Is “Health Guilt” Making You Sick?

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April 16th is National Stress Awareness Day, and April is Stress Awareness Month. Stress and health are closely linked and, as a health coach, Beth sees this in practice on a daily basis. “I feel so guilty…I had a big dessert last night. Now I feel like I worked out for nothing.” As a wellness coach, I hear this kind of confession all the time. People feel guilty for lapses in lifestyle health behaviors — and a host of other things. What they often don’t realize is the connection between guilt, stress, and overall wellbeing — how feeling guilty about a choice may have the ironic effect of being more harmful than the choice itself. Guilt serves a purpose in shaping behavior and compelling us to correct wrongs. And the right amount of stress is important to keep us feeling challenged and interested in our lives. But too much of either one can have devastating effects on mental and physical wellbeing. Both guilt and stress raise blood levels of the hormone cortisol. When cortisol levels remain high over time, they’re linked with elevated blood lipids, blood glucose, blood pressure, and abdominal obesity. These changes increase risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other serious medical issues. Chronically high levels of cortisol also increase risk for depression and other mental health problems. Recently, a study was done on another inflammatory marker called C-reactive protein which is released from the liver during times of stress and illness. In this study, researchers put 34 women through a stressful task, and asked half of them to “ruminate” or dwell on the task. The other half was asked to distract themselves from the task at hand. The women who dwelled on the stressful task showed higher levels of C-reactive protein, which is linked to everything from Type 2 diabetes to heart disease. Less Guilt, Less Stress, Better Health Could you use a little less guilt and stress? Try these tips to shift your thinking and stay on track for better long-term health: Avoid “good” or “bad” thinking. Over and over, clients tell me, “I was really good this week – I ate salad every day and I worked out 4 times.” News flash — eating nutritious foods or exercising doesn’t make you a good person. Eating less nutritious foods or not exercising doesn’t make you a bad person. Describing your health behaviors in moral terms sets you up for guilt and stress when your performance is less than perfect. Practice describing your behavior in more objective terms: “I made a lot of progress towards my wellness goals this week — I increased my daily vegetable servings and added strength training to my fitness routine.” Stay calm and move on. Many people overreact to minor lapses in nutrition or exercise routines, triggering a negative downward spiral. Instead of acknowledging the decision wasn’t an optimal one and moving on, they dwell on it, and end up feeling worse — which often triggers more overeating and less exercise, which in turn, makes them feel even worse. And on…and on. So, let it go already; you can make a better choice next time. Get up and take a brisk, 10-minute walk to help calm yourself and boost your mood. Be flexible. Being committed and focused on your wellness goals is one thing, but you have to allow room for flexibility and self-compassion — or a healthy lifestyle becomes unsustainable. If you always exercise at the gym on the way home from work — but forget your gym bag one day, will you blow off your workout? Or will you adapt to the situation and walk around your neighborhood when you get home? If you eat a maple bar out of the break room, will you throw out your healthy eating plan for the whole day, or will you acknowledge that you enjoyed the treat and move on, adjusting the day’s meal plan as needed? Maintain a healthy perspective. Keeping a food and exercise diary can help defuse the stress associated with lapses by helping you think about your behavior more objectively. You may think you’ve eaten enough to gain 5 pounds; in writing it down, you see you’ve eaten an extra 500 calories; not fantastic, but not a crime — and not enough to gain a single pound, unless you do the same thing every day for a whole week. Have you battled guilt and stress around lifestyle health habits? Share your best tip for breaking loose of this trap and moving on towards a healthier mindset. Beth Shepard, MS, ACSM-RCEP, ACE-PT, has a master’s degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Arizona. Beth is an expert in fitness and health promotion and a certified wellness coach, helping people thrive by adopting sustainable lifestyle changes. She and her family love to hike, bicycle, and try new sports.