Health

In 2017, My Life Went Overboard, and so Did My Weight…

As writer Caleigh Alleyne learned, stress doesn't just affect your mental health—it can seriously impact your body, too

Stress and weight gain The writer before and after her 2017 weight gain wearing her favourite winter coat

The writer wearing the same jacket before and after her 2017 weight gain.

In early October, the temperature in Toronto suddenly dipped below zero, giving us the first glimpse of winter. I ventured down into the basement to dig out the light jackets buried deep in my storage locker. But my favourite Canada Goose sports coat from last season, pictured above, now felt tight in the arms and I could no longer zip it up in the front. And with that, I suddenly felt the literal and figurative weight of this year.

2017 has simultaneously been one of my best and very worst years. It’s the year I became a homeowner, got paid to write articles as I travelled across Canada and reached my career goal of being interviewed on a talk show. But what wasn’t evident from my Instagram posts or tweets was the challenges my family and I were facing.

How things went from ordinary to out-of-control

Stress and weight gain: Two young women pose together. One is young and wearing black drss and the other is her mother wearing a patterened shawl and white shirt

The author (left) with her mother

I found out about my mother’s cancer diagnosis by mistake. I was on a solo work trip in Whitehorse in March when I saw a text from my mother, originally intended for my dad, talking about a doctor’s appointment. I soon found out that this was not just a routine check-up. I spent the long trip home hoping for the best, but worrying about the worst. When I returned, she sat me and my two brothers down to tell us that the doctor had found an abnormality in her uterus and she was scheduled to undergo a full hysterectomy.

There’s never a “good” time to hear that a loved one has cancer, but let’s just say, this was definitely the worst of times. Her diagnosis came right as my family was in the middle of packing up, renovating and putting our family home of 15 years on the market. As a self-employed freelance journalist, I was able to re-organize my work schedule and balance my assignments so I could help pack up my childhood home. I started spending the majority of the day at my parents’s house, organizing and filling boxes while juggling conference calls. At the end of my days, I would drive from North York to my home in downtown Toronto to catch up on more work.

By April, my life had no routine. Some days I was knee deep in old toys, my great-aunt’s records and craft supplies all crammed into the same closet. Other days, I was glammed up for an interview on The Social chatting about travel. Instead of meal-prepping salads like I used to, or spending time trying the latest hot recipe, I would often grab drive-thru lunches between dropping off bags of old clothes at donation centres or running out to replenish our moving supplies. And after a long day of balancing work with lugging and sorting boxes, running on a treadmill was the last thing on my mind. I put my gym membership on hold for a few weeks, which soon turned into months.

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The weight of my worries

Each day, my mind raced with a million questions. Would my mom need radiation? Would her scan come back clear? And, the one that I tried to push from my brain: What would happen if she didn’t make it?

Over the last few years, as some of my friend’s parents passed away, I started to face the reality that as my parents aged, their health might decline, too. But now, I felt the stress and uncertainty of my mother’s illness in my gut—literally. When things got really overwhelming, like when she was in the hospital after her surgery, I started having actual physical pain in my stomach. This perpetual stomach ache became an excuse to avoid going to the gym and instead to indulge in my cravings for something sweet. I also let myself believe that the only solution was to watch Netflix and avoid thinking about reality.

Throughout the year, I noticed my weight fluctuating but I just brushed it off. I spent the majority of the spring and summer in yoga pants and old t-shirts, so it wasn’t until mid-June, when I was struggling to find a birthday dress to wear, that I really noticed the difference. My doctor suggested that my stomach pain and bloating could be solved with Weight Watchers. But I really felt like all the ups and downs in my life were playing a role in what I was seeing on the scale.

Fast forward to November, where I was a bridesmaid in my cousin’s wedding. I stood in front of my closet trying to find something colourful to wear for the bridal shower and the Mehndi, which is like the Indian version of a bridal shower. Scanning the racks of outfits, I realized I hadn’t just gained a pound or two over the last year. Nothing I owned fit the way it should anymore—and that felt overwhelming.

The connection between stress and the scale

It may seem like I just wasn’t eating well or going to the gym, but I soon learned that it was more than that. I started looking into the connection between stress and weight gain. Numerous studies associate high levels of cortisol—i.e., the primary stress hormone—with increased weight. According to a 2017 review of studies, there may be a link between mental stress and poor sleep, increased appetite and cravings and decreased motivation for exercise—all of which can contribute to weight gain.

While stress wasn’t the only reason for my weight gain, it was a constant during my year of dealing with the move and my mom’s medical issues. In order for me to take charge of my health, I realized I needed to focus on my mental health first.

This epiphany shifted my goals from dieting and weight loss to figuring out how to feel happy and balanced. Instead of starting my day rushing out the door, I created a daily list of manageable personal and professional tasks that I wanted to complete each day. I specifically chose goals to help regain balance in my life: eating well, exercising and making sure I got enough sleep to help keep my cortisol levels in check.

I couldn’t control things like my mother’s cancer, but I could work to not feel rushed, overwhelmed or overly fatigued. One of the best stress management tools was finding a moment every day where I felt completely in control, like going to the gym or spending time with my nieces and nephews. With that, I shifted my focus to how I was feeling emotionally and mentally, instead of on the numbers on the scale.

Instead of feeling ashamed about my weight gain, I embraced my body and even bought a few new dresses that fit properly to wear over the holidays. But, I’ve kept my favourite sports coat in my closet as a constant reminder of what I am working toward. On New Year’s Eve, as I say bye to 2017, I am hoping to leave what was weighing me down in the past as well.

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