All the medical authorities agree: Obesity is the rising health hazard of the new millennium in the US, with increasing risks of diabetes and heart disease, not to mention the impact of weight on the joints of hips, knees, ankles, and feet. Diet and inadequate exercise are the first culprits identified, and there is plenty of evidence to back that up. Solutions are focused on plans to encourage change in our diets and healthy exercise habits in our children. If a child is already obese by the time he or she is twelve, it is very difficult to establish healthy exercise habits after that. The weight itself makes it more difficult and unpleasant, and the motivation for doing something difficult and unpleasant to achieve an invisible goal in the distant future is compromised in too many ways.
But there is another poisonous ingredient in the stew of causal factors contributing to obesity, and that is stress. Mark Hyman, MD is one of the leading voices pointing out the relationship between stress and obesity. To put it simply, stress is our body's response to an emergency – any kind of an emergency. Part of the body's assumption about emergencies is that we may not be able stop to eat while our response to this stressful event is going on. The stressed body therefore generates chemical instructions to eat as much as we can in a hurry and hold on to those calories as long as we can, leading to cravings and the development of a metabolism that holds onto weight we do not need.
There are emerging in our lives to be sure. But the kind of emergencies that prevent us from eating are fewer and fewer in the 21st century. Yet the body responds with the same chemical instructions to hold onto those calories even though the stress we experience is from sources other than survival emergencies.
Where does all this stress come from? The list is quite long. It comes from family and peer group conflict, from high personal expectations and competition, from deadlines and disappointments, from all manner of fears, from the press and noise of modern life.
It also comes from something less obvious but quite seductive. It also comes from excitement. Excitement is only subtly different from fear – the difference being the expectation of a positive, rather than negative, output. Some people jump out of airplanes for excitement, but only because they expect to land safely after the rush of the terrifying free fall. Many more of us go to exciting movies and perch on the edge of our seats with our popcorn and drink within easy reach while the hero and stuntmen barely survive one catastrophe after another with thrilling music stimulating our heartbeats further. We enjoy this safe excitation, and we miss it when it's over. We get bored without it, and we need more and more exclusion to keep the boredom at bay.
This, I believe, is an insidious trend, a kind of addiction to excuse that I call adrenaline addiction. Adrenaline is one of the hormones released to prepare the body to respond to emergency. It focuses the mind and energizes the body, and it feels like a rush that can be pleasant if the expected output is positive. So it is not too surprising that the most exciting movies and books are the best sellers; not too surprising that we like to watch action sports and live debts; not too surprising that we are drawn to gameboys and devices that provide an intermittent reinforcement of our intense agreement with them. Intermittent reinforcement leads to the most persistent habits, so when you do not win all the time, but you do win occasionally, you are more likely to keep playing.
All of these activities, associated with a safe form of danger that energizes and focuses the mind with a sense of urgency, generate excitation. Excitement is another form of stress, and the body does not know that this constant diet of stress is not an emergency for which it needs to store calories. Like global warming, however, it is slowly becoming a health emergency. Addiction to excitement – adrenaline addiction – may be a contributing factor in the increasing diagnosis of attention deficit disorder, depression (from boredom or burnout), and substance abuse. It may even have a connection with the lust for power and weaponry that drives national rivalries and sparks wars.
Also, like global warming, it is difficult to figure out where to start to do something about this ubiquitous problem. How do we begin to include stress management along with diet and exercise in the national agenda for weight management? How can we motivate youngsters to put down their gameboys and value calmer forms of mental exercise? How can we teach self calming skills to children? Although there are contemplative practices in most spiritual disciples that have been teaching and practicing this for thousands of years, it is a huge challenge to bring these activities and values into modern life.
The momentum of excitement is intense. Excitement sells. The economy depends on it. All of contemporary life supplies it. And it feels soooo good. The challenge of putting on the brakes is truly humongous, but if we do not recognize it and face it our grandchildren will live shorter and more unhappy lives.