If you’ve ever tried to find the reason behind why you can’t seem to lose those stubborn pounds, you’ve likely discovered information that indicates stress can impact weight. Occasional anger and stress differ from chronically heightened emotions, as do the physiological reactions that result. Apart from how our body reacts to anger and stress, the methods by which we cope with the emotions can also greatly affect what occurs within our bodies.
Without a doubt, anger impacts the body, as we shared in our post earlier this week. It can be used as a positive force, when channeled in a healthy manner. But, it can also have seriously detrimental effects on your health ranging from an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, anxiety, depression, and more. When considering how anger impacts weight, it is first important to differentiate between how frequently anger is experienced and how that impacts weight changes.
Occasional anger (also referred to as incidental anger) refers to anger that is short-lived and situational. Managing this type of anger is something we all do on a daily basis and have likely learned how to cope with occasional anger, even without us realizing. Some people may work through these short bouts of anger (or annoyance, frustration, etc., as anger is a wide spectrum of emotions) by exercising, deep breathing, venting to a trusted friend, listening to music, or other approaches.
Chronic anger is the type that can be harmful to your overall health, relationships, and general state of being. This type of anger can also lead to changes in weight, both weight gain and weight loss, due to mechanisms in how the body reacts, as well as learned coping mechanisms. This type of anger can lead to weight changes as it is more frequent, and if coping mechanisms that are used are tied to food (we’ll get to that in a bit. . .), then it is a path that can easily impact weight.
Stress eating is a learned behavior
“It is a part of evolution. When a baby cries the mother mostly feeds as a way to offer comfort, even if the baby isn’t hungry. This gets engraved in our brains in such a manner that we take to eating as a coping mechanism, when we are angry, sad, or anxious”, says Dr Sonal Anand, psychiatrist at Wockhardt Hospital, Mumbai.
She adds: “Anger is an impulse control issue and so is eating. They work on the same brain path and that’s why when we get angry the only solve we see is food which ultimately leads to weight gain.”
Stress eating is something that people commonly do when they are emotionally vulnerable. It is no wonder that people crave (and cave into eating) pastries, junk food, or vending machine food while stressed at work. Or dive into that extra Halloween candy that’s hidden away at home when they’re tired and stressed after a long day. Stress eating is something that can be unlearned and redirected (try these 10 tips) to not only manage weight more effectively, but to also address the root of the problem.
But it’s also about how our bodies react to stress (anger)
It isn’t just learned behaviors, or how our loved ones helped soothe us in our childhoods that impacts weight changes when experiencing anger or other emotions. It is also a physiological sequence of events, tied to how our bodies needed to react in the days of frequent encounters that threatened our safety and survival. New studies also highlight that chronic stress may also increase the rate at which new fat cells are formed.
It’s partially a survival mechanism
When you are angry or stressed, you are struck by food cravings because your hormones, like cortisol, surge as a result of the heightened emotions. Anger causes us to feel drained because our hormones and body are working overtime to help cope with the emotions and potential threat to our physical well being (as is how the fight or flight mechanism works). Cortisol has been found to increase appetite- cue the hankering for pastries, chocolate, sweet drinks, and other treats as the body yearns for foods that can help provide it energy quickly- high fat and high sugar foods. This can ultimately lead to weight gain, since for the most part, the stress and anger that is experienced isn’t of the variety that requires a high expenditure of energy- like running from a predator.
Even if you don’t end up reaching for foods that are high in fat and sugar, cortisol also slows down your metabolism, making it difficult to lose weight. Other factors that ultimately impact weight gain and can be a direct result of feeling anger include skipping exercising due to the mental impact of chronic anger or stress as well as sleeping poorly, which has been shown to negatively impact weight (read more, here).
On the flip side, some people don’t feel like eating anything at all, when they get angry. This is a direct result of the adrenaline that your body releases in preparation for whatever conflict may come next. The way that adrenaline suppresses your appetite may seem like it would result in weight loss, but it can also result in weight gain. Not eating sends signals to your body to store energy in the event that it won’t be getting nourished in the foreseeable future. The body then stores visceral fat (fat stored deep inside the belly, wrapped around the organs) which often results in people having the “apple” body shape.
But it’s also about the timing of the stress
Researchers from Stanford found that the adrenal gland produces a hormone called glucocorticoids when the body is under stress. During the study, when the hormone was kept at a constantly high level, fat cells were developed more quickly. Interestingly though, if the levels of stress fluctuated, rose and fell over time, fat cells were not created. If there were high stress levels, but for a brief period of time, fat cells were also not increased. Most importantly demonstrated in the study, was that when the glucocorticoid hormone was kept at a high stress level for a 24-hour period, fat cells doubled. This again points to why chronic stress and anger may result in weight gain- it’s not just the increased levels of cortisol that increase appetite, but also how other hormones impact the body.
Another prong of the study demonstrated that the body’s circadian rhythm may also play a significant role in when fat cells are created, along with whether the glucorticoid levels stayed at a high level for a long period of time. This reinforces previous findings that when people eat plays an important role, just as what is eaten.
How can the circadian rhythm so heavily influence how food is processed? It’s largely due to fluctuations in body temperature, biochemical reactions, hormone levels, physical activity and absorption and digestion of food. As with so many other instances in our lives, timing is everything; eating at the wrong time can throw off the body’s metabolic cycles, leading to weight gain and higher levels of blood sugar, which can raise the risk of chronic disease.
Anger is a normal and important emotion that all humans experience. It is essential to acknowledge and work towards understanding the reasons behind the emotions, as well as to develop productive coping methods to better support our physical and mental health. On Monday, we’ll share tips for working through moments of anger, no matter how big or small.