Are You Addicted to Stress?

I'm one of those people who likes stress. I like it a little too much. I think about downtime, but I rarely engage in it. I love to feel busy and active with lots of plates spinning. Oh, I'll complain about it, sure. But you try to take my stress away from me, and I'll fight you for it.

It's not so surprising -- you may not admit it, but you like stress, too. Because stress by other names is also: excitement, motivation, energy, pressure. And just the right amount will get you to do amazing things. I wouldn't accomplish a thing without it. And I know because the projects, both personal and professional, that don't exert much stress-related pressure on me don't get done. Period.

A certain degree of stress keep you on our toes, motivated, even focused. In fact, though you may not realize it, you may be feeding your addiction to stress.

"The reality is you can become addicted to the adrenaline rush that stress provides, and addicted to your own body chemistry," says Andrew Shatté, PhD, Chief Science Officer formeQuilibrium. "Stress entails the activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the fight or flight response, which releases the adrenalin to get our bodies galvanized to protect our turf or run from a threat."

The opponent process, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is automatically activated when the SNS abates, fueled by the release of beta endorphins, and relaxes the body. "The PNS clicks on with commensurate intensity to the SNS response it follows," Shatté explains. "So the bigger the stress response, the bigger the endorphin rush that follows it." Thus, the addiction. The question is: Are you so addicted to that rush that you may be ratcheting up your stress response on purpose? Because you can see how that could get exhausting.

(Read more about the effect of stress on mind and body.)

To change your stress levels, you have to shift your response to stress (since you can't exactly force the outside world to change). Sounds easy, right? Not so easy if you're addicted to even the responses to stress you hate (like saying things you don't mean, eating things you don't want to have eaten, etc). Only you can decide to change that.

So it's time to free yourself from negative, health-eroding stress responses by rewiring, rethinking, and retooling how you react. Here are some ways to start.

  1. Instead of a knee jerk response, take a time out. Instead of giving myself some space after something that happens (a maddening email, a difficult client conversation), I've often let my feelings dictate my behavior. I start knee-jerking all over the place, firing off emails and comments and allowing my mood to go off the rails. I end up emotionally flailing. This creates a downward spiral of energy and a steady increase in stress. I have created a rule: I'm not allowed to respond to an email or pick up a phone and call someone until a few hours have passed. No heat-of-the-moment communiqués.

  2. Instead of crying over it, laugh at it. I was rehashing a recent scenario at work that left me feeling bullied and unappreciated, and instead of continuing to pour gasoline on the flame of my frustration, which I normally do, I did the opposite: I looked at my emotional upset and laughed at it. I did for myself what a funny, honest friend would do and said to myself, "So, hold up. You're mad because someone doesn't adore you and do everything you want? You want to take your toys and go home now?!" I saw my petty response for what it was -- my attempt to have my own self-esteem and emotional needs met in a business setting, which is the wrong place to look for that. When I could see my base need for what it was, I could laugh at it and bring myself back down to earth.

  3. Instead of stewing in it, run for it. You've had that feeling -- that shaky, nerve-endy, head-on-fire feeling in the wake of a stressful situation. Don't just sit there. When your body kicks up that heady emotional cocktail of stress hormones, you don't want to sit and pickle in it. It'll wrankle your mood and make you feel worse. Get up and go somewhere -- anywhere. Leave the room, go for a walk, talk to someone else about something totally different. In other words, change the channel completely. I have the good fortune of working from home. So when I get fired up over something and can't concentrate, I throw on my running shoes and bang out a few miles around Central Park. Nothing frees you from your brain like pushing your body. After all that panting and sweating, I come back, shower--and it's like I'm a completely different person. And when you're free from a stress mindset, you're free to make better decisions.

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