role in fat accumulation around our midsections. According to one 1994 study by the Department of Psychology at Yale University, people with a high waist to hip ratio had higher cortisol levels when exposed to stress. These people also reported having no coping mechanism in place to deal with the stress.
I’m in my thirties now, and I recently got engaged, so I’m embracing adulthood and the future it will bring. I want to be healthy and not burnt out in my later years. I want to enjoy them. Sure, I miraculously still have my hair, but the belly fat is there too. Well, it was, up until recently.
Related: The Truth About Belly Fat
People gain weight for different reasons (their macros are off, they don’t sleep enough, they don’t work out properly, etc.), so I can’t say what will work for everyone. But what worked for me—on top of dieting (I love the keto diet) and exercise—was making sure I did daily activities that centered me.
I think of my body as a computer. Stress is the pop-up ad or the malware on the hard drive. What I need to do is find ways to boot myself up so stress doesn’t crash my system.
What worked for me—on top of dieting and exercise—was making sure I did daily activities that centered me.
I was one of those people. Throughout my life, I’d gotten used to feeling stress when I’d first wake up. I’d be groggy and anxious and I’d carry it throughout the day. Food cravings—and all that cortisol—would be coursing through my body before noon. That would, of course, make me want to eat.
Then I figured out that I needed to boot up correctly—I’d need to get centered and calm during that first hour after waking. I came up with daily routine to help curb the cortisol and create a mindset of mindfulness and calmness.
Right when I roll out of bed I start free writing (or journaling). I get all those panicked, worried, and weird thoughts out of my head and onto the page. It’s an effective morning meditation. I do up to three pages (or more if I am feeling particularly stressed!).
I think of my body as a computer. What I need to do is find ways to boot myself up so stress doesn’t crash my system.
Then, I make my bed and do some actual meditation. I just sit and focus on my breath. Then I eat a healthy, fat-filled breakfast (fat keeps us sated for longer), and lastly I exercise (for the endorphins and the energy boost).
I try not to look at my phone or email while I focus on getting centered for the day. No, I haven’t magically transformed into a morning person, but I have become a morning routine person.
Work issues and personal stressors will never go away, but I can harness a mindful attitude, practice acceptance, and look for solutions instead of stress eating. I remind myself that mistakes will happen and they are not the end of the world. I remind myself that I need to only learn from the mistake. I don’t judge the negative thoughts; I just observe them and let them pass. Let it be and move forward is a mantra that helps me.
I also make sure to do something physical each day that is fun and relaxing. I take a hobby break in the afternoon. I garden and walk nature trails. Getting out in nature always helps me have perspective; being in greenery is like nature’s sedative.
On rainy or cold winter days I’ll play some music and hit a ping-pong ball against the basement wall. What all of these hobbies have in common: me being physical and me being present.
By being aware of your impulses—and choosing constructive outlets—you will begin to walk the path towards a higher quality of life and a lowered stress level.
So what happens when I start stressing late night before bed—when the munchies hit? Some people can do healthy midnight snacks (or easily avoid snacking altogether), but for me it’s not so easy.
Just like I practice mindfulness when I wake up, I do the same at night. I use that time to power down properly. I read for pleasure, I watch something for entertainment, and I make an effort to be mindful and not let stressful thoughts rule me. I focus on my breath and just breathe. I let go of the worries and focus on the present, and I prioritize sleeping over worrying.
Sure, keto and exercise have helped me, but so has practicing mindfulness, keeping up my healthy daily habits, and accepting that I will never be free of stress.
I’ve learned that wellness is a mindset. By being aware of your impulses—and choosing constructive outlets—you will begin to walk the path towards a higher quality of life and a lowered stress level. And, bonus points: You will see results in all areas of your life, not just in your stomach.