We all want to get rid of our stress. Or do we? If you experience enough stress often enough, you can literally become addicted to it. Even though you hate it. Even though it’s derailing your focus, your productivity and your health. Learn to beat the stress addiction and you literally can gain a new lease on life.
Stress doesn’t feel good. When we’re chronically stressed, we don’t do our best work. Research shows that stress has a massive negative impact on our health, with doctors reporting that as much as 90% of their patients’ medical issues are stress-related.
It also affects our mental health, and sometimes our relationships with our co-workers and family members. Stress even impacts the economy, costing American businesses up to $300 billion a year in lost productivity.
So why would you choose a life of stress if you had a choice? Yet, many of us are doing just that. We actually become addicted to our own stress. And like any other addiction, even when it is causing us all kinds of problems, we find it incredibly hard to let it go.
Why You’re Addicted to Stress
Yes, it seems counterintuitive. Most of us complain about stress and desperately wish we could be rid of it. And yet despite our good intentions, the stress remains. Our stress levels are higher than ever - so high that the World Health Organization calls stress the “Health Epidemic of the 21st Century.”
And yet, even though stress can feel horrible, like any addiction, we are the ones who are unwilling to let go of it. Even though it doesn’t feel that way. Let me explain.
Stress releases adrenaline and cortisol into our system. Cortisol in turn can make parts of the brain more receptive to dopamine, a hormone that rewards short-term satisfaction by providing a feeling of pleasure. Dopamine can have a positive impact, for example during eating, sex or the fulfillment of a goal.
But it also shows up in, and many believe reinforces, negative and addictive behaviors such as gambling and alcohol and drug abuse. It’s also a big part of why you have trouble prying your eyes from your phone even when you know you should doing something more productive.
When you’ve been stressed for a period of time, your body keeps releasing more adrenaline, cortisol and dopamine into your system. And like an addict, you don’t know what it feels like not to have those chemicals coursing through your brain and body, and you crave more and more of them.
How many times have you encountered people who wear their stress like a badge of honor? The person who can’t sit still and always tells you how busy they are, how much work they have, how tight their deadlines are.
It doesn’t matter that their health suffers. It doesn’t matter that they’re flailing in a hundred directions but not actually getting much done, or getting it done well. They feel like they’re “going somewhere" because they feel stress and pressure. Those stress hormones are racing through their system, and they’re racing right along with them.
We’re not talking about when you’re being chased by a lion or a would-be mugger, times when the flight-or-fight response is exactly what you need. We’re talking about getting through everyday life, where our addiction to stress simply results in lower productivity and greater physical and mental health issues.
Letting Go of Your Stress Addiction
Although beating any addiction - stress included - isn't easy, there are some tried and true steps you can take to let go of the unhelpful and sometimes harmful stress in your life.
1. Admit You’re Addicted. At Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, participants introduce themselves with the sentence, “My name is ____, and I’m an alcoholic." The first step to breaking an addiction is to be honest with yourself that you have the addiction.
I understand – you may not believe you’re addicted to stress. You may think your stress is merely a natural outcome of the circumstances in your life. I would ask you to consider the possibility that you are addicted to stress. Because, for the physiological reasons already discussed as well as emotional reasons that cause us to cling to stress, the majority of us easily fall for this addiction.
Many alcoholics don’t believe they have an issue with alcohol until their life takes too many negative turns for them to ignore it any longer. Similarly, too many stress addicts don’t deal with their addiction until the heart attack or other major health issue comes their way.
Many others never reach that point, but nevertheless continue to suffer from chronic stress, which shows up in the form of difficult if not debilitating health issues, low happiness and self-esteem, low productivity and performance, and various negative events such as stalled careers and toxic relationships. Start by recognizing that your body is wired to become addicted to the hormones released by stress, and you may seek out stress to avoid painful emotions or other issues in your life. This awareness alone will go a long way. Once you recognize stress addiction, you’ll start noticing when it shows up.
2. Break the Cycle. Once you notice it, you can begin to take control and decide whether you want to live with the stress or not. There are myriad ways to break the cycle of stress, many of them discussed in articles throughout this blog. To start, you can simply focus on your breathing. When you notice yourself becoming stressed, or are already stressed - stop. Check in on your breathing. Allow your breathing to gradually slow down (it’s hard to stay stressed when you’re breathing slowly and deeply).
Most of us know we can relax by slowing down our breath. But when you’re in the midst of feeling stressed, it’s too easy to keep riding the stress wave and never actually work on your breathing. This is where you need to deliberately and affirmatively break the cycle.
Stop. If it’s hard (and it may be if you’re addicted to those stress feelings), you’ll need to make a point of intentionally stopping and intentionally breathing. After you’ve broken the cycle this way a few times, it will be come much easier. And you’ll likely become less stressed. If focusing on your breathing isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other ways to break the cycle. One that’s particularly effective is to start asking yourself questions. Why am I feeling stress right now? Is this stress helping me? What would happen if I simply let the stress go?
By asking yourself questions, you create a little space between yourself and the stress. And that space gives you the opportunity to start letting your stress go.
3. Let It Go. One critical concept to understand about stress is that stress is something you experience, not something you are. Many unthinkingly say, “I’m stressed” and the like. But in truth, stress is not your identity. It is your current state. You could be relaxed instead, or excited or happy or a host of other states. But each state would be your state at that moment, not who you are.
Once you acknowledge that stress is not your identity, but merely your current state, it is much easier to change to a non-stressed state. Knowing that the addictive feel of stress is caused by stress hormones in your body and possibly internal emotional issues, you can literally begin to tune into what that feels like in your body.
Once you have located the stress in your body, you can actively break the cycle (see no. 2, above), and release and even dissolve the stress in favor of a non-stressed state. In the short-term, it is easier to plod along in your habitual stressed state. It takes real work to identify, release and remove the stress. But in the long run, the payoff for dumping your stress is huge. Stress impacts your health, your relationships, your creativity and your productivity.
It also doesn’t feel good, no matter how addicted you may be to it. Try taking small steps to attune to and remove the stress. Once you do, you’ll wonder why you didn’t break the addiction sooner.