Stress 2: Stress Eating? by Katharina (Kat) Hesse ©
Many of us claim that Pilates is good for stress. But is this really true?
I certainly feel it is – for quite a few reasons. One of these is our focus on the abdominal area. In Pilates we tend to focus on the muscles in this area, but spare a thought for the organs that lie beneath those muscles – the digestive system or, if you want another term, the gut.
Stress affects our gut. Ever experienced butterflies in your gut when you’ve been worried (or excited) about something? Or had a “gut feeling”about something or someone? Our gut informs us whether something feels safe or not. So it’s not surprising that stress affects our appetite. In serious situations of stress – like a wild animal chasing us – the body is programmed to stop digestive activity and focus on running away instead. No point sitting down for a picnic when you’re about to be eaten by a tiger! However, many of us crave rich foods when we are stressed. How come?
This is usually a sign of chronic, long-term stress and there are three reasons for this: one is the link of our digestive system to our nervous system, the other is the reward centre in our brain, and the third is the need for sustaining our energy levels in these long-term situations of perceived danger. Pilates can address the first two.
Our gut is closely linked to the nervous system. The nervous system has two basic states – the parasympathetic and the sympathetic state. The parasympathetic nervous system is often described as our “rest-and-digest” system and is generally equated with a relaxed state. The sympathetic nervous system is commonly described as our “fight-and-flight” system and is generally equated with a stress reaction. During extremely stressful situations, the body focuses its efforts on pure survival reactions, running away or fighting. So the blood is diverted from our gut to our muscles, enabling us to act and run or fight physically – no point arguing verbally with that tiger, although some of us are programmed to try…
Diverting blood back to the gut, on the other hand, can signal safety and comfort to the brain. A possible reason for stress eating: once there is food to digest, blood has to be diverted back to the gut. The gut becomes active and signals to the brain that it is digesting. This is done via the vagus nerve – a bi-directional communication system between the brain, heart, gut and lungs. So a happy (busy) gut tends to signal happy thoughts to the brain which in turn signals happy thoughts to the body. The gut also produces serotonin, a neurotransmitter that many of us know from all those pharmaceutical drugs promising never-ending happiness. So there are many reasons for focusing on our gut during our Pilates session. It might just signal happiness to our brain.
Now you’d be right in thinking that exercise diverts blood to the muscles. However, when we work mindfully and focus on the digestive tract instead of the muscles, we can also activate the organs that underlie our abdominal muscles. And that can take most of us into a parasympathetic state.
Try something like this: In a semi-supine position (lying on your back, knees bent), hands on your gut, start with either with slow and deep breaths into this area or a gentle self massage. Hands still on that area, proceed to very slow pelvic rocks (rocking the pelvis to your nose and away) and curls (small “bridges”: curling the spine up from the floor, feeling each bone moving away and releasing back down on the floor) – all with a heightened awareness of the gut moving (the gut is also attached to the spine via connective tissue so moving the spine also moves the gut). This work often already starts a happy gurgling noise in our guts – great, now the digestive system is signalling that it is active! Proceed to slow and gentle (!!!) abdominal work, still with your hands on your navel. Your awareness still needs to be on the gut moving rather than the muscles – so not too much of that “neutral spine” focus at this stage please as that immobilises this area and can (although doesn’t always have to) signal tension. And that’s what we are trying to avoid. Once the gut is active and happy, you can proceed to bigger and more energising abdominal work which will activate the reward centre in the brain. Now everything is signalling contentment and happiness in your body, from your gut to your brain and from your brain to your gut.
The fridge can wait!
I cover the above and much else in my stress workshop training. If you want to know more about stress and the neck, read my blog Stress – a Pain in the Neck. For a great article about food and stress, readhttp://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200311/stress-and-eating.