Stress Awareness Month has been held every April since 1992. During this time, health care professionals and health promotion experts across the country join forces to increase public awareness on how to reduce stress.

This month is especially important this year, as new and higher stress levels due to COVID-19 have led to an increase in eating disorder behaviors around the nation. The National Eating Disorder Association noted a 70-80% increase in calls to their hotline during this time. The pandemic added stress to our lives, which affects not only our mental health, but physical health and emotional well-being. Everyday routine stress, stress brought on by life changes (including those caused by a global pandemic) and even traumatic stress affect each of us in different capacities and different severities.

What Are Common Life Stressors?

Some of the most common stressors include:

  • Stress in the workplace or at school
  • Stress related to relationships or family members
  • Financial stress
  • The stress of a move or job change
  • Stress due to lack of sleep
  • Stress over a life transition such as having a new baby, a divorce or a death

All of these stressors can throw us off course in life, and while some of these stressors are unavoidable, many are not. While we cannot avoid stress in our lives, we can control how we cope with stress. This can help us live healthier lives.

Stress, the Body and Eating Disorders

When we are experiencing emotional turmoil, our cortisol levels increase, which puts our bodies under stress. High levels of cortisol enable us to work under pressure for a short amount of time but over time our bodies become depleted of energy and our immune systems become weakened. If the stress response goes on for too long or becomes chronic, such as when the source of stress is constant, or if the response continues after the danger has subsided, those same life-saving responses in your body can react to suppress immune functions, digestion, sleep cycles and reproductive systems, which may cause them to stop working normally.

Stress affects us in many ways including the following:

Physical symptoms — Mental and emotional stress can lead to physical symptoms like headaches, muscle aches and gastrointestinal symptoms. It can also make one more likely to suffer from eating disorder behaviors like bingeing and purging.

Immune system — With physical exhaustion being closely linked to mental exhaustion, when individuals experience burn out, they will often be tired and more susceptible to getting sick. Further, when we neglect our bodies by not getting adequate nutrition, engaging in negative social interactions or not acquiring adequate sleep on a nightly basis, health problems can occur.

Eating disorders — Many experienced the physical effects of stress firsthand during the 2020 pandemic. 62% of people in the United States with anorexia saw their eating disorder symptoms worsen due to levels of high stress. Further, almost one in three Americans living with binge eating disorder saw a worsening of symptoms during this period of time.

Stress, the Brain and Mental Health

The brain is a muscle in the sense that it requires energy in the form of food and rest in the form of sleep. Our brain, although not technically a muscle, can also be overworked.

Individuals who are under chronic mental or emotional stress are more likely to experience a number of physical ailments and mental health symptoms, including anxiety and depression. Plus, high levels of anxiety are strongly linked with an increased risk for eating disorders. For those diagnosed with both anxiety and an eating disorder, symptoms are usually more severe, and recovery is often more difficult.

How to Reduce Stress: 10 Tips

Stress is a part of life. What matters most is how you handle it. The best thing you can do to prevent stress overload and the health consequences that come with it is to know your stress symptoms and learn how to avoid and manage them in a healthy way.

Here are 10 healthy ways to manage stress:

  1. Set realistic goals and keep track of them.
  2. Find a way to incorporate any type of movement into your day and keep it as stress-free as possible.
  3. Practice mindful eating, using all of your senses at each meal.
  4. Aim to sleep eight hours a night.
  5. Engage in healthy, positive relationships that don’t drain you.
  6. Engage in an activity that makes you happy/find a hobby.
  7. Stay connected with people and try not to isolate.
  8. Learn your stress triggers and write them down.
  9. Avoid negative people and situations and avoid “toxic” people.
  10. Get comfortable spending time alone to help you “reset.”

One of the best tips we can share is that you set priorities. Think about what you value most in life and what is most important and prioritize those areas. The rest can wait.

Another strategy to reduce stress is to learn how to let go of perfectionism. Perfectionism and eating disorders often go hand in hand. Let go of the need to do everything perfectly, to look perfect and to be perfect.

Get Help for Chronic Stress and Eating Disorders

Life under chronically high stress levels is brutal and takes a toll on the mind and body. However, there are periods of life when chronic stress is unavoidable. If you’ve become overwhelmed by high stress levels and would like to learn how to reduce stress, we can help at Center for Discovery. Every day, we help individuals find new ways to cope and to thrive with a variety of treatment options for all people.

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Sources:

  1. NPR Interview with Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/09/08/908994616/eating-disorders-thrive-in-anxious-times-and-pose-a-lethal-threat
  2. International Journal of Eating Disorders, July 2020: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/eat.23353