Stress Management – Quick Strategies for Coping with Stress

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The Quick Take Away:

  • Eat less sugar: sugar is an extraordinary stress-inducing food that undermines our health in countless ways.
  • Sleep more: go to bed earlier because you still have to get up at your usual time, so to get more rest – one the most effective stress relief behavior you can engage in, and it’s free and feels great.
  • Exercise more: the body’s response to exertion is categorically a must for health in general but a key strategy for melting stress
  • Say no … more often: reduce the demands on your schedule by simply not committing to so many … things (for you, for your kids, at work).

We all do what we need to do to survive, “get by,” and in hopefully most cases, succeed.  In all of these, good, bad, or ugly, stress accumulates and adds to the load we’re already carrying through life.  Thankfully, we are surrounded with abundant information on how to productively quarantine, reduce, or ideally, dissipate the stress – the question is, have we looked into it yet?

There are none more powerful in managing stress levels than ourselves, and so we are charged with the responsibility of keeping tabs on how we are allowing stressors to affect us psychologically and ultimately, physically.  After reading Week 1′s SPARK Insight, we understand a few of the physiological effects of chronic stress, and are tasked with finding practical methods to incorporate daily to prevent stress-induced deficiency.

Here are some great “weapons” in our arsenal that everyone can use to combat chronic stress:

  • Bonfire’s FUEL section provides a wonderful way to eliminate some of the stress of having to “cook up” healthy meals to fuel a hungry household, and provides grocery shopping lists and recipes with instructions each week.  Not only does this help with the planning and shopping aspects, but the real, live, and whole ingredients in the meal plan help our bodies be properly set up to physically deal with our daily stresses.

We need to practice removing ourselves from our everyday stressors, even if for a few seconds at a time while right in the middle of them, and we need to be on-purpose about it.

One particularly inconspicuous strategy that is fun and costs nothing is a “three second vacation.”  For three seconds, close your eyes and let your mind transport you to the most relaxing place on earth – sights, sounds, scents, everything.  Breathe it all in deeply for three seconds, and then resume your activity (extend duration and/or repeat as many times throughout the day as necessary).

Also, to the extent that schedule and location make it practical, giving your body a chance to “reboot” comes highly recommended.

On a larger scale, we challenge you to use some of the most gratifying activities you’ve come to enjoy to assist in the battle against stress.  They don’t necessarily need to cost anything (it doesn’t cost much to take a sketch pad out to draw a landscape or to get out and climb a tree…preferably your own tree), but a reasonable expense is also acceptable (a ride along the coast on a sunny day, top-down in a rented convertible, a round of golf, or a session out on the community airfield with a radio controlled airplane…however, if the expense or challenge of the mechanism adds stress, please find another coping mechanism to use).  If we ask our Bonfire experts, we’re sure to find intense exercise and surfing among their top choices for coping mechanisms – not specifically for the coping aspect, but because they’re a main course of fun with a generous helping of stress-relief on the side.

We’re all different and there’s no sense in stressing about choosing coping mechanisms, so find your fun and you’ll discover a mechanism that works for you!

IGNITE YOUR DAY – Thursday

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Dish of the Day:
Dr. Camilla’s Bonfire Stew This stew not only tastes super delicious, but having a savory stew on hand makes for great lunches, and is also a fantastic way to fill an omelet. This stew recipe is a great way to “sneak” vegetables into your kids.
Movement of the Day:
Overhead Squat with PVC  You can’t say too many positive things about the overhead squat – it is a fantastic exercise. Sitting is the new smoking – now that’s scary!  We do way too much sitting in our modern culture, but overhead squats are the antidote to sitting. Do them every day for good posture and to counter the negative effects of all the sitting you do (driving, computer, watching TV).  (Click here for additional workouts) 

Journal of the Day:
Quote of the Day: “Quality is never an accident. It’s the result of high intention, effort, direction and execution.” ~ William A Foster
Essential Element: When you invest your limited resources of time, energy, focus, and money in alignment with your innate values, you experience a sense of balance and peace of mind. Conversely, if you spend or squander these resources in a way that defies your values, you will inevitably experience uneasiness, worry, and imbalance. This disparity is often at the root of most emotional and psychological stress, which will undermine your health in countless ways. [click here to view Week 11 Spark Insight]
Journal: Consider this: What things did you waste money on this past year? Write down what comes to mind. Now list three organizations/causes/people you’d like to invest in this coming year.  (Click here for additional journaling exercises)

The Power of Forgiveness on Your Health

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Common to all religions and psychology methodologies, forgiveness is central to managing stress, developing lasting primary and secondary relationships, and “growing” emotionally and maturing as an adult.

