We wear our stress like a badge of honor, humble-bragging about how little sleep we got last night, how our weekend was spent racing to meet a deadline, and how we’re too busy to take a vacation. This lifestyle seems to have reached epidemic proportions, with 63 percent of Americans reporting feeling stressed and more than a quarter citing a “great deal” of stress, according to a spring 2014 survey by NPR and the Harvard School of Public Health. The majority of twentysomethings and women credit the sheer weight of too many responsibilities as the source of their angst.
Some experts believe that our tight-knit relationship with stress is partly self-imposed. Many of us, they think, are actually addicted to stress—seeking out the crunch of deadlines or the flurry of incoming work emails as though they were coffee, cigarettes, alcohol or drugs. The good news, however, is that there are ways to break this unhealthy cycle. But as with any addiction, recognizing that you are an addict is the first step down the road to recovery.
Getting High on Stress
Stress is a biological process that evolved to help us. Hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol get pumped through the body in dangerous situations. Daily life in the suburbs rarely requires fight-or-flight, but the same agents of reaction can be a boon for scoring a winning goal or delivering a flawless speech. They summon our strength and turn off nonessential functions to funnel resources to muscles and the brain.
Things begin to go awry, however, when cortisol and adrenaline remain present in our system for prolonged periods of time. Rather than tapering off after the perceived threat has passed, chronic stress causes a drippy tap of cortisol and adrenaline to continuously pollute our system. Not only does this wreak havoc on your hair, skin, weight, heart and digestive system, it gets you hooked—and looking for more. “Like a drug addict, you need a bigger fix all the time,” says Debbie Mandel, a stress management specialist and author of “Addicted to Stress.”
To get through deadlines or find relief from boredom at work, we find ourselves craving additional boosts of adrenaline on top of what already chronically plagues our system. “People are tired and they want a rush,” says Judith Orloff, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of “The Ecstasy of Surrender.” “We become adrenaline junkies, which leads to workaholism.”
Society, too, encourages such addictions. We all have friends (or are guilty ourselves) who, when asked how they are, inevitably respond with, “Busy,” “Crazy busy” or even “Insanely busy.” In our minds, busyness seems to equate with importance. Additionally, our smart devices ensure that we can keep ourselves on the busy treadmill even during dinners, vacations and social gatherings. “We’re always wondering, ‘Is something better happening? Am I getting an opportunity?’ ” Orloff says. “I can be in the best situation in the world, and I still want to check my phone.”
Money also plays a role in this cycle, with our self-worth seemingly measured in dollar signs. “Society tells people that you’re worthwhile if you make more money, which causes people to overwork like crazy,” Orloff says.
At the root of the addiction, Mandel thinks, is a reluctance to deal with ourselves on a deeper, more personal level. Cramming every moment of our lives with work, appointments and tasks means we don’t have to think about larger issues. And as it turns out, people will do almost anything to avoid themselves. In a July 2014 study, participants found it unpleasant to be left alone with their thoughts for six to 15 minutes, and some even began self-administering electric shocks to escape the introspection. “If we’re dancing as fast as we can, then we don’t have to think or get immersed in what’s not being satisfied in our lives,” Mandel says. “We’re running away from our own unhappiness.”
Breaking the Addiction
Chronic stress, as many scientific studies have shown, causes an array of long-term physical and mental problems, including depression, mental impairment, heart disease and weight gain. Symptoms such as insomnia, muscle aches, a short temper, digestive problems, frequent colds and anxiety may indicate that stress is beginning to overwhelm you. We can break the cycle, however, by making conscientious efforts to ditch the stress and to relax. Free from that burden, you will become more productive at work, mentally and physically healthier and more attractive to others (both on the inside and outside—tense shoulders, furrowed brows and baggy eyes are not cute). Here are several ways to accomplish this:
Unplug. It will be difficult at first, but breaking stress addiction first requires eliminating a major stress source: your phone. Set internal rules, such as no checking the phone at dinner, or no email for an entire weekend day. If that is too much, start with just 20 minutes at a time and build up from there.
Ditch toxic friends. If your friends guilt trip you for taking time off work, then they are not looking out for your best interest. “If your friends don’t support that you are caring for yourself, then that’s a problem,” Orloff says. Instead, Mandel adds, stay close to your cheerleaders, the people who can give you a reality check when you get off the rails, and can listen when you need to unburden yourself. “Just announcing it is a stress reliever,” she says.
Detach. Orloff suggests you give the nagging, self-criticizing voice in your head a name. When it surfaces, respond with something like, “Thank you for sharing, Shelley, but I’m taking a little break right now and will get back to you later.” Experts have also found that we are better able to deal with our problems when thinking about them in the third person rather than first person.
Exercise. Working up a sweat is one of the most sure-fire ways to relieve stress while giving you the chance to unleash pent up aggression. Exercise releases a flood of endorphins that can replace the stress hormones you’ve been bingeing on. Mandel, however, cautions: “Don’t run outside if you’re very stressed, because you won’t see the cars!”
Relax. This advice might sound like anathema, but relaxing or—gasp!—meditating doesn’t have to be quiet or even still. There are over 100 types of meditation practices, from dancing to singing to eating to sex, says Lorin Roche, Ph.D., a meditation instructor and author, and they can last from 30 seconds to an hour or longer. “Something like karaoke is a gateway to mediation—a joyous expression followed by relief.” He recommends picking an aspect of your life that you love and building a meditative ritual around that. And don’t worry about trying to “clear your mind,” he says. “It’s through welcoming tension that you release it.”.
Put yourself at the top of your to-do list. Last, but certainly not least, make room for you-time. This could be a massage, a spin class, an hour of silence with a book or a box of art supplies, or a walk in nature. Just make sure that whatever you do, you’re doing it for yourself. “Stress-addicted women will use extra time to catch up on chores, sew a costume for their daughter or do extra work—not to relax,” Mandel says. “Stress robs you of your identity, but doing what you love helps you to reclaim it.”