6 Ways to Combat Weight Gain After Stressful Life Events

When you have a career, family and friends you care about, an exercise program you adhere to and a home to maintain, a disruption in your routine or surroundings can be, well, stressful.  Whether it is the loss of a job, illness or death of a loved one, a chaotic move or a global pandemic, though, stress is an inevitable part of life. And during those periods, it is hard to concentrate on anything but the immediate crisis, which often means a change in your priorities.

However, like all things in life, time passes. As life returns to a calmer routine and your daily stress level decreases, you feel better and more optimistic. 

That is, until you step on the scale. As you see that number reflected back at you—a much higher number than expected—that stress is suddenly back with a vengeance. You knew you had put on a few pounds, but never expected it to be that many. Not only are you upset thinking about the need to get back on track, but you feel disappointed and angry at yourself. How could you have regained all that weight you had worked so hard to lose? And can you possibly muster the energy needed to get back on track?

You can, and you will! You just need the right mindset and a manageable plan. It also helps to understand why weight gain is so prevalent for many following stressful periods.

Stress More, Weigh More?

When your world turns upside down, so does your routine. The healthy habits you have established—exercising, grocery shopping, cooking meals, getting sufficient sleep—fall by the wayside. When life is spiraling out of control, it's normal to reach for comfort foods. Whether it's ice cream, macaroni and cheese, or a daily glass of wine or two to calm you down, all the extra calories add up.

Dealing with stressful situations often eats away precious hours that would normally be reserved for exercise or healthy eating. Thus, whatever is convenient is what works. Perhaps you turned to frozen dinners, take-out or pizza delivery—anything more manageable and faster than going to the market, preparing and cooking nutritious meals.

Stress also impacts our sleep. Burning the candle at both ends, you may clock fewer hours of shut-eye. When you do get to bed, worries keep you awake. Exhaustion saps the energy you need to go to the gym, even if you could find the time. 

Chronic sleep deprivation leads to an increase in ghrelin, the hormone that tells us when we are hungry, and a decrease in leptin, which spikes when satisfied. If that is not enough to make weight gain inevitable, on-going stress causes a spike in cortisol. Studies show high levels of blood cortisol are associated with obesity.

Don't let this discourage you. Heightened awareness is the first step towards change. Then, action.

Regain Control After the Storm Passes

1. Adopt an attitude of self-compassion. Stop beating yourself up! You are only human, doing the best you could under difficult circumstances. Your priorities shifted away from self-care to doing whatever needed to be done to manage the crisis.

2. Reflect on your current motivation for losing the weight you have gained. Objectives for losing weight in the past may not be the same as they are right now. Write down at least a dozen reasons why losing weight is important to you now and how it will benefit your life.

3. Remind yourself you have all the skills you need to lose weight. You've done it before, so you know you have the power to change! Even if you never had a weight problem, think about the daily habits that helped you avoid weight difficulties in the past. As life returns to pre-crisis mode, begin to adopt those old habits once again. 

4. Analyze your old routine. What can you bring back that was working for you beforehand? Start planning it. Put in on your calendar. What needs to shift to meet your new place in life?

5. Try a new approach. If you still feel deflated by the thought, "Here I go again," try a new direction. What can you do differently? Perhaps a new exercise class or activity might ignite excitement. Look up new recipes to keep your taste buds happy. If you've always managed your weight alone, maybe a support group would be helpful this time.

6. Evaluate your personal strengths and put them to use for this challenge. Think about the areas of your life where you are most successful. Are you organized, resourceful, creative or determined? What personal strengths did you utilize to help get through the difficult times? How might those strengths help you with the challenge of weight loss?

Never lose sight of the fact that you get to start over again every single day and begin constructing the future you want, one that has you living in a happy, healthy, comfortable body.