Having a positive body image is important to me. I’m not a skinny girl and I’m okay with that. But while I love my curves and am generally pretty confident, there is a health aspect to my weight that I’d like to share. And no, this isn’t about me saying, “fat is bad”. This post is actually about something I haven’t talked about… what happens to my body when I’m full of anxiety and/or shut down.
When I’m super stressed, my stomach hurts badly. It feels like it’s full of acidic razor blades slicing my insides open. Needless to say, it’s difficult to eat when this happens. I always thought that not eating led to a loss of weight, but this isn’t always true .
For years I’ve been accused of overeating when I’m stressed. Mainly because I pile on weight during these times. I even remember a time when I gained forty pounds in just a couple of months and I always blamed the hormone shift I’d gone through, but now I don’t believe that to be true. Because at that time, I was a ball of stress.
I keep track of what I eat. Of how many meals I eat a day. I have to because I’m so busy that I forget to eat sometimes. Then I get cranky and tired and it’s not good for me or anyone around me. And doing this has led me to some interesting understandings about my body and how it works under stress.
There are two things that happen that cause me weight gain when I’m stressed. I’ll talk about the easiest first since I know this is also true for others I’ve spoken with (doctors included).
When I’m struggling to eat, I end up not eating enough calories and my body holds on to every single calorie I do eat. Therefore, not only do I end up not losing weight, but I actually gain! This is hugely problematic. And because most people don’t understand that eating too little can also cause weight gain (because the body thinks it’s starving and holds on to the calories), I often get accused of overeating.
If I did overeat, I’d probably not be so frustrated by it. After all, if I ate a box of girl scout cookies all by myself, gaining weight seems like the obvious result. But I don’t over eat nor have I ever. Mostly, I struggle to get enough calories and my body goes into starvation mode.
The second thing that happens when I’m a ball of stress or full of anxiety is that my digestive tract shuts down. No, I don’t mean completely. It still technically works, but it doesn’t function properly. Essentially, I stop processing my food. In these cases, I can eat full, healthy, balanced meals and I still gain weight!
Again, people have accused me of being a closet eater, hiding my sweets in secret cupboards and drawers. Not only is there no reason to do such a thing, but I have kids. Really, truly… there is NO place to hide sweets when you have kids. They will find five-year-old Halloween candy and eat it.
Plus, if I want a 500 calorie coffee, I drink it. If I want non-dairy ice cream, I eat it. If I want a cookie, I eat it. There is nothing to hide because I only answer to myself when it comes to what goes into my body. Okay, maybe D too. But only if I ask for that. Because I’m an adult and he, as well as everyone else in my life, expects me to be on top of my own health. So there is really no need for me to hide a damn thing.
I share this because I suspect this is why a lot of people with high anxiety end up overweight. Sure it’s easier to lean on junk/comfort foods when you’re stressed. There’s no doubt that can feed into the mix. But this is not always the case and shouldn’t be assumed. The body isn’t so black and white in this way. And just because someone is gaining weight doesn’t mean they’re overeating.
I first began to notice that my GI Tract was shutting down/not processing foods when I’d get in one of two situations. One was when I would get a massage and someone would work on the areas I carry all my tension. The other was when I’d get around D. And how would I know my digestive tract had shut down? It was pretty friggin obvious actually… Because the moment the masseuse would hit my tension spot or the moment I’d feel D, gurgle gurgle, grumble grumble! And I’m not talking quiet stomach noise here. I’m talking super loud and totally humiliating noises!
I know, that probably sounds super weird. I mean, how could being around a person make my digestive tract suddenly start working again? Not only does is seem bizarre, but it’s also embarrassing as fuck. Seriously! While I love myself some healthy humiliation, this is intense. And even just getting on the phone with D will make my stomach gurgle and churn and I can literally feel myself begin to process the food I’ve eaten.
This doesn’t happen because there’s some sort of magic. It’s actually very simple.
D makes me feel safe.
When I feel safe, my anxiety drops and my body begins to function again.
I—obviously—can’t be glued to his hip. That would be silly and not very efficient. I also can’t get massages three times a day just so I can process my food. But knowing all of this helps a great deal.
While being aware is only half the battle, it is helpful. There are cycles that I get caught up in easily. They usually involve some sort of frustration with myself, or guilt for gaining weight (even though I’m happy with who I am!), or over watching my intake, resulting in more stress… The cycle is a wheel, and the more I feel badly about my weight gain, the more I stress. The more I stress, the more my GI Tract stops functioning. It’s a vicious cycle, that’s for sure!
There are things that I can do to help myself out. For one, I can STOP stressing about weight gain. Feeling badly about it only makes things worse. And what’s the point if I like myself anyway?
I can also use my resources. D calms me. So why not call him when I’m stressed?
Not everyone has a fantastic D they can call, but if there is someone that does calm you down, hang out. Talk. Spend time together. Get your stress down.
This isn’t to say we need to rely on others to calm our stress. We have to take action in that as well by getting toxic people and situations out of our lives. If there is a situation driving us to the point of exploding, get out of it. Find a new job. Change your routine. Move. These things aren’t easy and don’t happen overnight, but steps in that direction can help on their own.
And the biggest—yet hardest for me still—is having self-compassion. I need to relax and give myself a break. People that love me have a great deal of compassion for me, therefore, I need to have it for myself too. We all need to have self-compassion.
I hope by sharing this that I might help others. Not all bodies work the same and mine may be vastly different than yours. But if you’re gaining weight and haven’t changed your diet or amount of exercise, best to look at your stress level and see if maybe that is playing a role. It’s taken me my entire life to figure this stuff out and I wish I’d understood the impact that stress and anxiety had on my body sooner.
If you find yourself in a period of weight gain, remember to have self-compassion. Be kind to you. Stressing about your weight will likely make things worse. Instead, work on getting rid of the stress in your life. It’s what I’m doing right now, one day at a time.
*Image by rbayrak.*