I've always been interested in stress. It is one of the biggest killers in developed countries. So I thought today I might explore with you what is stress, what it does in the adult body, how it effects your weight, and also what stress looks like in children - particularly when it comes to mealtimes.
A stress response is something we hold in common with nearly every living thing on the planet. It is an adaptive survival mechanism.
If a zebra is being chased by a lion, it will activate its stress response. This will divert blood to its muscles, particularly its big leg muscles, as well as its heart and lungs. When you are trying to escape death – every second counts. You need to get out quick.
Unlike other living things however, us humans are quite unique with our stress response. In that we don't just get stressed when something happens, we get stressed at the thought of it happening.
We get stressed thinking about a deadline at work, organising our kid’s birthday party, what to cook for dinner that night, an imaginary argument with our partner, or the traffic we are going to sit in for a stupid dental appointment we scheduled at a ridiculous time to fit between school and soccer practice.
Admit it, you were stressed just reading that sentence.
We also get a stress response when we think about a nasty comment, or a past experience which was upsetting.
We spend a large portion of our day running from lions.
If we continually use this acute response over a long period of time, this becomes chronic stress, and it has negative effects on our body.
Well when we pump blood to our big muscles, heart and lungs we are doing two things;
1. We are needing to redirect it from other areas. So we shut down 'non essential processes' such as growth and repair, reproduction, and digestion.
After-all, what is the point of being able to get pregnant if you’re about to be eaten by a lion? Similarly does it really matter if your meal is being digested and stored if you won’t live long enough to use those stores?
2. It also puts pressure on the organs and vessels it is pumping blood to and through.
Our blood pressure increases to increase blood pumped to places it is needed. If we have chronic long term stress this means we have sustained increase in the blood being diverted to these organs. To do this our blood vessels need to be stronger, so they build more muscle around them. This ironically makes them more rigid, which means more force is needed to pump the blood through.
This just becomes an increasingly more negative cycle.
If we add a high animal-fat diet onto this – then you get more plaque sticking to those vessels, narrowing them further, causing more damage and blocking blood flow.
Typically if we are in acute stress our blood vessels expand to let increased blood flow through. However as they start getting damaged a crazy thing happens.
With acute stress they actually constrict, causing a decrease in blood flow.
In extreme cases the heart stops getting the oxygen it needs, causing blood cells to die, and the heart to stop beating.
So really, we all need to stress less.
Does stress really affect our waistline?
Our food is stored with the help of insulin. When we are stressed we shut down insulin production, as our brain signals to stop storing so that we can have the extra fuel to ‘fight or flee’.
High levels of circulating fat and sugar, not stored due to the drop in insulin, is not a good thing. This has to go somewhere. So it tends to throw our blood sugar all over the place, wreak havoc with our organs, and sit in our arteries causing blockages.
Not only are we not digesting our meal properly, but 2/3rds of us will overeat when we are stressed.
This is for three reasons;
First fight or flight turns off most non-essential body processes including our self-discipline.
Second, when there is no fight or nothing to flee from we have all this additional energy and anxiety circulating from the stress. Our brain does not understand this lack of real threat and so we can eat to fill our ‘anxiety gap’.
The third reason is that post stress our body secretes a hormone to make us hungry. The purpose of this is to restock the energy lost in battle. Problem is, there was no battle, and also if you are constantly having moments of stress and come down throughout your day – there is a lot of hunger signals being sent.
What are some ways for adults to overcome this response to help their waistline?
Meditation and deep breathing is actually very effective. I know it can sound a bit hippy. But many studies have found that practising meditation does reduce stress.
A really simple, non threatening way of doing it is to have key times where you use it.
One might be before a meal. Just spend 3 - 5 minutes doing a pre-meal breathing sequence or quiet meditation. You could also use this if you need to distract yourself from snacking.
Another time to use it is before bed. Again, another 5 minute calm down and sleep ritual will help your brain quieten down and sleep. I will touch on the importance of sleep for a healthy weight another time.
You can get free meditations on youtube. There are also plenty of apps - I use Aware (no affiliation).
How does stress affect a child eating?
As adults we have usually learnt how to use stimuli to our benefit. We pick the songs which make us more upbeat or calm us down, we know the temperature of shower we like, the noise and lighting levels we are comfortable with, or the types of clothes which help us feel relaxed.
Children do not always have this insight, nor do they have the ability to control their surroundings enough to avoid negative stimuli.
How do you feel when someone runs their nails down a chalkboard? Is there another sound that makes you shudder like that? For me, I cannot stand the TV on in the background. Or the advertisements playing – I have to put it on mute. I am sensitive to auditory stimuli.
I’m also sensitive to tactile stimuli. I’m very particular about the material my clothes are made from, there are certain foods which make me want to gag, and I’m not a huge hugger – I’d rather a nice pep talk any day.
My niece, on the other hand, is not overly sensitive to tactile experiences. She seems to crave them in high doses.
She loves being hugged and held, she is very jumpy, constantly needing to move and very rarely sitting still for any length of time, even to finish her meal. For her, being still and not connected to anything in space is unnerving, it is stressful, it produces an anxiety response.
How does this relate to kids’ eating?
You need to identify your children’s sensory stimuli. If you do this, you will know their stress triggers.
If a child is stressed their body behaves much the same way as ours. It diverts blood away from their digestive system. This instantly stops them from being hungry. Their brain then looks for an escape route. So they cause trouble or they storm off. These are their coping responses for an uncomfortable stimuli.
Once they have calmed down, they will get their hunger back…and all too frequently, as we’ve reached the point of desperation by now, we give them a nutrient poor snack so that they have ‘something’ in their body.
Tricks to talk children down from a stress response;
- Label the sense (Did that blender make a loud noise that hurt your ears?)
- Identify the associated feeling (You jumped, did it give you a fright?)
- Help the child recover (Would you like a big hug? What is something you are looking forward to at kindy tomorrow?)
- Support them to continue when they’re ready (Let’s look at what we have on our plate)
Remember stress has both short and long term effects on health. It impacts how hungry we feel, how comfortable we are to eat, how well our body digests and stores food, as well as our risk of chronic disease such as diabetes and heart disease.
The earlier we help children manage these responses, the healthier they’ll be as they age. Plus less stress for us at meal times! Double bonus.