Anything that increases or exacerbates mental or emotional stress is a threat to our health; a lack of forgiveness is a primary stress-inducer.  However, because it’s somewhat abstract and almost always needs to be a learned behavior, forgiveness is not something everyone embraces or commonly practices.

There are numerous books and articles on forgiveness.

It’s hard to forget, but forgiveness is something you do for yourself.                           - Azim Khamisa

Forgiveness and Stress:  Holding onto a hurt or remaining angry sets the stress response in motion, which, if left uncorrected, can prove to be unhealthy.

The following is from www.forgivenessandhealth.com:

Bearing a grudge and refusing to forgive can cause chronic stress to the body, as well as the mind.  Lack of forgiveness can create an avalanche of stress hormones.

  • It increases production of cortisol and epinephrine, which leads to changes in heart rate and blood pressure.
  • It raises levels of catecholamine and CD8, which suppresses the immune system, thus increasing the risk of viral infection.
  • It leads to the release of histamines, which can trigger severe bronchoconstriction in people with asthma.

Chronic stress also…

  • Alters insulin levels.
  • Alters the acid concentration in the stomach.
  • Causes plaque buildup in the arteries.
  • Causes or intensifies aches and pains.
  • Raises anxiety levels.
  • Causes depression.
  • Interferes with intimate and social relationships.
  • Affects sleep and appetite.
  • Affects job performance.

Curing Insomnia – How to Achieve Pure Sleep

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6:45 p.m:  They arrive home from the evening commute.  She needs to quickly bathe, feed and put the children to bed while he quickly whips up some semblance of dinner so they can eat while the 8 p.m. news is on and be finished in time to “relax” as they catch the much anticipated 9 p.m. network series premier of “Psycho-Numbness.”

Problem!  WAY too much to do still and there will have to be some juggling if they’re going to join the “loco anesthesia” that’s taking the nation by storm prime time on Thursdays!  She has to call HIS mother to make plans for the Mother’s Day brunch in three weeks [or else…].  He needs to make one last phone call to the office to ensure the deal gets booked FIRST THING IN THE MORNING.  As he walked into the bedroom, he discovered that one of the cats played duck hunt in the down pillows AGAIN [that’s three sets in the last two months]!  Laundry was left in the washer that morning, and two loads must still be done before the night is out!  Before they know it, it’s 10:45 p.m. and they’ve missed the two most important segments of the Numbness premier because they were both off in other rooms taking care of “stuff” during commercial breaks.  They manage to plop down on the sofa just in time to catch the last 15 minutes of Numbness, which closes out with a GREAT cliff-hanger ending, baiting them well for next week’s episode.

11:00 p.m:  SLEEP TIME!!! !!!QUICK!!! – CHECK SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES, EMAIL, BANK BALANCES, AND SHUT OFF THE LIGHT!!! MORNING WAITS FOR NO ONE!!!

11:30 p.m:  Darkness…{Though no words are heard in the room, quietly from the back of consciousness like the low rumble of audience whispers as they await the opening act… }

“Uh oh…I forgot to put the grocery list together for tomorrow…does little Jimmy have a snack for tomorrow’s field trip?…did we ever pay that parking ticket?…why did we park there anyway?…who’s taking care of the kids while we go to the booster club meeting Saturday?…they don’t allow children there, do they?…I can’t wait to see what happens to Derek on Numbness next week…that was such a crazy ending…it’s really well written…”

1:00 a.m:  Dozing…dozing…z@zz!z&zzz[snort, snort]zzzz%zz*z#zzz…

And they wonder why it takes them so long to fall asleep…and why it’s so hard to stay asleep…

The scenario above isn’t a medical condition – sadly, it’s a way of life for many, and the battle with getting sufficient rest rages on.  The cares of life will usurp every minute we give them – including those that should be reserved for restoration and repair.  Our challenge is not to yield to them for any reason within our control, and ideally, for any reason at all except physical emergency.  Our mental and physical wellness depend on the sleep that we as a modern society have de-prioritized to make way for the “more important things” of life.  We need to re-establish and enforce rules of sanity around our primary sleep times to avoid propagating negative impacts of stress and scattered attention on our bodies and minds.

