Stress, like love or beauty, lies in the eyes of the beholder. In perhaps it’s most simple definition, stress is simply a stimulus for change. Positive opportunities such as a family vacation, getting married or even winning the lottery all come with their share of stress and stimulation. And while it’s easy to blame stress on what’s going on around us, a significant part of our relationship with stress is based on the hidden internal stress we deal with each day — eating too much of the wrong foods or too few of the right ones, living a sedentary lifestyle or overtraining at the gym, being a perfectionist or lacking motivation to get up in the morning.
So how do you know if you have an unhealthy dependence on stress? The following few questions may help you figure it out:
- Do you thrive on tight deadlines?
- Do you often leave things until the last minute?
- Do you have a difficult time doing nothing at all?
- Does it take you a few days off to feel like you’re on vacation?
- Do you spend much of your vacation time thinking about work?
- Do you constantly worry about what you might be missing?
- Do you feel stressed when you’re disconnected from your cell phone or computer?
- Do you find it difficult to turn your brain off at night to sleep?
- Do you feel as though there is never enough time to get things done?
- Do you ever feel as though the work you put in for the day is not enough?
- Do you lack time to see your friends or participate in hobbies you used to enjoy?
- Do you feel as though you’re constantly running from one thing to the next?
- Do you find yourself finishing, or wanting to finish, other peoples’ statements?
- Do you wish I’d stop asking questions so you can get on with the book already?
Chances are, you answered “yes” to a good amount of these questions. But, who cares? We all have stress, and it’s not going anywhere — so we might as well accept it, right? I even had a client tell me once, “I love my stress and I don’t want to manage it.” She spoke aloud the truth so many of us are living, whether we accept it or not: we thrive on stress. It makes us feel driven to succeed, boosts energy, and gives meaning to our life. Our conversations often seem to involve a competition of who’s more stressed. “How are you?” “Stressed.” “Me too.” And then each party goes on to explain why they’re so stressed, with the person who’s worse off winning in our backwards way of thinking. This twisted social story tells us that busier you are, the more stressed you are, the more important you are. Just take Seinfield’s George Costanza, who made it a point to look annoyed so that his boss would assume he was doing something important.
The problem is not that you can’t handle your stress. You’re likely doing a fabulous job getting the things done that need to get done, meeting deadlines, and even attending a social event every once in a while (especially if it’s work related). But what is your experience of your life? Are you taking time to appreciate what you’re working so hard to accomplish — or are you just speeding through in order to tackle the next item on your to-do list?
Perhaps more importantly, are you aware of the long-term impact that this stress-filled life has on you? Probably not. Or maybe like most addicts, you know the consequences of your behavior but you’re so hooked on it that coming down from stress feels uncomfortable — and with such a busy schedule it’s just easier to stay amped up than deal with the detox of letting go. Remember the advertisement “this is your brain on drugs”? It certainly made a lasting impression. Unfortunately, it’s not just drugs that can cause our brains to feel scrambled. Unmanaged stress might be just as dangerous.
Stress (and drugs) have been shown to have the following side effects: increased heart rate and blood pressure, an increase in blood sugar, breakdown of muscle tissue, decreased digestive functioning, ulcers, blood clotting, migraines, skin problems, premature aging, loss of brain cells, social isolation and loneliness, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, substance abuse, relationship problems, lack of focus, multitasking and disengagement. In fact, a 20-year study by the University of London completed in the early 1990s found that unmanaged reactions to stress were a more dangerous risk factor for cancer and heart disease than either cigarette smoking or high-cholesterol foods. And stress may even be as addictive as drugs. In addition to the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline, stress also releases the “feel good” chemical dopamine, which encourages repeat behaviors by activating the reward center in our brains. This may be at the heart of many addictive behaviors and substance abuse issues.
While it may seem a bit extreme to consider stress an addictive substance, it turns out the just about anything can become addictive depending on the individual who is responding. Addiction expert Stanton Peele has suggested that there is no habit that cannot become excessive, compulsive, or life endangering. According to Peele, “Addiction… is not a label to be applied to specific things but to an involvement a person creates in time or space.” It’s all about the relationship that we build with our habits of behavior.
When we lose sight of our natural pulse, or worse — intentionally disrupt it in order to accomplish something — we trigger an adaptive response that becomes addictive. At its core, addiction is a dependence on some external or internal stimulus that causes either a feeling of pleasure or avoidance of pain. Early-stage stress addiction usually attracts us to sources of stress to get something positive — a neurochemical satisfaction such as dopamine release, an intrinsic (internal) reward such as feeling needed, or an extrinsic (external) benefit such as money, power, or success.
As our addiction progresses, however, it becomes less about what we might get and more about avoiding loss, which brings with it an even stronger tie to our basic survival mechanisms. Instead of intentionally turning to stress-providing stimulation for positive reinforcements we now require them to avoid the pain of its absence. We shift from triggering positive dopamine to avoiding negative cortisol, from seeking importance to avoiding insignificance, and from accomplishing success to merely remaining employed. This fear-based shift moves us from what appeared to be healthy striving to merely surviving.
