Although stress has a bad reputation, moderate amounts of it can actually be beneficial in certain situations. Stress can boost our focus, increase our productivity, and even increase our energy levels for a short amount of time.
However, as you likely know, when your stress response is active day after day, it can have a serious impact on your physical and psychological health. And unfortunately, like so many other things that can harm your health in excess – like alcohol and weight training – stress can also be addictive.
The reason substances like caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and sugar are addictive are fairly intuitive. When we consume or use them, they make us feel better. Caffeine and nicotine give us an energy boost, alcohol relaxes us, and the consumption of sugar causes serotonin to be released in the body, making us want more.
How then can stress, which seemingly only makes us feel bad, be addictive?
The answer is that stress, both emotional and physical, activates our central nervous system, which causes a “natural high.” Neuroscientist and researcher Jim Pfaus explains:
“By activating our arousal and attention systems, stressors can also wake up the neural circuitry underlying wanting and craving — just like drugs do.”
Here’s how it works:
When we become stressed, an adrenaline rush occurs through the sympathetic nervous system. Evolutionarily speaking, this is known as the “fight or flight” response. Then, your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to oppose and balance out the response of the sympathetic nervous system, by releasing endorphins to relax your body.
Endorphins are relaxing, ‘”feel good” chemicals that are also released when you take certain drugs like morphine, and in smaller amounts after sex and exercise. The larger your stress response, the bigger your endorphin rush will be, and the more likely you are to get addicted to the feeling.
This leads some people to try to initiate this stress response (think people who thrive off of stressful situations, and people who constantly and deliberately take on on too much) on purpose, which is incredibly destructive for your health in the long term.
So, how can we change this? We must change our response to stress. Here’s how to do it:
Respond, don’t react: Our stress response is a reaction that happens because we’re unaware of what’s happening in our bodies. Once we become aware of the signs in our bodies—the increased heart rate, the shallow breathing, the sweaty armpits or shaking hands—we can immediately take the steps we need to relax ourselves rather than letting the situation, and our reaction, get out of hand.
Go outside—or anywhere: If you don’t feel in control enough to relax when faced with stress, here’s another option: remove yourself from the situation. Head outside if you can, as the great outdoors have been shown to reduce stress and depression.
Even if you can’t get outside, it can still be helpful to just leave the situation if you feel yourself losing control. Leave the room, go for a walk, or go talk to someone about something completely different.
Practice yoga or meditate: Cultivate regular yoga and meditation practices, as these relaxing, mindful activities actually rewire your brain to respond to stressful situations more healthily.
Like with all addictions, the first step is recognizing the behaviors, habits, and patterns that cause you to react the way you do. Then, either avoid those situations, or change the way you react to them.
It’s never easy, but breaking this addiction and changing your stress response has the power to transform your health, attitude, and life.
-The Alternative Daily