The first two “thieves” on the National Sleep Foundation’s “Sleep Stealers” list are Psychological Factors and Lifestyle Stressors.  Because of its many and varied causes, sleeplessness should be addressed FIRST through healthy lifestyle choices.  The Home Care section for adults in the World Sleep Foundation’s discussion of insomnia provides a number of tactics to give us a shot at a good sleep session and the foundation advises initially “Exhaust every possible option before resorting to drugs to cure insomnia.”  A US News and World Report article from March 2009 supports the approach with findings that though prescription sleep medication use increased substantially over a period of time, social concerns continued to rob Americans of sleep at a nearly unchanged rate in the same period.

Let’s set ourselves up for proper recharge and repair by properly preparing for our pure sleep times with environment and lifestyle choices incorporating proper wind-down sequences – when an aircraft skips the landing sequence and goes from 35,000 feet immediately to the ground, nobody calls it a “landing” – everyone calls it a “crash”…sound familiar?

Our physiology dictates our need for sleep and every little change toward achieving better sleep will improve our lives in ways we can only experience once we get there.

Morning Rituals – How to Start Your Day Off Right

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Wake time.  Six minutes to daybreak.

Rest was good last night.  Restorative Sleep has been in effect for a couple days now, and the new day is greeted with renewed energy.  All of the clothes for the day were selected and ironed last night; lunch is packed and ready to pull out of the fridge on the way out the door.  The alarm was set for a few minutes earlier today, creating the opportunity to approach the day on purpose, rather than by reaction.  There’s no need to rush around frantically getting things prepared…and the kids are still sleeping.

The sun is just about to break the plane of the horizon.  Morning is still and peaceful.

Draw the blinds and watch in silence as morning breaks.  Another beautiful day has arrived.  Thoughts of gratitude begin to flow as the new day introduces itself with a handshake of light.

A gentle stretch and a round of Life Extension Exercises open the lines of communication from the brain to the body, quiet instrumentals playing in the background.  A few minutes to quietly journal some initial thoughts for the day, and a chapter of reading from a book unrelated to daily life maintain the slow and steady pace of the morning.

Number One is taken care of.  This will be a good day…


As Dan Strutzel of Nightingale-Conant shares with SUCCESS Magazine, a morning ritual of starting the day slowly helps de-stress the day before it even begins.  We’ll give ourselves a better shot at a great day if we wake with a series of preparations to get ourselves geared up physically, mentally, and spiritually before jumping in.

Morning rituals create a buffer between our minds and the noise of modern existence, giving our bodies a chance to start up in peace, rather than under stress.  One of the greatest benefits is that the personal time they create allows us to focus on ourselves before we attend to everyone else’s needs and demands.  Very often in modern life, we suffer because we are not afforded this time for self-attention.

Our individual needs for dedicated “me” time differ as much as our personalities, but the good news is that there is no prescribed set of activities that need to be included in anyone’s morning rituals.  We all enjoy starting our days differently – some like a quiet, calm, relaxed start, while others prefer a quick, high energy start (and some just need the quick start to keep from falling back asleep in the quiet of the morning).  Whichever way we prefer to begin the day, when we take care of our own needs before we are presented with everyone else’s, we’ll be able to address theirs much more efficiently.

A few questions we can ask ourselves to help us find the components of our morning rituals are:

• If this were a vacation, what would I most enjoy doing as soon as I woke up? (Why not let a morning ritual have that “vacation”feel?)

• What is something I want to do today for myself that I won’t have time for once the “noise” of the day begins?

• Is there an aspect about this particular time of the day that I don’t want to miss? (ex:  sunrise, glassy ocean, gentle breeze, clean air)

• Is there something I am pondering that requires quiet and my greatest clarity of thought?

