By Mairi MacRae, LCSW-C
Let’s say you were up late last night, working, playing on the internet, arguing with a partner, waiting for a teenager to come home, or helping a younger child with a project. Whatever the reason, you did not get enough sleep. So there you are, crabby and draggy beginning a whole new day – probably craving sugar and carbohydrates. What you may not know is that your brain and body respond to lack of sleep in the same way they respond to stresses that occur in the day time – by wanting to eat.
By the time you get to work, school, or wherever you are going you have probably encountered several more stress inducing events such as children who dawdle or cannot find what they want, thereby threatening to make everyone late, a pet who seems ill, a lack of anything in the fridge for your lunch, and traffic or weather that makes your trip to work worse than it could be.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with stress – we are equipped to handle stress, whether it’s constant interruptions or an unexpected encounter with a lion in the parking lot. But there are three problems with stress in today’s world:
- We generally cannot yell, scream, throw things, run away or punch out a co-worker when faced with stress in our daily lives.
- Our lives are filled with stressors of varied intensity, and calm, uninterrupted down time is very hard to access.
- Two thirds of us have bodies and brains that are programmed to recover from stress by eating. The other one third of us stay thin.
The reason for this is that, faced with a stressor, we go on high alert, ready to run or fight. Since we live in a civilized part of the world we are not encouraged to deal with stressors by running or fighting. But automatically, and without our consent, our bodies and brains are instantly ready to expend a lot of energy to deal with the stressor, be it a performance review or a traffic snarl. Most of the time we don’t respond to these situations with physical aggression or running away, but as the stressor ends, our bodies and brains act as if we had used all the energy we activated to deal with the stressor, and we are flooded with chemicals that tell us to eat to replace the energy we did not use to deal with the stressor. (In a previous period in history, or in a different situation such as fleeing a fire, we would have used all the energy we mobilized.)
So what to do? What we can do, since there’s very little we can do about traffic, weather, work, etc., is to learn to make ourselves calmer and less reactive to everyday stress. Any and all of the following activities can help us calm down in the moment, and when practiced regularly, help us become calmer and less reactive to stress throughout the day: prayer, exercise, meditation, mindfulness. Asking ourselves if we are really hungry or just need time out to breathe will help to curb mindless eating in the face of daily stress. And remembering to go to bed early enough to get enough sleep will do wonders to help us get through our days.
For more detailed information:
Ratey, John R MD, Richard Manning (2014). Go Wild: Free your mind and body from the afflictions of civilization. Little, Brown and Company
Sapolsky, Robert (2010). Stress and Your Body, Lecture 5: Stress, Overeating, and Your Digestive Tract. The Great Courses, The Teaching Company
By Mairi MacRae, LCSW-C, JCS Therapy Services
JCS provides a broad range of services that meet the diverse, multi-dimensional needs of individuals and families throughout Central Maryland. We offer guidance and support when you are seeking solutions for emotional well-being, aging and caregiving, parenting, job seeking, employers and businesses, achieving financial stability, living with special needs, and preventing risky behaviors. To learn more, please visit our home page or call 410-466-9200.