Stress Relief: an Essential First Step in Successful Weight-Loss

Stress Relief: an Essential First Step in Successful Weight-Loss

Confession: I have struggled with my weight for most of my adult life. But it wasn’t until I understood the role that stress was playing in that dynamic that I began to see any real change in my relationship with my body—weight-wise or body-image-wise. Nevertheless, my battle with being overweight, with believing that my body was never quite good enough, has been a rather persistent companion for many, many years.

Our Stress Levels Have to Be Part of the Conversation

Sure, we all have different constitutions and imbalances influencing our physiological tendencies, including how easily our bodies gain or lose weight. And yes, diet and exercise play an important role in achieving a healthy body weight. But I have long felt that there were more subtle forces at play in my own struggle with excess weight, and I suspected that the same was true for others. Thankfully, Ayurveda helped me to understand some of these subtleties, and informed my perspective on why some bodies seem to more readily hold onto excess weight than others. In one word, the reason is stress. And when an individual eats a relatively healthy diet, is active, and still can’t seem to shed the extra pounds, I get very curious about the possible involvement of stress.

Chronic Stress Inhibits Weight-Loss

What I know to be true is this. Stress compromises our mental and spiritual well-being, making it far more difficult to make healthy choices throughout each day. But stress also impacts our metabolic processes in very real and detrimental ways. While short-term stress generally causes weight-loss, chronic stress so thoroughly taxes the endocrine and digestive systems that our metabolic capacity loses all sense of normalcy. Among the endocrine organs commonly affected are the adrenal glands, the thyroid, and the pancreas—all of which play a critical role in healthy metabolic functioning. The organ(s) that suffer first are usually determined by family history and individual khavaigunyas (weaknesses lying latent in one’s system). But the end result tends to be the same for all of us: the metabolic fire becomes severely debilitated. When this occurs, the same choices that so often yield successful weight-loss results for others lose their efficacy, and the weight becomes a more stubborn burden.

 

Is There Hidden Intelligence in the Excess Weight?

Excess weight can be a profoundly grounding force in one’s life, as can the simple intake of food (albeit many of us make miserable dietary choices when under stress). In Ayurveda, it is said that like increases like, and that opposites balance. Think about the high-pressure lifestyle that typically accompanies chronic stress. It ushers us into a world that is fast-paced, on the move, and that is inherently activating and depleting. From an Ayurvedic perspective, slow, nourishing, and stabilizing influences are the ideal antidote to these energies. So consider this: holding on to excess weight is sometimes the body’s confused attempt at soothing and grounding an over-burdened, over-stimulated, hyper-vigilant system—in essence, a self-corrective effort to foster some semblance of balance. While this is not the enlightened bodily intelligence that leads to optimal health, it is an understandable physiological response to a non-stop, hectic, and stressful life—especially one that seems unlikely to change.

A More Personal Illustration

Stress has long been an influential aspect of my physiology, but I was made acutely aware of its chronic presence six years ago, when my husband and I welcomed our son into the world. I was half-way through my training as an Ayurvedic Practitioner, and becoming a mother was incredibly disorienting to my sense of identity. Perhaps even more significantly, I’m an empath, so while I truly enjoy meaningful connections with others, I require a LOT of alone-time to reset and rejuvenate. Quiet time to one’s self—the kind that I desperately need in order to maintain any level of sanity and grace—is not a key selling point of early motherhood.

Needless to say, despite my profound love for him, my system did not adjust well to the idea of being at my son’s beck and call twenty-four/seven—for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, I am a natural nurturer, so in many ways, I took my new charge to the extreme. I approached motherhood with an over-the-top commitment to wholesome, top-quality, um… everything. I observed a very strict Ayurvedic post-partum protocol. I breast-fed on demand for over four years. I made the vast majority of my son’s food from scratch. I could go on, but you get the idea; I was driven by a fierce commitment to doing everything “the right way,” whatever that means.

Looking back, the expectations I had of myself and of those around me were unrealistic at best, and in many ways, a bit insane. I had heard so many other moms (who had experienced the power of redirecting bodily resources to their infants through breast-feeding) delight in how easily their pregnancy weight disappeared. But as one might imagine, I was hopelessly stressed-out. So is it any surprise that the excess weight didn’t melt off of me that way? Not at all. Still, there I was, hoping that my little breast-feeding champ would miraculously rid me, not only of the weight I had gained during my pregnancy, but also of the extra fifteen pounds I’d been carrying around for years! What I learned was that I would first have to renegotiate my high-strung approach to life, and let go of my attachment to being the “perfect” mother-spouse-yogi-meditator-professional. And yes. My relationship with mindfulness practices had to change, too.

 

Real Solutions for Chronic Stress

Ayurveda offers a very refreshing, holistic perspective on weight-loss, and it’s certainly worth familiarizing yourself with the resources outlining this approach. But here’s my condensed list of priorities for those of you who believe stress may be a significant hindrance in your efforts to lose weight. Get these things in place first; then craft the nuts and bolts of your weight-loss strategy.

Focus on establishing a daily routine. It’s one of the surest ways to help your nervous system relax. Consider:

  • Going to bed early, before 10pm.
  • Prioritizing adequate sleep. (If you suffer sleepless nights, that needs to be addressed. See An Ayurvedic Guide to Balanced Sleep).
  • Waking early in the morning, before 6 a.m.
  • Practicing Abhyanga with a kapha-pacifying oil.
  • Taking quiet time for yourself first thing each morning.
  • Eating your meals at consistent times.

Make a firm commitment to fifteen minutes of mindfulness practice every day. Whether you choose yoga, pranayama, meditation, or all three, stick with it for three weeks and take note of your overall sense of well-being both before and after this addition. Consider:

  • Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing), a powerhouse practice for calming the nervous system and rejuvenating the endocrine glands.
  • So Hum Meditation.
  • Prayer. In other words, ask for support from the divine. This is a powerful way to reinforce your intention to organize your existence around what you find nourishing and life-affirming rather than that which is inherently depleting or stressful.
  • Yoga.

A Word of Encouragement

Acknowledging the role of stress in my own struggle with excess weight has undoubtedly improved my capacity for self-love and enhanced my level of compassion towards myself and my journey. I now know that this is bigger than diet and exercise; it’s about re-patterning my nervous system, creating more spaciousness and ease in my days. As a working mom who still approaches parenting with a healthy dose of idealism, I embrace whatever mindfulness practices I can successfully carve out for myself. I also have to make sure that I’m not approaching those rare and beautiful moments of practice with the same ambitious sense of striving that landed me in such a stressed-out place to begin with. If I’m not enjoying my practice, then I know it’s not serving me as deeply as it could.

All of that said, I can truthfully say that I love myself more—body, mind, and spirit—every day. And the daily practices that I have embraced (like yoga, meditation, and pranayama) have changed my life. They have made me a more authentic, accepting, and loving human being. It should also be said that my entire awakening around the relationship between stress and excess weight has, in no small measure, contributed to my slow but sure movement toward my ideal weight. From the bottom of my heart, I wish you all the success in your pursuit of self-love, joy, and embodied health. If stress is a factor in your struggle with excess weight, I suggest that you start with something small—something you can commit to—but make it something that truly nourishes your spirit and feeds your soul. That’s as good a place to start as any, and don’t be surprised if a cascade of miracles follows.