You can't take much more. It's a quarter to three on a Monday that's already involved you spilling hot coffee on your lap, running late for work, and a guilt trip from your mother about not coming home for the holidays. You need a quick pick-me-up to turn your mood around. What would really do the trick is a stop at the drive thru for a milkshake or a fresh order of hot fries.  OK, maybe even the month-old bag of probably-stale pretzels that's buried at the bottom of your desk drawer. Sound familiar?

Stressing out can cause people to gain weight, according to a study appearing in the July 15th issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Overall, this study found that people who reported an increase in psychological stress, gained more weight if they already had higher body mass indexes (BMI). A similar weight-gain pattern was not found among lower-weight people who were dealing with the same types of stress, according to the study.

Stress causes an actual physical response in your body. When a threat is perceived, real or imagined, the body has an automatic defense mechanism. This is often called the "fight or flight" response. It is your body's way of protecting you. When this happens, adrenaline and cortisol are released in your bloodstream. Your breathing becomes rapid. Blood is redirected away from your digestive track and sent to your muscles and limbs. Your impulses quicken, your pupils dilate. Excess of the hormone cortisol is secreted. All of these physical reactions are the primitive way your body prepares to meet the perceived threat head on.

Cortisol is present in your bloodstream at all times. It helps to maintain blood pressure and provide energy for the body. Cortisol stimulates the metabolism of fats and carbohydrates for energy in the body. It also stimulates insulin release for maintenance of blood sugar levels. As a result, it can also cause an increase in appetite in order to maintain your energy and insulin levels. During times of stress, when excess cortisol is secreted, normal patterns of cortisol levels are disrupted. On average, levels are highest in the early morning and lowest at night. The disruption of this pattern can promote weight gain also. Cortisol can mix up your hunger signals and cause you to eat high fat, simple carbohydrate foods that the body can convert to energy. These calories were easily burned off back in ancient times, when everyday life involved more physical activities (hunting for food, farming, etc...) Today, most stress is caused by busy schedules and money woes. As a result, you probably aren't burning off those extra calories in times of stress.

To prevent weight gain during stress and reduce the risk of obesity, get a handle on your stress. When you feel less stressed and more in control of your life, you may find it easier to stick to healthy eating and exercise habits.

Try these stress management techniques to combat stress-related weight gain:

Recognize the warning signs of stress, such as anxiety, irritability and muscle tension.
Before eating, ask yourself why you're eating — are you truly hungry or do you feel stressed or anxious?

  • If you're tempted to eat when you're not hungry, find a distraction.
  • Don't skip meals, especially breakfast.
  • Identify comfort foods and keep them out of your home or office.
  • Keep a record of your behavior and eating habits so that you can look for patterns and connections — and then figure out how to overcome them.
  • Learn problem-solving skills so that you can anticipate challenges and cope with setbacks.
  • Practice relaxation skills, such as yoga, massage or meditation.
  • Engage in regular physical activity or exercise.
  • Get adequate sleep.
  • Get encouragement from supportive friends and family.

If you are suffering from stress and weight gain, consuming a diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and lean meats is a simple, cost-effective way to approach stress management. Consuming too much caffeine and junk food can aggravate the symptoms of stress. By eliminating junk food, high fat and sugary foods, you will not only reduce your stress-related symptoms but also lose weight and prevent future weight gain.

Unless you join a monastery, you can't avoid stress or stop your body's automatic reaction to it.

What you can do, is recognize the things that are causing the stress, do your best to eliminate them, and most importantly find the healthy activities in life that make you happy and relaxed.