I often joke that I became a fellow with the American Institute of Stress because I was so good at it. Stressing that is. I raced through presentations and workshops about mastering stress, struggling to get my message across within a limited amount of time — heart racing, adrenaline pumping, thoughts jumping. Both exhausted and exhilarated by the isolating adventure of life as a road warrior, I found myself lying in bed at night, tired and wired at the same time and unable to rest, repair and recharge.
My name is Heidi, and I’m a stressaholic. In fact, I even wrote the book on it. It’s never been a question of not knowing what to do or how important it is, and I would say that by now we all know what to do and why it’s so necessary. *If not, I’ll remind you of a few minor details that have popped up in media feeds over the past few years:
- Stress contributes to 75–90% of all medical visits
- The economic burden of stress may be as high as $600 billion in the US alone
- Unmanaged stress has shown to be more toxic to the brain and body than smoking cigarettes, being obese, or living a sedentary lifestyle
Yet, with all of this focus on stress we find ourselves in a, well, stressful dilemma. We talk about stress as if it’s an outside entity, something that needs to be fixed, and since none of us feels like we have extra time, energy or resources lying around to contribute to this battle we feel out of control. And it turns out that the element of personal control, including the belief that we have the resources we need to adapt, is the critical element that determines whether stress builds us up or breaks us down.
What’s more, stress is highly addictive for many reasons beyond just the chemical cascade that occurs to solidify the thoughts and behaviors needed to help us survive. Yes it’s true, the neurochemistry of stress is quite similar to that of other serious addictions such as drugs, alcohol, sugar, and compulsive behaviors. And yes it’s true, we can turn to stress just like we turn to other unhealthy habits as a way to numb out, distract ourselves from our reality, or even get a temporary energy buzz.
But what makes this addiction even more difficult to beat is that our brain is wired to crave the aspects of our life that provide necessary stimulation, which shifts from helpful to harmful when used in excess. Just like other “drugs of recreation”, stress-induced energy should be used in moderation — ideally only when needed in order to protect the cognitive reserve required for resilience and minimize the general wear and tear on our system caused by chronic stress.
So we find ourselves in a sticky situation. Aware of the downsides of stress, and thanks to newer research also aware of its upside. Regardless of whether the experience of stress is positive or negative, the unrelenting activation of the stress response — a system-wide experience that includes the nervous, endocrine and immune systems — is something that must be navigated with fine attention. When we understand that letting go of stress and stimulation can create temporary discomfort, quite similar to detoxing from other substances, it becomes easier to stay the course.
Taking is easy is hard when you’re out of practice! If you want to see how hooked you are on stress, try this simple test. Close your eyes, relax your body and just notice how it feels. Notice how long it takes for you to become uncomfortable with stillness. Notice any thoughts that pop into your mind reminding you that you have a lot to get done today and this is likely a waste of time. Notice how your own brain fights you to get back to the status quo because it’s what’s familiar, and over time it’s what you’ve convinced yourself is necessary to survive the daily grind. The longer you can allow yourself to spend time noticing and redirecting your own thoughts to those that support your recharge efforts, the more you will loosen the grip of stress on your life.
A few more techniques to help you unwind:
- Focus on your breathing. Bring your attention to your breath and hold it there for as long as you can, watching your inhales and exhales. You can count breaths if it’s helpful, or listen to a guided meditation to train your mind to stay still.
- Listen to music. Shift your attention to the sounds, rhythms, patterns, and lyrics of songs that calm or inspire you. Music has been shown to bypass the thinking parts of the brain and gently downshift the emotional center into a more relaxed state.
- Move your body. It’s tough to stop our mind from racing when we’re trying to use the same mind to make the change. Bringing the body into motion, however, is quite easy to do upon command and it facilitates healthy circulation of oxygen and glucose to re-energize the entire system.
If you’d like to learn more about your own unique relationship with stress, check out our free Stress 360 Assessment.
Originally published at medium.com