The idea that stress is supposed to make you lose weight goes back several centuries. The medieval Japanese text The Tale of The Genji, written by an anonymous Heian courtier known only as Lady Murasaki and considered the world’s first novel, contains numerous instances of characters losing weight due to grief or worry (and, incidentally, looking even more beautiful than usual as a result). This is not without reason, as many people do indeed lose weight when stressed. They may lose their appetite, move about more in order to burn off nervous energy (or, more constructively, to actually solve the problem that is stressing them out), or both.
However, more and more people are being found to experience the opposite phenomenon: stressful situations cause them to put on more weight even become obese. This is because the brain, in response to stress, may trigger a hunger for more calories, assuming that the person will need them to fight or run from a threat. If the threats in your life are financial and emotional, rather than the sort that require a classic “fight or flight” response, what happens is that you are consuming more calories, but not burning them off—the perfect recipe for weight gain. Personal habits and psychology also come into play: some people can also shut down or go into seclusion when stressed. The resulting drop in physical activity will, of course, only compound weight gain.
People who wish to slow down the onset of aging should definitely be concerned about their stress levels. For one, gaining weight can make a person not only look older, but can also expose a person to age-related ailments such as atherosclerosis and arthritis. Stress, even without the weight gain factored in, can also make you look older by dulling your complexion and sapping you of youthful energy. In extreme cases, stress can even rush people towards early graves, leading to heart attacks in the relatively young. It can also increase your body’s susceptibility to cancer.
Thankfully, there are several ways to tackle both the linked problems of stress and accelerated aging. Try taking up basic yoga. This may sound faddish or clichéd, but it really does work. If possible, try for a holistic program that not only teaches you physical exercises, but also proper breathing and meditation. The latter two techniques are very relaxing, and also necessary if you want to make the most out of the exercises. Programs that focus exclusively on physical postures are not as helpful. Martial arts are another viable alternative: they can help keep your body healthy, as well as teaching mental discipline and emotional balance. Having more means to defend yourself physically can also make you feel more confident and relaxed.
Of course, activities such as yoga and martial arts/self defense may not necessarily be to your taste. In that case, try other exercises like walking or running. Physical activity does not have to be complex in order to help you reduce stress. Physical activity can also stimulate mental activity and push it into new directions—after a walk, you may surprise yourself with a creative, viable solution to a problem that has been plaguing you for weeks.
Then again, perhaps you are already exercising, but find that you are still anxious. Supplement your exercises with emotionally fulfilling activities such as spending time with friends, or even writing a journal—both underestimated therapeutic activities.
Another important measure is to have a balanced attitude towards weight loss and aging. Being stressed out over getting heavier and older may turn into a vicious cycle that ultimately speeds up weight gain and aging, which will also give you more reasons to feel upset and frustrated. Give due importance to looking and feeling your best, but please refrain from going overboard.