We can reverse this process by neurochemically rebalancing our brain, nourishing our mind and body with love and support, and establishing training behaviors or habits that strengthen our ability to resist stress’s addictive nature. As we’ve already discovered, stress itself is not the problem. Depending on or accepting stress without recovery despite hazardous consequences–such as fatigue, dissatisfaction in life, loss of joy, anxiety, etc — is what destroys our health, energy, and engagement.
Stress in and of itself is neither good nor bad; it just is. Therefore it is not the existence of stress that causes an addictive dependence; rather, it’s our individual response to the stress in our lives over time. Each person has unique experiences with stress throughout the lifespan; certain situations cause severe disability, while others enhance learning and facilitate growth.
In fact, a life without stress would be stressful. It would push us out of our comfort zone in the opposite direction, with a lack of stimulation for growth. Research shows that one of the highest spikes in human mortality occurs within six months of retirement. It is quite dangerous to go from being always “on” to a screeching halt. The human system is not designed to function in a state of all or nothing; yet because of our hectic environment and constant connection, people tend to be pulled back to the extremes. To operate most effectively, we need to find the balance between stress and recovery that enables us to experience challenge and growth without constantly breaking down.
The Stressaholic Recovery Process – Recharge Your Energy and then Reprogram Your Life
Stress can be good for us: facilitating important learning and stimulating personal growth. However, like an old rubber band we crack and break down when force is applied to our weakened system because we lack flexibility. Our world today is filled with outside stimulation and stress inducing factors, with unrelenting demands on our time. But when we have the energy to be pliable and resilient, we are not only able to bounce back from challenges; we also become stronger as a result of the exercise.
Therefore, successful and sustainable stress management must start with a core foundation of energy to keep your brain and body functioning in a more optimal state. This allows the brain to facilitate opportunity-based processes for focus and attention, creativity and flexibility, and endurance over time. The messages that the body’s various hormones send the brain to regulate energy flow — and maintain things like glucose and oxygen supply — will provide us the stability we need for optimal functioning.
Consider your stress management strategies as building blocks of a pyramid.
The foundational techniques will be those we continue to go back to when we feel overwhelmed or out of balance. This rest process will serve as the supporting structure we need to continue moving up to the pinnacle of health, happiness, and performance. Key strategies to creating adequate rest go beyond just getting enough sleep. It’s critical that we also build in rest periods at least once every 90 minutes during the day to recharge our battery. Rituals such as listening to inspirational music, practicing deep breathing, doing some gentle stretching or going for a walk outside should be scheduled throughout the day and made a priority. Eliminating stimulating foods and other substances (caffeine, alcohol, nicotine) also helps the body reduce inflammation.
Once we have adequate rest and recovery built into our routine, we can then look to nourishing nutrients that will strengthen our core practice and provide even more resilience and stability. We add nourishment through the foods we eat (such as healthy fats, lean proteins, and fresh fruits and vegetables, just to name a few), incorporating moderate physical activity throughout the day and boosting positive endorphins in the brain through positive thinking, meditation, and gratitude. By utilizing our repair techniques, we will create healthier cells and stronger neural pathways in the brain to keep our body and mind performing at their best.
We then rebuild these chemical and cellular processes in our final recharge step by incorporating strategic training challenges that temporarily break us down, a little bit at a time, in order to stimulate just enough stress to cause our system to adapt and become even stronger. We can strengthen both the body and mind by utilizing exercises such as interval training, balance and coordination activities, and mental stimulation through brain games, visualization, and neurofeedback. It’s important to always be cognizant of the rest and repair techniques we need to maintain so that the challenges we now seek out provide an opportunity for growth – rather than chronic break down.
In the final two steps of our stress management process, we will build upon our foundation of strategic energy management to create a more positive mindset – one that will allow us to perceive the stress in our life as healthy and beneficial. As we rethink stress we’ll be able to use it to our advantage. Mindfulness, journaling and visualization are just a few ways we can walk through the steps of changing our mind for the better. We’ll then continue to create support for our habits of thought and behavior as we redesign our daily routine to support our optimal performance pulse; periods of stress balanced with periods of recovery.
Two key shifts must happen in order to break free from stress addiction. First, we need to recalibrate our operating system by replenishing necessary energy at the most basic levels, chemical and cellular. We must then reprogram our lifestyle by rewiring our habits of thought and behavior. To learn more about the Stressaholic Recovery Process, you can watch this recent interview with Judy Martin of Work/Life Nation or check out Stressaholic: 5 Steps to Transform Your Relationship With Stress.
About Dr. Heidi Hanna – Speaker on Performance and Wellness:
As a performance coach and keynote speaker, Dr. Heidi Hanna has trained thousands of individuals on practical ways to incorporate nutrition, exercise, and positive psychology strategies to improve their health, productivity, and performance. Her vast coaching experience and passionate coaching style help motivate individuals and teams to develop sustainable success at both a personal and professional level. Heidi is CEO and founder of SYNERGY, a coaching and consulting company that specializes in customized health and wellness solutions for individuals and organizations. Heidi’s publications include SHARP: Simple Strategies to Boost Your Brainpower, and the NY Times best seller The SHARP Solution: A Brain-Based Approach for Optimal Performance.