Life has a way of serving up mental and emotional experiences that take a lot out of you. After meeting a tight work deadline, cramming for an important exam or coming out of an hours-long period of intense anxiety, rage or crying, you might feel as though you've run a marathon.
Even positive stressors like having to be "on" for a big party can drain your energy and make you feel exhausted after the fact. If you've been thinking so hard or expressing yourself so much that your heart is pounding and it seems like there's steam coming out of your ears, your brain can feel tired, and your body can feel tired, too. But have you actually burned any calories — and can these kinds of tiring mental and emotional experiences aid in weight loss?
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The short answer is: Not really. But there is a bit more to it.
Experiences that tax your brain or emotions do require additional energy, but not to such a degree that you'll burn a lot of calories. If you're not doing physical activity, your calorie burn is small — and therefore won't result in weight loss.
Brain Metabolism and Calorie Burn
As explained by the Mayo Clinic, metabolism is the process by which your body combines the calories you consume with oxygen to release energy. "The number of calories your body uses to carry out ... basic functions is known as your basal metabolic rate (BMR)," they write.
"Just sitting on the couch staring into space requires that you burn some calories," notes Harvard Health Publishing. "That's the BMR, and it accounts for about 2/3 of the total calories burned each day."
According to older but oft-cited research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the brain alone accounts for roughly 20 percent of the body's daily calorie consumption — a rate of metabolism that remains "remarkably constant" in spite of widely varying mental activity.
David A. Levitsky, a professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University, told the New York Times that this 20 percent equates to roughly a 300-calorie use by your brain per day for all mental activity, whether taxing or not. Thinking extra hard during the day burns few additional calories, he said — only about 20 of the 300 calories your brain uses each day.
Levitsky explained that this extra bit of calorie burn occurs because when you work on solving a problem, the glucose uptake in your brain increases. Once you stop, glucose levels return to normal. Therefore, he doesn't recommend thinking hard as a legitimate way to drop unwanted pounds.
"Physical activity is by far the most variable of the factors that determine how many calories you burn each day," writes Mayo.
Emotional Stress and Calorie Burn
Crying is typically a physical response to emotional stress, which sets off a chain reaction in the body. As described by the American Heart Association (AHA), "Your body releases adrenaline, a hormone that temporarily causes your breathing and heart rate to speed up and your blood pressure to rise. These reactions prepare you to deal with the situation."
But though crying is a physical response, it is not physical exercise. It doesn't burn significant calories, nor is it likely to help you reach a weight-loss goal. As the AHA makes clear, the only muscle that emotional stress really "burns" per se is the heart. And even though your heart rate does speed up when you are sobbing due to grief or anguish, that increase isn't enough to have a significant impact on your metabolic rate — or result in weight loss.
Stress and Appetite
Another point to consider is that mental and emotional stress can both result in emotional eating, which adds calories instead of burning them. According to a study published in the September 2018 issue of the Journal of Eating Disorders, emotional eating — defined as overeating in response to negative emotions — "contributes to weight gain and difficulties losing weight" for some.
"Programs promoting exercise, mindful eating, emotion regulation, and positive body image could have a positive effect on emotional eaters who struggle to maintain a healthy weight," researchers concluded.
Bottom line: If you are trying to lose weight, draining your energy by overloading your brain (or emotions) isn't going to produce results. It might even make you overeat, or feel too worn out to engage in healthful forms of exercise.
Frequent crying and changes in appetite are two signs of clinical depression, according to the Skidmore College Counseling Center. If you or a loved one have been experiencing them for more than a few days, talk to a mental health professional.
- Mayo Clinic: "Metabolism and Weight Loss — How You Burn Calories"
- Cornell University: "College of Human Ecology — David Levitsky"
- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America: "Appraising the Brain's Energy Budget"
- American Heart Association: "Stress and Heart Health"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Burning Calories Without Exercise"
- Skidmore College Counseling Center: "Depression"
- Journal of Eating Disorders: "Emotional Eating and Weight Regulation — a Qualitative Study of Compensatory Behaviors and Concerns"