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We all know that anxiety is a major cause of unwanted eating, but you may not realize exactly what happens when you’re chronically anxious and the type of damage it can do to you. Learning to manage anxiety better will go a long way toward improving your health in general and your food abuse in particular.
The hormone cortisol plays a critical role in the stress response—and anxiety is certainly a stressor to both mind and body. When you perceive stress, cortisol rushes in and floods the body to give it energy (a part of the fight or flight response). It also plays a part in suppressing the body’s immune response to infection, reducing inflammation. When cortisone levels remain high due to ongoing stress, the body’s sensitivity to it lessens. Unfortunately, chronic or constant triggering of cortisol leads to more inflammation, which can then produce more disease.
In a Harvard School of Public Health Study, researcher Julia Boehm found that “people with a better sense of well-being tend to have healthier blood pressure, cholesterol and weight, are more likely to exercise, eat better, get enough sleep and avoid smoking.” (“Outlook might aid heart health” by Lauren Neergaard, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 4/14/12). More research is needed, the article says, to determine whether being a more relaxed person leads to better self-care or engaging in actions to improve health generates a brighter attitude.
Although people are born with some genetic propensity to be more relaxed or uptight via their brain chemistry, each and every one of you can learn to feel more relaxed and have a more positive outlook. Here are steps to take in that direction. Exercise when you’re in a bad mood or anxious and your endorphins will kick in to improve your spirits. Practice mindfulness and meditation to slow your heart rate, get control of your thinking, and change your brain patterns. Use cognitive-restructuring to examine and reframe irrational (often anxiety-producing) beliefs to make them rational. When you’re anxious, find an activity you enjoy and throw yourself into it. Soothe yourself with kind words.
Anxiety is both a biological and learned response. If your parents were highly anxious, you may have mistakenly learned to respond to life with anxiety. It takes time and effort to change your outlook, but you’ll feel better mentally and physically and you’ll reduce unwanted eating. You can’t beat that trifecta.
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