Stress Is the New Fat

Today typically marks the kick off for New Year’s resolutions about diet and exercise, but based on the growing concern about stress, evidenced during the holiday season, it’s time to focus first on our stress. Why? Because stress is the new fat. As a publisher with a 20-year career in health and wellness media helping hundreds of thousands of people with their quest for well-being, I see that the obesity crisis now has a sister crisis that threatens to knock it out of top billing: stress. Like its sibling, stress is an economic, medical and social problem of epidemic proportion and is making us emotionally depleted, physically sick, and, incidentally, fatter.

I’d always thought that a little stress was a good thing for keeping me sharp, focused and productive. Stress is not inherently bad: It helps us through childbirth, athletic competitions, meeting deadlines and emergency heroics, among many other challenges. According to Adam Perlman, M.D., executive director of integrative medicine and wellness at Duke University:

Experiencing elevated stress levels on a chronic basis wears down our body and our brain. It’s much like flooring the gas pedal with your car in park. If you do it for a prolonged period, something in your engine will break.

On a personal level, the non-stop pace of 24/7 communication, the rigorous demands of today’s business environment and the economic downturn that caused all of us to tighten our belts, run a little faster, pull a little harder, makes life frenetic. The technology that allows everything to happen instantly fostered the need to do everything immediately. All of this felt manageable for a while but unsustainable as a long-term condition, until I found myself a different set of tools.

So I want to echo Arianna’s pledge that we all make 2013 the year we focus on stress. And I offer a solution for all of us:

As anyone who has lost weight and kept it off will tell you, there is no magic bullet to achieving one’s optimal weight. Skipping dessert doesn’t make you thinner; it takes a lifestyle comprised of whole foods, strong peer support and healthy habits. Additionally, you need to resolve the conflicts that led to the thoughts and behaviors that caused weight gain and replace them with thoughts and behaviors that reinforce a new way of eating.

It’s time to look to the weight management programs that have produced the best long-term results for their clients. At their best, these programs impart a level of lifestyle awareness that creates success and breeds a lifetime of confidence. The same can be accomplished for stress. We need to put our stress on a diet — but not a crash diet, a “lifestyle of a diet.”

Mindfulness, yoga and relaxation techniques are the current darlings of the stress trade. They work, but they take a lot of work, and each alone doesn’t come close to solving the entire problem, just as declining that slice of pie after dinner never made anyone thin.

So for 2013, why not skip the usual tips for dieting (which never work, by the way) and focus instead on getting your stress under control. Here’s a way to start:

  1. Pay some attention to the emotions and conflicts that get you stuck in stressful patterns and test whether they are really adding value to your life or not. Maybe let a few go, such as the need to go to every party or make everything from scratch. What about the mind reading that happens when loved ones are home for the holidays? Try asking them what they want from you and telling them what you need in return.
  2. Add in a system for scheduling time for the positive activities and rituals that replenish you. You know, the active play time, better sleeping and exercising habits, helping others.
  3. Spend more time with friends and less time with your devices. Tap other people for social support and listen to them — that will lower your stress every time.

People are in dire need of the rules, tools and buffers that will allow them to successfully navigate a world in which there is always far too much to see and think about. In this way, we can harness our expanding opportunities rather than be harassed by them.

Please join me in putting stress on a regimen so it helps more than it hurts.