By Erin Palinski-Wade

Stress affects everyone in different ways. When you are under stress, your mind, body, and behavior are all impacted. A small amount of stress can actually be beneficial. Stress can make you more alert, make you more productive, and even boost your energy level — but only in small amounts.

At a certain point, stress stops becoming helpful and starts to become harmful. In fact, stress can creep up on you over time until it can start to feel almost normal; however, it can still be damaging to your health. You may not notice how much it’s affecting you until it starts to take a toll on your health.

Everyone is different in terms of the amount of stress they can handle. One person may find a certain situation very stressful whereas another person may thrive in the same environment. What’s important is that you recognize the signs and symptoms of stress overload in your own self, so you can identify when you are under too much stress and when it’s time to take control of it.

When you are under too much stress, you may start to notice changes in your mood, behavior, and even your health. For instance, you may find yourself

  • Eating more or less than normal

  • Feeling anxious or irritable

  • Sleeping too much or too little

  • Feeling overwhelmed

  • Displaying physical symptoms like gastrointestinal upset or muscle aches

The body doesn’t distinguish between physical and psychological threats. So when you are under emotional stress, such as meeting a work deadline, your body responds in the same way it would to a physical stress, such as running away from a predator. When your body faces a stressful situation, it releases stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.

If you find yourself under chronic stress day after day, long‐term exposure to these stress hormones being elevated in the body can lead to serious health problems such as elevated blood pressure, increased belly fat, and even heart disease and diabetes.

You may feel like the stress in your life is beyond your control, but you can always control the way you respond to it. By implementing stress‐busting behaviors into your daily routine, you can take control of your stress levels before they take control of you.

Walking to reduce stress levels

Exercise is one of the best physical stress‐reduction techniques. In almost no time at all, regular exercise can help to reduce stress hormones, lower heart rate, and have you feeling relaxed and energized.

Walking is one of the best exercises for stress reduction because it can be done at any intensity level and, being low impact, provides little physical stress to the body. By walking you can

  • Improve blood flow to your brain, bringing additional sugars and oxygen that may be needed when you are concentrating intensely.

  • Reduce mental stress brought on by intense concentration. During periods of high‐intensity focus, the neurons of your brain function more intensely and build up toxic waste products that can cause a sense of “foggy thinking.” By walking, you can speed the flow of blood through your brain, moving these waste products faster and allowing you to clear your mind.

  • Release endorphins into your bloodstream, giving you a feeling of happiness and positively affecting your overall sense of well‐being.

The benefits of walking are long‐lived as well. Research has found that walking can reduce anxiety for a full day thanks to the boost of serotonin and dopamine it provides. Walking has also been shown to ease muscle tension and provide a break from mental stressors, allowing it to have a relaxing effect on both your mind and your body.

Reducing stress to improve body weight and composition

If you’ve been under a large amount of stress for a period of time, you may have noticed that your body weight has stayed about the same while your waistline has increased. Why has this happened?

Emotional and physical stressors on your body can lead to the release of stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. These stress hormones then mobilize fatty acid stores from all areas of your body such as your thighs and arms. If these fatty acids are not used by your body (and when you are under emotional stress, your energy needs do not increase, leaving the majority unused) they get redeposited.

And where do the majority of these fat stores go? They go right to your midsection! This widens your waistline while increasing dangerous belly fat and increasing your risk of disease.

As you can see, high stress levels can start to impact body composition and increase the amount of belly fat you carry. In addition, stress can often impact eating habits, resulting in further weight gain as well.

High stress levels may increase food cravings for sweets or salty foods. Sometimes stress can increase the desire to eat for reasons other than hunger, such as grabbing a bag of chips to unwind after a long day or sitting down with ice cream to boost your mood after a fight with a friend. When you eat for reasons other than hunger, you typically consume too much of the wrong types of foods. This increase in calories then leads to an increase in body weight.

However, incorporating behaviors into your day that can help to decrease stress, such as walking, can fight against stress‐related weight gain.