When I was 22 years old, my father lost his battle with cancer. I had just graduated college and had no plan for my immediate future, other than paying my rent and hanging out with friends.
After he died, I was spiraling. The stress of my grief and lack of a plan for my life took a major toll on my health. Even though I thought I was eating regularly ― a slice of pizza here, a bowl of Easy Mac there ― it turned out that I was barely consuming any food. I was so completely overwhelmed that I dropped weight in a matter of weeks.
People deal with stress in a multitude of ways (some of them healthy, some of them not so much). It’s important to monitor your response to anxiety, grief or any other negative emotion in order to keep your health in check, according to experts.
Below are a few stress-related behaviors and effects that could lead to unhealthy weight loss:
You’re skipping meals.
Stress can cause you to prioritize other tasks above eating regular meals, according to Kathryn Moore, a psychologist at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in California. Instead of sitting down to eat breakfast, you may be tempted to jump right into your work for the day or accomplish tasks on your to-do list ― a habit that can cause more harm than good.
“Any time you skip meals, you are reducing calories in a day, which leads to weight loss,” Moore said. In order to combat this, Moore recommended carrying high-protein snacks like nuts so that you have food readily accessible. You should also make it a point to nourish yourself with full meals, multiple times per day.
Feeling queasy can be another symptom of high stress levels. “Stress causes nausea because it activates certain neurotransmitters and hormones that can affect the digestive system,” said Vingh Nguyen, a family medicine physician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in California. Nausea is a part of the body’s alert system, letting you know when something is wrong.
To treat the nausea, experts recommend a cup of ginger tea or sucking on a ginger candy. Moore also recommended proactively addressing the root cause of the nausea ― stress ― through calming activities. (Here are a few suggestions if you’re searching for some.)
“Actively finding ways to reduce your stress will help alleviate physical symptoms,” she said.
Research shows stress can cause fatigue ― at any point in the day ― and if you’re not careful, that can mess with your daily schedule and eating habits.
Experts recommend you make an effort to eat dinner at least a few hours before bed so that your body has time to digest your meal. If preparing food feels too overwhelming during this stressful time, consider purchasing pre-made, healthy meals at your grocery store. Many stores offer freshly prepared options in a wide variety of choices that require little to no additional work for you.
On the whole, exercise is a positive way to cope with negative emotions. Running, cycling and other sweaty activities release endorphins, which gives you a mood boost, according to research. But when physical activity is taken to an extreme, more calories are burned off, and it’s important to replace them properly.
Be aware and balance any exercise with proper hydration and nutrition. Additionally, alternate high-impact exercise with less rigorous routines like yoga.
“Yoga can help when we are experiencing stress,” Nguyen said. “Most forms of yoga consist of deep breathing and mindfulness, both of which can reduce stress levels.”
Finally, if you’re losing weight because of your stress, check in with a physician. A doctor can help you create a plan for managing weight and anxiety. Your physical and mental health are inextricably linked ― and it’s crucial that you take care of both.