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Do you thrive on tight deadlines, always putting things off to the last minute to complete? When you have a few days off of work for vacation, do you struggle to get out of that work mindset? Does being away from your phone or computer for more than a few minutes make you nervous, fearing that you may be missing something? Maybe you feel like there isn’t enough time in the day to get things done, leaving you struggling to turn your brain “off” at night to sleep (Hanna, 2012).
Stress: one of the most universal human experiences. It can keep us safe when we sense danger by encouraging us to be on high alert and prepare to fight or run for our lives. It motivates us to be productive and pushes us through the day, from one task to another. This same biological mechanism designed to protect us, however, is also a silent killer itself. Today we’re going to be talking about stress addiction: what it is, how to spot it, and how to challenge it.
Like most things, stress can be beneficial in moderation. It’s when we overload ourselves with it that we enter the danger zone. Some stress is generally unavoidable, like car troubles or getting sick. It inconveniences us and causes us to rearrange our finances or plans, but there really is no way around it. It’s the price we pay for the human experience.
Other stressors, we place on ourselves. This isn’t always intentional, but it may be avoidable. And it may be worth our while to avoid it considering the negative health effects that can come from always being so stressed out.
The Problem With Stress
A study conducted over the course of twenty years, completed by the University of London in the early 1990s, found that stress reactions left unmanaged may be more dangerous risk factors for cancer and heart disease than smoking and eating high cholesterol foods (Hanna, 2012).
Physical effects of the human body constantly existing in this fight or flight mode include an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar (Hanna, 2012). It contributes to the breakdown of muscular tissue in the body, leading to fatigue and exhaustion (Hanna, 2012). We may also physically experience migraines, stomach ulcers, and general digestion discomfort (Hanna, 2012). The impact on mental health is just as severe. Constant stress contributes to higher rates of depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and overall feelings of loneliness from social isolation (Hanna, 2012).
We can identify this state of overwhelming stress as being in “distress,” (Cleveland Clinic, 2015). This is when our body lacks natural balance and equilibrium (Cleveland Clinic, 2015). It’s when we’re most prone to those negative physical and emotional side effects, and prolonged periods of this with little to no relaxation and relief can cause permanent heart problems, lung problems, liver cirrhosis, or severe depression (Cleveland Clinic, 2015).
If our bodies react so negatively to stress, why do we pack our days full of it? This may be because stress in itself is highly addictive (HealthCare Assistance with Member Support, 2020). Stress releases hormones in the brain that reward us and give us energy (HCAMS, 2020). Dopamine is released to reward us and encourage us to continue the stressful behavior (HCAMS, 2020). Adrenaline pushes us through the stress and makes us feel energized, especially after we accomplish the stressful task (Hanna, 2012).
Another reason why we may be caught in an addictive stress cycle is if we tie our identity to the work that we do (HCAMS, 2020). This can happen when we feel as though the only time we are good enough or worthy is when we’re working on a project or have an overloaded schedule.
How to De-Stress
The bottom line is this: our bodies are not made for existing in a constant state of fight or flight.
We have to start with figuring out what specifically it is that sends us into that spiral (HCAMS, 2020). Do you start to feel your heart rate pick up when you’re watching the news, scrolling on social media, or spending time with a certain friend? These are just a few examples that can help us start to figure out where we might need to cut back. This can look like giving ourselves time limits and boundaries for when we allow these stressors in our day, such as turning off news notifications and only looking at it once a week.
It may also help to find other ways to release those “feel good” chemicals in our brain, such as exercising or spending time with a pet. Resting is another great way to release dopamine, even though our stressful days may cause us to resist it (Healthline, 2020).
Stress kept our ancestors from running into a lion’s den. Today, it helps us slam on our breaks when the car in front of us cuts us off. It keeps us quick on our feet and helps us survive, but we deserve to exist in more than just a state of survival.
We deserve to relax. Thankfully, you already have the tools to relax at your disposal.
Meditation, yoga, journaling, deep breathing, scheduling ahead of time, making lists…all of these are tools to help you relax and remove the addiction to stress. Use one and start the process.
Dr. Hanna Heidi. (2012). Are you a Stress Addict? The American Institute of Stress.
Health Care Assistance with Member Support. (2020). Are You Addicted to Stress? HCAMS.
Cleveland Clinic. (2015). Stress: Signs, Symptoms, Management, & Prevention. Cleveland Health Clinic.
Healthline. (2020). 10 Best Ways to Increase Dopamine Levels Naturally. Healthline.