stress

People become addicted to all sorts of guilty pleasures: Alcohol, shopping, gambling, sex and – stress. STRESS? Why would one want to indulge repeatedly in such a nasty habit as stressing out?

As it turns out, stress is not all bad. Stress propels you to study harder for an exam, to make it to your job interview on time and to watch your children carefully at the beach. Stress isn’t inherently bad. Overdoing stress, however, can have hugely negative effects on your body and mind, especially if you tend to do so frequently.

Stress floods the body with cortisol, a steroid hormone that is very hard on the body. It suppresses the immune system, increases blood sugar and decreases bone formation. Stress readies the body and mind for “fight or flight,” the human response to danger that has been around as long as we have. This works well when faced with a hungry lion on the ancient African savannah, but not so much when faced with a work deadline, snarled traffic at rush hour or an overflowing inbox. Staying constantly in this “fight or flight” mode can affect your physical and mental health currently and in the future.

Why would anyone be addicted to chronic stress? Because stress is stimulating. Stress is a very poor form of stimulation that hurts you almost as much as it helps you, but it is stimulation nonetheless. And some of us not only like stimulation, but we also need it for our brains to function properly.

Anyone whose brain functions in the Attention Deficit Disorder spectrum must have stimulation for his or her mental processes to function properly. It is not a choice; it is neurochemistry. In the absence of healthy stimulation (music, conversation, Adderall) then that person’s brain WILL find a way to stimulate itself to provide the neurochemicals it needs to function properly. A person with ADD isn’t twitchy while waiting in a long line because they want to be; they are twitchy because their brain is trying desperately to stimulate itself so that it can function instead of drifting off into a haze. Stress will always provide the brain a certain level of stimulation, and it’s free, easy and can be enacted in a moment’s notice.

But it’s not just those whose brains exist in the ADD spectrum who are at risk of becoming addicted to stress. For many people, especially in American culture, you are defined by what you do, what you produce, what you create. The more you do, therefore, the better defined your character and the richer your life. If our actions define us, those with more actions are leading fuller lives – even if it leaves you exhausted at the end of the day.

Women are particularly vulnerable to this aspect of stress addiction. How often have you heard two or more women comparing their busy schedules and stressful lives like badges of honor? In the guise of commiserating, people brag about their overscheduled lives, with each added stressor like another notch on the “I do it all” trophy.

Are you addicted to stress? Do you feel a secret pleasure at your overflowing inbox and insane to-do list? Do you often complain/brag about your super busy life and all the functions you fulfill? If you find yourself constantly referencing your stressful life (and feeling superior about it), remember that your self-worth is not defined by what you do, but rather who you are. If your brain needs stimulation to function properly, identify what stimulates your mind in a healthy way, and surround yourself with these things (and consider stimulant medication). Quit using stress to stimulate yourself, and you will breathe easier, sleep better and have a more healthful life in the long run. 

image: mararie