Why stress management is an essential aspect of HA and ED recovery
Addressing stress is a key piece of the puzzle when it comes to recovery from hypothalamic amenorrhea or eating disorders. Not only can stress be a significant contributor to the development of these conditions, but it can also be the result of them. Experiencing prolonged periods of heightened stress can encourage people with a history of disordered eating or eating disorders to fall back into these patterns as a coping strategy, so learning to manage your stress is crucial if you’re trying to recover from HA or an eating disorder.
Stress can negatively affect your body.
High stress levels can have a negative impact on your body, potentially leading to or worsening conditions like HA. When you’re extremely stressed, you release greater amounts of cortisol (a stress hormone). This in turn impacts your heart rate and can cause hormonal imbalances, high blood pressure, digestive issues, poor sleep, and even compromised immune function.
As you can see, stress can impact many different areas of your physical health. And particularly when you’re experiencing prolonged stress, this often leads to hormonal imbalances. Essentially, your body becomes stuck in a state of fight or flight, causing it to enter survival mode and conserve energy wherever possible – for example, by halting your menstrual cycle and ovulation, and reducing production of sex hormones. This is, of course, what we know as hypothalamic amenorrhea.
So while undereating and overexercising can be the causes of these heightened, extended periods of stress, and are often responsible for causing HA by these mechanisms, significant emotional stress can also have the same impact on your body.
Understanding how to manage your stress levels – whether it be emotional stress, or physical stress due to unhealthy exercise or eating habits, is essential in preventing your body from being “stuck” in this survival state, and allowing it to restore optimal function and your menstrual cycle. Without stress management, your body doesn’t have the available energy or capacity to heal.
Stress can also lead to disordered behaviours.
People who suffer from eating disorders are often inclined to have perfectionist tendencies, and to feel societal and peer pressure more deeply. This includes the pressure to have the “perfect” body size and shape, or to look a certain way. These pressures can act as extreme stress on an individual, and even lead to destructive eating or behavioural patterns.
When we get stressed, we’re more likely to act impulsively, and fall back into disordered habits and behaviours to help us cope or manage the stress. Whatever the cause of our stress, whether it be physical, mental or emotional, these harmful exercise or eating patterns can include restriction or deprivation, or over-exercising.
Studies have found that stress is a key factor in the development of addiction or relapse, and for many of us these eating disorder behaviours are very similar to an addiction. Stress has been shown to increase your chances of restricting energy or food intake if you’ve had a history of eating disorders or HA – which in turn increases your risk of developing HA.
So if you’re in recovery and you’re experiencing heightened stress, this may be significantly interfering with your efforts to heal your relationship with food and your body. Stress may be encouraging you to revert back to the harmful behaviours you’ve been working to correct, or keeping your body “stuck” in a state of stress, leaving you unable to restore your period and your health.
So how can you manage stress to support your recovery?
Before you panic, there are plenty of strategies to help you manage your stress in order to support your recovery from HA or an eating disorder, and undo the negative physical and psychological impacts it could be causing.
1. Develop alternative coping strategies.
The most important of all is developing alternative, healthier coping strategies to turn to in times of stress. This could take the form of journaling, meditation, spending time in nature, talking to a loved one, engaging in self-care. Whatever it may look like for you, if you’re able to use these strategies to manage and control your stress in times of need, you’re much less likely to resort to the damaging eating and exercise behaviours which no longer serve you, or align with your recovery goals.
2. Get enough sleep.
When you sleep, you allow your body to enter its rest and repair state – which is potentially the only time you spend here if you’re chronically stressed. Sleep is critical for allowing your body to heal, restore hormonal balance, and recover from the punishment and deprivation it’s endured throughout long periods of disordered eating and HA. Aim for 7-9 hours each night.
3. Surround yourself with supportive friends and family.
Your support network is so important during recovery. Finding a group of close, trusted friends and family who you can confide in and ask for help as you need it helps you stay on track, even when it feels tough. They can also be so helpful when it comes to relieving stress – after all “a problem shared is a problem halved”! It’s true though, talking things out with someone you trust can help you approach stresses or problems with a new perspective, and remind you that things aren’t as overwhelming as they may seem.
4. Move your body with kindness.
In recovery, you may need to take a break from exercise. But you can still move your body in ways that feel freeing, relieving and joyful. Whether you have a dance around your living room to really tune into your body, or take a slow stroll through nature and notice all you see and hear, moving gently, purposefully and with the intention of slowing down and dropping into your body can do wonders for relieving stress. After all, when you’re truly present, you aren’t worrying about the future – you’re simply existing in the moment. What a great way to release stress.
Breathwork is another great way to relieve stress in the short- and long-term. It allows you to take a moment, reset, and slow down your nervous system. It gives you the chance to calm your racing thoughts, come back to your body, and activate your parasympathetic nervous system (your rest and repair state).
Stress management should never be neglected throughout your recovery journey. While repairing your relationship with yourself, your body, food and exercise are all crucial, so too is the development of alternative coping strategies to prevent any relapses into disordered behaviours. Plus, actively reducing stressors, or improving your response to stress can allow your body to recover and repair itself after years of cruel treatment, and facilitates its restoration without the adverse effects of cortisol and hormonal imbalances keeping your menstrual cycle absent.
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Hi future friends, I’m Sarah King, an Accredited Exercise Physiologist and health coach.
Science, not trends is the foundation of my approach. By nourishing the body and mind with scientific facts we can build foundations for a life of realness, not just wellness.