While the jury may still be out on whether cortisol actually causes weight gain, there's some pretty convincing evidence that unchecked stress interferes with weight loss-- and maybe even promotes weight gain.
Cortisol is the hormone that is released by your brain when you have a stressful thought.
It serves to kickstart the fight or flight response for survival.
Back when we lived in caves we needed to react urgently when a tiger jumped onto our path or a cougar appeared on the cliff.
That injection of cortisol would propel us to fight or run our asses off in order to not get eaten alive.
These days we rarely, if ever, experience actual threats that require fighting or fleeing but that hormonal function is still intact.
So what happens now is whenever we have stressful thoughts, our bodies respond as if we’re under threat.
When we’re under threat we’re less likely to lose weight because our bodies want to store energy to use for fighting or fleeing, so goes the theory.
But here’s where things get really hairy:
For me and for many of my clients (dare I say all), we have stressful thoughts all the time.
Stressful thinking has become so pervasive it’s become our normal state to be "stressed out".
We don’t even identify as feeling stressed out half the time because stress feels normal.
There is always so much to do, such a rush, so much to think about and prepare for.
Between careers, relationships, families, homes, cars, errands, not to mention personal health and life goals-- there always seems to be too much on our plates, too many balls in the air.
Our brains become cauldrons of stressful thinking that get stirred round and round in a never ending narrative of “I’m so busy/stressed/overwhelmed/overworked/exhausted/victimized by my damn responsibilities!”
The stress may swing from low to high-- but it’s stress all the same.
And it’s pervasive.
Up until a couple of weeks ago I stressful thoughts about EVERYTHING because I always had "so much to do"-- a demanding career, endless tasks at home, endless To Do lists, exercise, manage money, manage food, care for my marriage, care for my kid-- all of these things had a litany of stressful thoughts attached.
I found weekends particularly stressful, which baffled me because my weekends were full of activities that were completely my choice and that I would totally look forward to.
These events, interspersed with home-management tasks like laundry and grocery shopping, were all things I wanted to do and yet when the weekend arrived I would feel stressed, anxious, and/or agitated for the majority of the weekend... WTF?!?!
It made no sense!
I would feel rushed from one thing to the next, or when I was doing one thing I felt like I should be doing another.
When I’d be at yoga I felt like I should be with my family, and when I would be with my family, I felt like I should be at yoga.
Sometimes I felt resentful doing something like taking my little to swim or grocery shop, even though I wanted to do it.
It was total cognitive dissonance and the litany of thoughts like this would result in an underlying and continuous flow of stress in my life.
And then, something happened that changed everything.
I went on vacation for 10 days and ate foods I don’t normally eat-- like chips, dessert, and bread-- and drank cocktails and wine.
I expected to have gained weight given my choices (which, btw, I was fine with... I know what to do to return quickly and effortlessly to my natural weight).
When I got home I got on the scale expecting it to read 5 lbs. heavier, but shockingly I was 5 pounds lighter?!?!
I was baffled.
What had happened?
Here’s what I figured out:
While my vacation wasn’t stress free (I was with my whole family for crying out loud), my vacation was free of the pervasive stress that permeates every waking moment.
On this vacation, we still had to do laundry and we cooked big, beautiful meals every night together, so it’s not like anything was done for us in that respect.
But my thinking was totally different.
My brain was in vacation mode.
And vacation mode means no pressure-thinking about “all I have to do”.
On vacation you don’t have to do anything, and that feels freeing.
But the truth of the matter is, you don’t have to do anything on non-vacation mode, either.
That thought “I have so much to do.” feels terrible.
So why not drop the thought and instead replace it with “all I get to do”.
Think about it: you really do have a choice about everything you do.
You don’t have to do laundry-- you could wear dirty clothes.
You don’t have to grocery shop-- you could get groceries delivered or eat out.
You don’t have to take your kids to swim lessons-- they could stay home instead.
Of course you are probably thinking, “But I want to wear clean clothes, and have a fridge full of fresh food, and a kid who knows how to swim.”
And to that I say:
Yes! You do want those things. And because you want them, you choose to do them.
See how different that feels?
Try it out for yourself.
Instead of saying “I have to do laundry today.” instead say “I want to do laundry today.”
It’s subtle, but powerful.
If you want to take it a step further, you can say “I get to do laundry today.” That might feel like a stretch but the truth is that having access to a laundry machine and clean water is something to be grateful for. (If you think it’s not I encourage you to travel or read more.)
For many of us, stressful thinking is default thinking and it may be preventing you from losing excess weight.
Here’s what you can do to change that.
The net effect of these shifts in your thinking will be far fewer stressful thoughts resulting in persistent cortisol release.
And that could result in effort weight loss-- even on vacation.
How fun is that?
Lia Pinelli is a weight loss coach and educator who helps women put an end to emotional overeating and lose weight, permanently.