In answering these, we’ll doubtless find some very attractive rituals to incorporate into our daily slow-and-steady wake up sequencing, and in doing them, we’ll set ourselves up to greet each day with purpose, fulfillment, confidence, and peace.

Let’s wake up earlier tomorrow and start the day with Number One!

Related Resources:

Thank God

How To Wake Up Without An Alarm

3 Wake Up Stretches To Do In Bed

The Magic of Solitude

Unique Morning Exercise Routines

Week 12 Spark Insight: Rest and Repair

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ESSENTIAL ELEMENT:  Rest and Repair

Critical Concept:  Your body requires and expects periods of rest, repair and rejuvenation.

The jury is back and the results are in:  the fastest way to promote heart disease and an early death is to combine a high-fat/high-sugar diet with a high-stress life and a low-activity lifestyle.  The greatest minds in science could not design a better mix of behavior patterns that would best promote sickness and disease if they tried.  Most people are living a life that predictably destroys their health and creates disease.  Increased social stress has been identified as the straw that breaks the physiological camel’s back.

A major contributor to this mess is the general lack of rest and repair.  As a society, we have bought into the idea that rest and rejuvenation is a luxury, not a requirement.  This is fundamentally untrue, physically damaging, emotionally crippling and psychologically devastating.  We must take back our rest.

Sleep is an incredibly important part of health and wellness.  In fact, experts say that sleep actually rivals nutrition and exercise for promoting health.

Sleep expert Mark Stibich, Ph.D. teaches that when your body is sleep deficient, it goes into a state of stress.  The body’s functions are put on high alert, which causes an increase in blood pressure and a production of stress hormones (like Cortisol).  Higher blood pressure increases your risk for heart attacks and strokes.  The stress hormones also, unfortunately, make it harder for you to sleep.

Sleep reduces inflammation.  The increase in stress hormones raises the level of inflammation in your body, also creating more risk for heart-related conditions, as well as cancer and diabetes.  Low grade, systemic inflammation is widely considered one key factor in the deterioration of your body as you age.  Sleeping can actually slow aging.

Dr. John Madina, author of Brain Rules, says that 90% of Americans are chronically overtired.  Although this has noticeable implications in our day-to-day lives, such as midday head bobbing and black circles under your eyes, the silent damage you’ll experience with sleep deprivation is a real killer – literally.

Our body uses sleep to rest and repair our tissues.  Our brain requires sleep to process the information from the day.  Critical sleep cycles involve hormone balancing that affects everything from your energy and moods to your metabolism and ability to regulate your body weight.  Sleep deprivation is actually a predictor of obesity.

Healthy sleep patterns promote complete sleep cycles.  Your brain goes through different sleep phases when you rest.  REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) involves dreaming; non-REM sleep is the deepest and most critical phase of sleep.  This is the time that your most vital repair and recharge takes place.  The more complete sleep cycles you experience, the better.  Tallying seven hours or more of quality sleep has been shown to increase longevity.  And, low and behold, the afternoon nap turns out to be one of the most effective and productive methods for increasing energy, improving cognitive skills and focus, while mitigating the adverse effects of chronic stress by lowering circulating stress hormones like Cortisol.

Rest comes in many forms - our daily sleep patterns, including nighttime sleep for most of us, as well as napping or “siestas” during the day. But more broadly, rest includes our morning rituals, meditation, breathing exercises, mealtimes and evening rituals.  Rejuvenation patterns include our “time-offs,” breaks and vacations.  Most people are severely “vacation deficient.”

Well People are deliberate in their rest and repair patterns.  Design your daily and weekly schedules, as well as your monthly and yearly calendar, to reflect your commitment to this critical essential element.  There are several Bonfire vital behaviors to adopt that will ensure greater rest.  Claim ownership of your time and schedule.  Set your bedtimes and waking times, and stick to them.  Make a standing “napping appointment” in your daily schedule if at all possible.  Even presidents of the United States have made this a priority – and they have a demanding schedule, too.

