When we feel ready to make a change, one approach that many find comforting is to dive headlong into that change. Some undertake a punishing exercise routine and stick to it until they get derailed. Others count calories obsessively with online nutrition trackers. These approaches are comforting in part because they distract us from those aspects of our lives that have gotten us here in the first place, but they can introduce additional stress that is counter to our goals.
Stress is the body’s chemical reaction to threats in its environment. The adrenal glands atop your kidneys, as well as the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland in your brain, work together to time the release of chemicals known as hormones. Hormones change the body’s functions to react to stressors in its environment. Previously, stressors were things like panthers trying to eat us and our families. In present day, our stressors are more subtle: watching the news, worrying about our families and commuting to work all have a more low-key but very real effect on our bodies. Everyday activities like these set off a cascade of hormones when we feel threatened, fearful, or anxious, followed by additional hormones to set us right again as we recover.
Cortisol is one such stress hormone. The effects of cortisol are felt all over the body, but current research shows that cortisol affects insulin levels in the body, drives our urge to eat, and encourages fat storage, especially around the abdomen. This type of ‘visceral fat’ correlates with increased rates of heart disease and death. Family turmoil, work conflict, battling traffic, sleep deprivation, alcohol consumption and caffeine intake all increase cortisol. If your doctor has told you to lose weight and you are thinking about it obsessively, working out without properly recovering, and trying to ignore the other stressors in your life, it might feel like you’re fighting a losing battle—and that’s because you are.
When we pursue health goals by throwing ourselves into them without attending to our mental health and acknowledging the aspects of our lives that call for improvement, it is like swimming against a rip current: the harder we fight, the further we get pulled out to sea, away from the shore that we are trying so earnestly to reach. Letting go just a bit and drifting with the current is necessary to get to where we need to go. If you have found yourself floundering despite hard work, try the following:
1) Give yourself a mental break. Allow a day, a week, a month, or a season without making your goal your primary focus. Train your sites instead on things that engage and enrich you, whatever those are (being in nature, experiencing art, books, music or movies, spending time with people you love, etc.)
2) Examine what is serving you and what is not. We don’t all have the luxury of changing jobs or changing our scenery, but we can at any time choose to change our minds. The media that we consume, the conversations that we have, the alcohol, caffeine, sugar and salt that ingest—all of these things change the lens through which we experience life.
3) Prioritize sleep. If you are not responsible for the care of another person during the night, make 7-8 hours of sleep your priority above all else. If 7-8 hours of sleep is not possible, consider a nap on your day off, and make your waking hours in the night as low stimulus and meditative as possible. Prioritizing your sleep for just 48 hours can have amazing benefits for your body and mind.
Your goals should motivate you, not deplete you. Take a look around and ask how you can be kinder to yourself today. It may be just the push you need to break away from stressors and make that swim to the shore.