Everyday events can cause you to feel stressed — and that’s not all bad. Brief blasts of stress can focus your attention, motivate you to strive harder, even delight you with the joy of competition. And there’s some research that shows that those super-charged, fleeting moments may improve your memory and strengthen your immune system.
But chronic stress that cranks up your tension without relief? That’s a whole other ballgame. And, according to a new study from Ohio State’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research, when you combine chronic tension (that you cannot or do not dispel) with even one high-fat, high-calorie, comfort-food meal a week ... screech! ... your metabolism slows enough to cause an 11-pound weight gain in just one year. (This study looked at women, but we think the phenomenon is worth watching regardless of your gender.)
Turns out having a stressful day, then overeating or downing comfort food (36 percent of you say that’s your stress response) sends a “make more insulin” message to your pancreas. Researchers say these insulin spikes slow down fat-burning in the body and send excess calories into fat cells for storage!
So if you’ve had to deal with a major high-anxiety event in the past year or you find that chronic stress is interfering with your life, listen up! You can change how stress affects your health, happiness — and waistline.
Step No. 1:
Remind yourself that stress is trying to help you. A growing stack of scientific research (in humans, not lab mice!) reveals that how you think about stress plays a role in how harmful it is, or isn’t. In several studies, people who saw stress as their body’s way to gear them up for a difficult task, and not as a health threat, had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and that’s good, because cortisol makes you want to eat high-fat, high-carb, high-calorie food.
Step No. 2:
Use stress as fuel for physical activity. Exercise is one of the best ways we know to help you manage your response to a stressful event. Whether you’ve got five minutes for a brisk walk or 30 minutes for some strength-training moves, take advantage of these opportunities to release tension. You’ll burn calories, feel energized, calm food cravings and avoid a metabolic slowdown.
Step No. 3:
Practice profound relaxation. Find a quiet place to meditate at least once a day. Just 25 minutes of easy mindfulness is all it takes to tame tension, says a new report from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University. Sit comfortably or lie down; close your eyes and gently breathe in and out. Focus on your inhalations and exhalations. When your mind wanders (it does for everyone), refocus on your breath. Start by practicing this technique for three days in a row. In the study, that was enough to keep levels of cortisol lower even when you encounter stressors later.
Step No. 4:
Go for a stress- and waist-reducing diet. Instead of reaching for a food felon (any sugary, fatty food) when you feel tense, pull out fresh veggies — just like Dr. Mike does. Chop them into medium-size, equal pieces, toss with a little olive oil mixed with seasonings (we recommend garlic, oregano and rosemary, but any spices you love would work). Spread on a lightly oiled cookie sheet or in a roasting pan; then roast in a 275-degree oven for 45 minutes. Flip the veggies over halfway through cooking. Dr. Mike’s favorite: Fresh asparagus. Great idea: Exercise, meditate or both while your favorite veggies are cooking.
Step No. 5:
Tackle your NUTs — that’s Nagging Unfinished Tasks! Don’t underestimate how NUTS they can make you. A month’s worth of unfiled paperwork; the lawn that’s gone to weeds; the thank-you notes unwritten — as they pile up, chronic stress rises and rises. Do what we do: After steps 1 through 4, make a personal list of what’s driving you NUTS. Tackle them one at a time. You’ll feel serene instead of stressed.
Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. Consult with your physician before making changes to your personal regimen. To live your healthiest, tune into “The Dr. Oz Show” or visit sharecare.com.