Is stress addictive? Are you a stressaholic?

Written by Ali Hale Tilley

Many of us thrive on stress. We can define stress as physical and mental reactions to any flight-fight response. These lifestyle responses stimulate brain chemicals, such as adrenaline, cortisol, and dopamine. However, the two types of stress – ‘good’ stress and ‘chronic’ stress – can make us react in different ways.

‘Good stress’ involves moderately challenging, short-lived stimulus, which can release adrenaline, making us feel motivated, focused, and accomplished. Good stress can provide us with a sense of leading an exciting, meaningful life.

On the flip side, chronic stress or being in a state of continual distress can release cortisol as stress hormone, which makes us feel restless, irritated, overworked, and exhausted.

Moreover, studies show that cortisol, our chronic stress hormone, makes us more sensitive to dopamine the chemical that makes us crave pleasure and reward. As a result of chronic stress, we may develop intense cravings, seeking addictive behaviours such as eating sweets, watching mindless entertainment, and gambling. Some people also use addictive substances, such as alcohol, nicotine, and painkillers to help dampen the effects of cortisol.

Consequently, when we are physically and mentally stressed we may crave substances and use addictive behaviours to help counter the negative physical and mental/emotional effects of stress.  

  • Physical stress symptoms include: exhaustion, muscle tension and jaw clenching, high blood pressure, sleeplessness, digestive problems, compromised immunity and addictive behaviours.
  • Likewise, mental/emotion stress symptoms include feelings of being agitated, moody, and frustrated, and unable to control emotional impulses, and need for social withdrawal.
workplace fatigue

To further help identify the differences between good and chronic stress we can look at stress in terms of 6 categories:

  1. Work stress (challenges and pressures related to your job performance, work colleagues, and any time spent commuting)
  2. Financial stress (challenges and pressures around financial obligations and use of expendable income)
  3. Relationship stress (how you relate to friends, family members and partners)
  4. Parental stress (how you relate to your children, your co-parenting arrangements, and support from extended family)
  5. Emotional stress (difficult emotions such as anger, sadness, or frustration)
  6. Environmental stress (your standard of living and workplace situation)

Debbie Mandel, author of Addicted to Stress, claims “A stress addict is looking to feel numb through distraction to avoid dealing with the source of unhappiness and loss of control.”

Furthermore, an article from Verywell Mind presents 6 questions to help us identify whether we are suffering from chronic stress: (https://www.verywellmind.com/chronic-stress-3145104)

  1. Are you often moody or irritated?
  2. Does it feel like you are always worrying about something?
  3. Does it seem like you don’t have time to take care of yourself or do the things that you enjoy?
  4. Do the smallest inconveniences seem like too much to handle?
  5. Do you always seem to catch colds or get infections?
  6. Have you been relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms like alcohol to manage your stress?
Worse still, sometimes stress is accumulative over the course of our lives. According’s to a medical article on child psychology and stress responses stress can accumulate throughout our lives without us actually realising it. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4570859/

 “Negative life events such as loss of parent, parental divorce and conflict, low parental support, physical violence and abuse, emotional abuse and neglect, isolation and deviant affiliation, and single-parent family structure have all been associated with increased risk of substance abuse.” In this regard, early life stress can lead to chronic stress experiences and seeking addictive rewards.”

The problem with the modern world is we want it all. We want to feel busy and productive to get the chemical rewards that stop us feeling sad, lonely, exhausted, irritated etc. We also want to feel fulfilled and engaged, as well as centered and relaxed. Consequently, our addiction to busy-ness and need for productivity may mean that we are less willing or able to engage in healthy stress management practices.

You may not be able to avoid stress in your life, but you can employ daily strategies to stop feeling the negative effects of stress. Remember if you are chronically stressed try one strategy each day to see which one makes you feel better.

Here are 10 useful strategies to help you balance up stressful lifestyle

  1. Q: Do you thrive on tight deadlines?

At the end of each day reflect on what you’ve accomplished and acknowledge the good parts of your life

  • Q: Do you often leave things until the last minute?

Learn to say “no” to demands that are time-consuming or energetically taxing

  • Q: Do you have a difficult time doing nothing at all?

Practice 5 minutes a day of breathing exercises (4 in, 4 hold, 4 out, 4 hold) followed by clearing meditation

  • Q: Do you constantly worry that you might be missing out or things might go wrong?

Spend time with people who keep you calm, make you happy, and provide emotional support.

  • Q: Do you feel stressed when you’re disconnected from your cell phone or computer?

Make time instead engaging in interesting hobbies such as reading, listening to music, and painting, designing, or even gardening.

  • Q: Do you find it difficult to turn your brain off at night?

Use calming essential oils, adding a drop or two on a tissue and tucking it under your pillow before bedtime.

  • Q: Have you been relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms like alcohol or gambling to manage your stress?

Go for a 20 minute walk daily to boost your overall mood

  • Q: Do you feel as though you’re constantly running from one thing to the next?

Practice self-care by eating healthy, putting your feet up at night, and getting enough sleep.

  • Q: Do you feel as though there is never enough time to get things done?

Try to avoid negative self-criticism and practice positive self-talk instead

  1. Do you find it hard to control food cravings?

Find outlets for high stress by engaging safely in high intensity or explosive activities such as martial arts, golf, H.I.T or even building something useful

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