Coping with chronic stress

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There are basically two types of stress: that which is ‘acute’ or momentary, such as we might experience when someone carves us up on the road or we’re running late for a meeting (this often makes us lose our appetite) and there is chronic stress which is when we have to endure a stressful situation over a prolonged period of time. Typical examples of this might be ongoing highly pressured work, long-term relationship problems, loneliness or persistent financial worries.

On this latter point, a recent survey by the British College of Osteopathic Medicine (BCOM) found that more than 77% of participants claimed their stress levels, and that of their partner’s, had increased during the financial downturn, so in this present economic climate we may well see an increase in stress-related disordered eating. Watch this space!

Not only this, but there is now a growing body of evidence to suggest that stress suffered in childhood can have long term associative effects creating stress reactions which may even not be directly related to that memory. For instance, if your father had a volatile temper that scared you as a child, you will likely feel scared as an adult when a boss, a husband, or some other male authority figure gets angry, even when that anger isn’t directed at you. So the stress we feel as children can repeat itself and have a lasting effect on how we think and experience life as adults.

Back in 1998, research known as the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study, verified that our childhood experiences remain inside the body and can affect our lifelong health. Such experiences include: recurrent physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; growing up with an alcoholic or drug user; living in a household where someone was in prison or where someone was chronically depressed, mentally ill, or suicidal and living in a household where the mother was treated violently or where the parents were separated or divorced. The study, which involved over 17,000 people, found that those who had experienced an adverse event as a child were several times more likely to have adverse physical or mental health conditions or disease as an adult. This includes stress, disordered eating and obesity related illnesses.

Very recently the Lord has been showing me just how much of my own disordered eating was rooted in chronic, childhood-related stress. My mother (who had herself suffered a dysfunctional childhood) suffered from an undiagnosed personality disorder which, with her Type A personality, manifested itself by hyper-control and unpredictable outbursts of rage. The whole family walked around on egg-shells and the atmosphere was continually toxic. When I became a Christian, at the age of sixteen, these attacks became more personal and threatening but as I grew in Christ I received healing and learnt better how to cope with the difficulty. As the only surviving member of the family, I visited her regularly right up until her death, but almost always there would be some innocent situation which brought about a volatile reaction totally out of proportion to the trigger.. Although I had recognised this relationship to be the dominant root of my own disordered eating in childhood, causing me to comfort eat, I never realised just how much ongoing stress it had created. Then, some years after her death, I had cause to re-visit my home town. As I approached the outskirts of the town my stomach began to knot up, I felt a tightness across my chest and I began to be anxious. Immediately I recognised it as the old familiar feeling I used to have whenever I went to visit, but only now, having been without the reaction for several years, was I aware of how much strain I had been under. No wonder I battled with my weight so much!

Medical research is increasingly finding a reciprocal relationship between stress levels and abdominal fat. Stress causes us to produce excessive amounts of cortisol which has a tendency to attach itself to abdominal fat tissue. Eating high fat, salty or sugary foods is one of the ways in which stress levels are physiologically reduced, but this only increases our abdominal fat, thus creating a vicious circle. Other links which have been found between high cortisol levels and weight gain are that cortisol may slow the metabolism, increase appetite and affect blood sugar causing fatigue and mood swings. Does any of this sound familiar?

How vital it is, if we recognise stress as a contributory factor to our weight problem, that we deal with this at the root and address not just the symptoms but the cause. God knows and understands everything about our past and present circumstances. Whatever we have gone through, Jesus has been right there with us, feeling our pain, and He is able now to bring healing and peace to our damaged thoughts and emotions. No life is so damaged that He cannot repair it; no circumstance so dire that He cannot intervene. ‘Cast all your care upon Him, for He cares for you’ writes Peter (1 Peter 5:7) If there is a way of escape from your stressful situation He will help you to find it; if not, He will uphold you so that you can endure the pressure without it adversely affecting your health. ‘Have no anxiety about anything, but by prayer and supplication and thanksgiving, let your request be made unto God, and the peace of God, which passes all our understanding, will keep your heart and mind, through Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 4:7) God is faithful in keeping His promises, but we often have difficulty remaining focussed. Yes, it takes practice, but don’t give up – grace will get you there in the end!

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