Design your yearly calendar to include a rejuvenation strategy.  Every month schedule a “Sanity Weekend” where the only plans made are for rest and repair.  Challenge yourself to do nothing – it’s free.  Once a quarter take a long weekend – a “Long-evity Weekend.”  At least twice a year, take a week off.  We recommend one adventure vacation where you break routine and go experience a new place or activity.  A compelling nudge to ensure this trip and prevent “life” from persuading you to procrastinate away another break is to pre-pay for the trip (be sure to take out travel insurance, just in case).  We also recommend a “stay-cation,” where you stay home and keep it simple.  This is a great way to cut down on complexity, stress and cost.  Fight the urge to “catch-up” on everything and simply “be.”

These may be the easiest recommendations to do, yet the hardest to implement.  Start today.

At this point in the program you should be….

  • Establishing your Peace of Mind Account (PMA) using Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT)
  • Getting to bed earlier: working toward sleep before 11 p.m.
  • Getting up earlier: working toward 30 minute morning rituals
  • Remaining focused on creating the life that you want
  • Choosing to develop more influence in your life
  • Recognizing challenges as opportunities to grow
  • Seeking Alignment between behaviors and Innate Values
  • Choosing an attitude of Thankfulness and Gratitude
  • Seeking opportunities to get connected with supportive people
  • Choosing to extend Unconditional Love and Acceptance to others
  • Finding balance by managing your Limited Resources (Time, Energy, Focus, & Money)
  • Scheduling your Rest and Repair Strategies

Week 1 Spark Insight: Coping Mechanisms

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ESSENTIAL ELEMENT:  Strategies for Successful Living

Critical Concept:  Coping Mechanisms
Fortunately, over thousands of generations, your body has developed incredible physiological coping mechanisms for adapting to stress. Unfortunately, this genetic adaptation didn’t involve adapting to chronic or long-term stress, with one exception - up until the last two hundred years or so, the only true chronic or long-term stress that man ever knew was famine.  Today, our seemingly never-ending stress is resulting in non-stop stress hormone production that is undermining our health in many ways..

The very same stress hormones that are released under the prolonged duress of famine or starvation course through our blood stream when we experience prolonged stress in our modern world.  These hormones change our global physiology and create a derangement of our metabolism.  In other words, chronic stress promotes fat storage, high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, elevated blood fats, and compromised immune function (read obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer).  Specifically, a hormone called cortisol is released in times of stress.  Among other things, cortisol promotes the accumulation of the intra-abdominal or visceral fat called omentum – also known as “stress gut.”  The body’s creation of belly fat was originally intended for sustenance during the long, cold winter months when game was harder to come by.  Today, we face a veritable triple-whammy with drive-thru burger joints, a horrifically sedentary lifestyle, and an abundance of emotional or mental stress.

The take away for stress management:

  • FUEL: Eat Cleaner – lots of vegetables, healthy fats, and quality protein; no sugar, no grains, no processed vegetable oils
  • AIR: Move often – daily exercise to the point of exertion not only virtually erases the effects of stress, but will enable you to handle more stress before your body suffers from stress-induced breakdown.
  • SPARK: Go deep – get a handle on your sleep/rest schedule, your level of gratitude or thankfulness in your life, and feeding your mental/emotional self with ‘quiet time’, spiritual reading, and e-fasting (that’s deliberate periods no TV, computer, phone or internet)

Our modern ‘unnatural environment’ has led to an epidemic stress-derived chronic disease and the dreaded “stress-gut.”  Beyond aesthetics, omentum is considered one of the strongest predictors of heart disease and cancer. This fat actually increases our blood pressure by pressing up against our kidneys – influencing the hormones that regulate blood pressure.  Ironically, this same brilliant hormonal mechanism that helped man adapt and overcome the chronic stressors of yesterday is at the center of the number one killer of man today.

So what’s a human to do? Well people develop coping mechanisms.  It has long been recognized that journaling your life’s experiences is one of the most effective strategies to manage stress.  Each week you will engage your thoughts onto paper, answering thought-provoking and insightful questions to gain a greater understanding of how you think and the consequences of not only your thoughts but your reactions and how they affect all areas of your life, health and relationships.  The first week’s Spark Journaling Exercises pertain to the Seven Lifetime Value Accounts (please read this for a detailed explanation of this concept and process).

