Are you addicted to stress?
Stress used to be a useful response – in times of fear or life-threatening situations, our body’s stress reaction was the appropriate response. Our hearts quickened, blood vessels dilated, muscles tensed, primed for action, and we ran away, leaving the threat in the dust behind us. We then went on with our day, letting go of the stress we just experienced and returning to a relatively relaxed existence. Flash forward thousands of years and we no longer leave the stress in our rearview mirror. Alerts, reminders, and mini-crises link one moment to the next, creating an endless haze of stress we have no escape from. We lament this relationship (‘I’m SO stressed’) and yet, we choose it over and over again.
We have become addicted to stress.
Stress has become the toxic relationship we can’t leave even though we know it’s hurting us. It’s the friend that makes us feel alive and important and then doesn’t return our calls. It’s the night of drinking that makes us feel exhilarated and intoxicated, but ultimately leaves us sick, regretful, and poorer than when we began. We hate it, but we can’t let it go. It’s destroying us, but we think it makes us better.
Why are we addicted?
Addictions occur because they serve a purpose; no matter the substance, or activity, it helps to distract us from or soothe, a painful part of ourselves. Stress, or the perception of stress, can serve a purpose. Being stressed, or busy, can make us feel important, providing an identifier we share with the world – ‘look at me, I am a busy person!’ Physiologically, we may become dependent on the way stress feels; an explosion of stress hormones through our body can help us to feel alert, focused, and energized, and able to take on the world. Motivated by a sense of inadequacy, we may feel that work, or busyness, helps us to feel purposeful, or provides the financial means to buy more things – another misguided attempt at fulfillment.
Over time we need more and more, leading to detrimental choices in the name of a cortisol hit. But a long-term excess of stress hormones cannot be sustained, leading to a variety of signals that you may have become dependent on a way of living that you cannot maintain.
Signs You May Be Addicted
* You have a hard time unplugging from technology (social media, e-mail, etc)
* You find it tough to relax, take time off, or find yourself bored and/or antsy on vacation
* Every time you finally take a break, you get sick
* You find yourself creating drama in relationships, at work, or with your health; you notice that you are uneasy if there is no friction (this could include picking fights, gossiping, procrastinating until the last minute to complete tasks)
* You have a low sex drive
* You can’t lose weight
* You feel irritable, find it tough to focus, and struggle to remember things
* You crave intense exercise; you feel irritable without it
* You have signs that your hormones are out of balance, such as irregular periods, PMS, hypothyroidism, hot flashes
* You have an autoimmune disease
* You rely on stimulants (coffee, matcha, pop, chocolate, nicotine) to get through the day
Rehab Your Relationship to Stress
1. Change Your Language
When someone asks us how we are, and we immediately reply “I’m so stressed”, what is the narrative we are creating? Are we proud, hoping they will understand how important we are? Are we asking for help? Or are we acknowledging that we have taken on too much? Regardless of the intention, change your language to reflect the truth of your situation. Let your friends know, “I’ve taken on too much”, or “I’m working really hard right now and I’d like to share how proud I am of this project I just completed”, or “honestly, I need help”. Repeatedly proclaiming how stressed you support the notion that we should be all stress, all the time, and reinforces this signal to your body. Change your language and your mind will follow.
2. Create Better Boundaries
Discuss your desire to break-up with stress to your friends and colleagues. When we’re stressed, we are saying that we are not clear on our priorities; propose the idea of getting clearer on what truly needs to be done, and by when. Does that meeting actually need to occur, or is it easier to communicate clearly via an email? If you do need to talk in person, would you both be better served by a walking meeting? Can you create a boundary around when you’re considered ‘available’ for contact via email, phone call, and text? Create deadlines, and stick to them. Create boundaries, and uphold them. Over time, they will become second nature for you and the people around you.
3. Schedule Downtime Every Day
It might feel counterintuitive but we can use scheduling to our benefit, as long as we are scheduling downtime. Put it in, preferably daily, and make it non-negotiable. It could be as simple as completing a meditation on the train home, taking a bubble bath each night, reading an easy-read before bed, or flowing through 5-10 sun salutations each morning.
4. Schedule Tech-free Time
Put. Down. The. Phone. It will be there when you get back. Turn your phone to airplane mode at the same time every night and keep it in a separate room. Ideally, wait 12 hours before rebooting, or at the very least, give yourself an hour of tech-free time first thing in the morning. Use this time to clear your mind, reflect on something you’re thankful for, or envision how you would like the day to go.
5. Sleep Like a Boss
Your new job? Sleeping. Many high achieving, incredibly successful people eschew the benefits of sleep (check out Arianna Huffington’s book, ’Sleep Revolution’). Over time, sleep deprivation affects our health, throwing our hormones out of balance, weakening our immune system, and altering our ability to learn, memorize, and think clearly. Figure out what time you need to wake up in the morning, and go back 7-9 hours to determine your bedtime. Stick to it, even on weekends, like your life depends on it. Because it does.
6. Stop Stimulants
It’s tough to relax or sleep if we’re consistently jacked up on stimulants. Over time, we build up a tolerance to many stimulants, needing more and more to experience the same effect. Build in a breather – such as 1 week a month off of coffee – to sensitize your body response. Even better, take an extended break, and begin to recognize fatigue as a sign that you need something, such as a nap, a walk outside, a change in scenery, or a snack.
Even with a shift in our stress response, sleeping better, cutting the stimulants, and creating better boundaries, we may still need a bit more support. Particularly, if we have been stressed for a lengthy period of time, our hormones and nervous system may struggle to regain balance. Chat with a professional, such as a naturopathic doctor, to determine whether you may benefit from cortisol-suppressive supplements, adaptogenic herbs, melatonin, or neurotransmitter support. Everyone’s needs are different, and if we have been burning the candle at both ends for a while, we might struggle to switch gears. Practice asking for help, and seek out a team that can support your goals.