Road to the Longhorn, Part 5
Stress and Eating
by Tina LeBlanc
Well, the final push to the Longhorn begins. Five and half weeks to go, 10 lbs to lose to be in my preferred weight class. I’m getting nervous. :-/ After resting for 4 days (no cardio and only minor lifting), today I “maxed out” to see about where my lifts are. My numbers are disappointing is an absolute sense—yes, I want to lift the same amount as when I was 30 lbs heavier. However, in a relative sense, taking my weight loss into account, they are ok. I imagine that unless something goes bad wrong, I’ll hit at least these numbers at the meet. I’m good with that.
I want to talk about stress. Is stress bad? No, not necessarily. The damage happens when stress exposure is prolonged and unnecessary. But guess who has two thumbs and wants to eat when feeling anxious? This girl.
According to the General Adaption Syndrome model of stress, the stress adaption cycle has three parts. First, there’s the alarm stage, when we first notice that something is wrong. Physiological changes start and nervous system activity is suppressed. Next, we enter the resistance stage. Our bodies are dealing well with the particular stressor that caused the reaction. But unfortunately, resistance to other stressors is often reduced. We are only able to resist for so long. If we aren’t able to return to a normal state soon, then exhaustion sets in and the high level of cortisol begins to have negative effects. Resources become depleted and permanent damage occurs.
From an evolutionary perspective, this is useful when there’s a real stressor / danger, let’s say you are about to be eaten by a lion. Your physiological resources are diverted from routine bodily functions so that you can escape. The stressor would soon end and your “stress resistance” stores can be refilled (or you would be eaten and it wouldn’t matter).
But that’s no longer true for most of us. We suffer the most from emotional or mental stressors. That is, worrying about money, our jobs, relationships, and so on. This stress is often amorphous, intangible and seems to never end. It’s one thing after another. I think we are in the habit of being stressed. In fact, feeling “stressed” is actually a cause of stress.
Unfortunately, our adaptive resources are genetically determined and finite. If we are constantly pulling from these resources for prolonged psychological stressors, then that doesn’t leave anything left to deal with other stressors, such as physiological ones or disease.
One way I have dealt with stress in the past is to eat. Worried about work? Let’s go to Uncorked and drink 3 or 4 glasses of wine and eat a cheese plate. Stressed about money? These 2 Jack In the Box tacos for $.99 will do the trick. Of course, what I wouldn’t admit to myself was that doing this not only didn’t help – it actually made it worse. Sure, I felt better (or thought I did) while a bite of food was in my mouth. But then I would swallow it and the stress would return. The solution? Quickly take another bite. Oy. This approach got ugly fast.
Of course, a better solution is to find non-eating ways of dealing directly with stress cycle. A good friend of mine (Jason Asbahr, http://asbahr.com) came up with this Anxiety Loop diagram. It shows how someone can break out of the anxiety loop at various points. It’s a fantastic diagram. I think it shows that key is to be mindful – that is, aware of what is going on with you at the present moment – and be prepared to act with intention, rather than blindly reacting to a situation that is perceived as stressful. OK, being mindful… I can do that.