At the crux of almost everyone’s mental stress are the demands placed on our limited resources; namely our time, energy, focus and money.  The world seems to have an insatiable appetite for these things; everyday it seems that there are more demands and fewer resources.  In the economy of our lives, we must recognize the need for strategies that protect our limited resources.  If we are to be truly happy – and find peace of mind – we must strive to master managing these four assets.  For example, in the area of money or personal finances, creating a ‘Peace of Mind Account’is one of those coping strategies that lead to a desired outcome.

Well people don’t necessarily experience any less stress; they simply develop better strategies and coping mechanisms for dealing with it.  The Bonfire Health Program will empower you to choose healthier perspectives and responses to stress, as well as offering specific strategies and mechanisms for mitigating the effects of stress and reducing its occurrences.  The Spark Insights will equip you with best practices and vital behaviors that have been proven effective by everyday people in real world settings.

Life is full of surprises - get ready for them.

Chronic Stress – The Symptoms and the Effects

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Our modern lifestyle has created an epidemic of chronic stress caused by the imbalance of factors in how we eat, move and think.  Toxic food choices, sedentary lifestyles, and repetitive physical stress combine with psychological stresses.  The attempt to cope with this stress creates various types of damage to your body.

Historically, the primary stress your body would have faced would have been famine.  This source of stress would have come and gone with a changing food supply.  Today, stress is not only coming from numerous sources, it is also constant.

Uncovering Belly Fat
One important example of how your body is affected by chronic stresses is how your body stores fat.  The combination of chronic stress and the chemical stress of overeating promotes fat storage in the worst possible place – inside your abdomen.  This fat stored deep inside your belly is also called visceral fat, or intra-abdominal fat.

Where it is stored specifically is on an organ-like tissue called your omentum.  Omentum is thick connective tissue that is inside your abdominal cavity.  It is found throughout the abdominal cavity attached to your internal organs, keeping them in place and protecting them.  It is also the area where fat is stored inside your abdomen.  As fat tissue accumulates here, it expands and forces the belly outward, creating the pot-belly.  A recent feature on visceral fat in Discover magazine describes it well:  “In lean people, the flap, known as the omentum, is thin enough to be seen through (by someone in a position to have a look, that is).  In obese people it may be inches thick, fused, and “hard like cake,” according to Edward Mun, now director of bariatric surgery at Faulkner Hospital in Boston.”

This type of fat storage is the primary fat storage in your body that creates negative health outcomes.  These specific types of fat cells contain large numbers of macrophages, cells of the immune system.  These macrophages create chronic inflammation inside your body.  It is a powerful promoter of metabolic derangement known as the Metabolic Syndrome that leads to cardiovascular disease, hypertension and type II diabetes.  Newer research is showing how this particular type of fat also releases hormones that disrupt the normal function of hormones that affect your metabolism, mood and appetite.

Why does this happen?
Your body’s response to the stress of famine is to break down your body’s tissues for energy.  Just like different foods contain different forms of energy (ex:  fat, carbohydrate and protein), different tissues of your body act as storage for different types of fuel.  Fat cells store fat, while muscle tissue acts as a reservoir of protein.  However, important parts of your body, such as your brain, need to burn specific types of fuel.  Your brain burns carbohydrate, or more specifically, glucose.

However, when you are experiencing starvation, during the first several days your body breaks down muscle tissue to provide fuel for your brain.  The hormone that your body uses to signal this breakdown is called cortisol.  Cortisol promotes muscle breakdown, more specifically protein breakdown, so that your body can turn it into fuel for your brain.


Cortisol

Cortisol is also a chief component of the stress response in your body.  Cortisol is secreted naturally in amounts that vary depending on the time of day, peaking in the morning.  Cortisol is also released in response to stress.  Just like in periods of starvation, cortisol released in response to stress breaks down muscle and other tissue so that they can be used for energy.  This way, your body is ensured that there is energy for the purpose of handling the stress.

The affect of cortisol in response to chronic stress is one of the most important factors promoting fat storage in your abdomen.  Cortisol also creates cravings for high energy foods – that is, junk foods full of fat and sugar.

Remember, your body is not designed to be under stress constantly.  It needs regular periods without stress to rebuild and repair.  A lifestyle of chronic stress leads you toward an under-muscled, overweight state on the path to chronic diseases and ill health.