I want to talk about something that is something I’m just learning about, but under the circumstances wish I had known about years ago. It’s about the effects of stress on your body. Not just the emotional, but the physical.
In one of our first counseling sessions our counselor mentioned weight gain as a side effect of stress. Some people lose a lot weight under excessive stress, and others gain. I think I knew this, but I had never thought about it in depth. At my first session on my own my counselor wanted to specifically talk about weight gain and our stressors that we’ve been living with. I didn’t know this, but under major stress your body produces extra cortisol, which sends your body into protection mode. It’s like a fight or flight mentality, but on a physical level. With prolonged stress the high levels of cortisol can literally send your body into survival mode. As in, it intentionally will stop burning fat and metabolizing things like it normally would in an effort to protect itself.
In our particular situation we have not had small stress events over a prolonged period of time, we have had major stressors, traumatic stressors, co-existing over a period of years. Things have literally flowed into one another. For me, I think this has gone on longer than for Chris simply because he already had some years on the ground before I arrived. When I got to Haiti it was all the initial adjustments of picking up my life and moving to another culture and everything that comes with that. Then we got married, which in itself was a wonderful thing, but again it was major life change and adjusting to what is a new normal for us. In there was a grieving process for me of losing my independence (because everything in Haiti was so new and different and not normal) and shifting from being just me to being an us. We sailed along fairly well for about a year or so, but then became parents. Then had a miscarriage. And in there had a non-stop period of about 4 months of visitors with no more than 5 days in between. Then a major fire at the mission. Then the van arson and for months and still months after that the community and legal issues. And in the midst of all of that, dealing with the adoption process in Haiti that has left us jaded because of the corruption and political issues. And then the earthquake. Did you know that only one of those things is enough to trigger Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?? Our counselor just keeps telling us that she’s so happy that we came in…
Having someone else basically say, “Do you see what you’ve been going through? It’s normal for your body to have some sort of response.” I had never considered that gaining weight was anything other than my own fault. And for years as I’ve seen my weight creep up I’ve been blaming myself. So on top of major, major stress I’ve been carrying a lot of guilt and shame. And maybe it was unnecessary. But no one ever told me.
The counselor has connected me with a doctor who has been given our background. The plan is that I’m going to go in to see her and she’ll give me a good check up and most of all, test my blood sugar levels to see if my body has in fact gone into survival mode. I am really excited about this because it feels like, for the first time maybe ever, I have some hope in this department.
I’m sharing this with you because I wish I had known about this years ago. I think about the fact that I could have been living a healthier life if I had just known this connection. I’m sharing it because I think it’s so important. Especially for women. Women tend to be more emotional and carry things more on an emotional level. The impacts of stress on a woman’s body can be extreme. And I think we know this to some level, but I’m guessing the majority of women cope with it by telling themselves that they just need some “me time” or they need to become more organized or they need to get more exercise and eat better. Don’t get me wrong, all of those things are good. But when your body has gone into that place of telling itself it just needs to survive those things will only take the edge off.
I want to encourage you, if this is triggering anything for you, to first take some time to really think back to when you started to gain weight. Think about the things going on in your life at that time. Was it a time of major stress? How did your eating habits change? Did you know that when your body starts to release more cortisol it causes your body to crave carbs and sugars, because they’re comforting. And those things are the hardest to burn off. Crazy huh? Think through things and if you see a connection between stress and weight gain, do some reading on cortisol and it’s affects on the body. If you see similarities, I would strongly encourage you to see your doctor. Be honest. Talk to them about the stressors in your life, talk to them about the changes in weight, sleep patterns, eating habits. Ask to have your blood sugar tested. And if they aren’t receptive to it, find another doctor. I think most doctors want to encourage people to live healthier lives, and this is a step in that direction.
Like I said, I wish someone had told me.