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Sleep and stress

8 ways to manage stress and overcome mental barriers to weight loss

4 min. read

It’s natural to feel stressed, especially when you're going through life changes or feel like you've lost control. Trying to manage weight or experiencing challenges during your weight management programme can be sources of stress. Here are some healthy coping strategies to deal with stress that help you to remain calm and regain control.

Stress can help motivate and be a tool for survival. On the other hand, too much stress over a long period can affect your health. Symptoms of mild stress include:

  • Problems with sleeping
  • Restlessness
  • Feeling "butterflies" in the stomach

The problem with stress is that it’s often about things that have yet to happen. We worry about meetings, starting a new job, or maybe about the future of a relationship. It’s hard to control what’s going to happen in the future. But you can control how you respond to feelings of stress.

For some people, eating tasty and energy-rich food is their way to cope with the stress in their lives. While it can be satisfying at the moment, this can make you gain weight or experience a weight loss stall. Over time, you may be at risk of developing obesity. It's not uncommon. According to the Stress in America report from 2007, 43% of Americans overeat when they feel stressed.

Here are eight strategies that can help you to overcome stress and stay on track with your weight.

#1 Identify what's causing the stress

Try to figure out what's triggering or causing you stress. Are there specific situations or issues that make you feel stressed? 

Once you know the cause of stress, you can consider whether there's anything you can do about it. It helps to write down your plan to make it more actionable. For example, if too much work is causing you stress, you can talk to your supervisor about your workload.

#2 Understand how you react to stress

It's a good idea to understand what's causing stress. It's also a good idea to understand how you react to stress. Take a look at how you've behaved during stressful situations. It may be helpful to write these in a journal so that you can monitor your reactions and see any patterns.

The good news is that you can learn new ways to respond to stress. Once you know how you react, you can start learning new, healthier ways of dealing with stress.

#3 Move more

Exercise can make you feel good and improve your mood. When you feel stressed, try to do physical activities that you enjoy.

Set aside around 30 minutes a day to move more. It isn't only about exercising and training - moving more can also include doing chores around the house or leisure activities and hobbies. You can overcome your stress and create healthy habits that will help you keep the weight off by being more physically active.

#4 Meditate

Meditation is a practice that can help you focus on the present moment instead of worrying about what might happen in the future. Meditating can be a good way to relax when you feel stressed. It can also help you get a better awareness of your body.

You can start with a breathing exercise or listen to relaxation music. There are also plenty of mindfulness and  meditation apps specifically designed to help you meditate. Whatever technique or tool you use, what's important is that you can calm down and refocus your attention.

#5 Improve your sleeping habits

It's normal to lose sleep or sleep poorly when you're under stress. But it’s important to get between seven and nine hours of sleep every night. Not only does sleep (or lack of sleep) affect your mood and concentration, it also shifts the balance of hormones in your body. The hormones affect how and what you eat, which can lead to weight gain. 

To lower your stress, and be more able to make healthy food choices, find a way to improve your sleeping habits. If you need some help, see our tricks on how to get a good night’s sleep.

#6 Unlearn eating as a solution to stress

When you have tough times, you may eat in unhealthy ways even though you want to eat in moderation and make good food choices. For example, you may eat more or turn to tasty, high-calorie foods. After all, we all know that tasty food makes us feel good. 

But for some people, emotional eating can become an addictive cycle. Pay attention when you feel stressed and how you react. Then, try to respond to the situation in ways that have nothing to do with food. You can do something you really enjoy instead.

#7 Get help and help those in need

Calling a friend or being surrounded by supportive family members can help reduce stress. Research has also shown that giving social support to other people can also be a good stress reliever.

Reach out to people or make new connections when you feel stressed. You can even try to  exercise or be active together to unwind.

#8 Get help from a professional

Sometimes dealing with stress is not simple. And the strategies we suggest may only work for mild symptoms of stress. Seek professional help if your symptoms are more severe. These symptoms can include:

  • Aggressiveness
  • Forgetfulness
  • Unexplained pains
  • Sleep problems
  • Being less social

In these cases, a trained healthcare provider can help you find healthy coping mechanisms for stress.

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  • Forman E & Butryn M. Effective Weight Loss: An Acceptance-Based Behavioral Approach - Treatments That Work (Workbook Ed.). New York: Oxford University Press 2016.
  • Fox KR. The influence of physical activity on mental well-being. Public health nutrition 1999; 2(3a):411-418.
  • The Harvard Gazette. Health & Medicine: With mindfulness, life’s in the moment: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/04/less-stress-clearer-thoughts-with-mindfulness-meditation/ [Accessed July 2019].
  • Spaeth AM & Dinges DF. Sleep and obesity. In: Thomas A Wadden & George A Bray (eds.). Handbook of Obesity Treatment. New York: Guilford Press 2018.
  • Sapolsky RM. Why zebras don’t get ulcers. The acclaimed guide to stress-related disease, and coping (3rd ed.) St. Martin’s Griffin 2004.


Find your local weight management provider

Talk to your weight management provider about treatment options that could prevent the weight you lose from coming back.

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