by Dr. Sonia Marques
While we all like to say that we’re trying to lower our stress levels, the reality is that, as much as we try, many of us just can’t seem to shake our stress. We know how harmful it is to our long-term physical and emotional wellbeing, and yet it seems that despite our best intentions we cannot seem to overcome it and this leads to even higher levels of stress.
The reason for this, according to many prominent researchers and psychologists, is that, yes, we really can become addicted to our own stress. Research shows that cortisol, known as the stress hormone, can make a region in the brain called the nucleus accumbens become more sensitive to dopamine, a neurotransmitter that gives us the feeling of pleasure and satisfaction. A fast-paced environment can lend itself to unchecked cortisol levels, which, if prolonged, can be a problem. 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.
If this is true, how can we actually combat and eliminate stress in our lives?
The first step, as with every addiction, is recognizing that you have an addiction to stress. For a lot of people, this can be very difficult. Many of us use our stress as a crutch to avoid deeper and more intimate self-reflection. But when you start to recognize that there’s a pattern of stress in your life and that, more often than not, you can choose how you respond to an event, you can start to recognize your own addiction.
Trick your mind into thinking relaxation is just another task to be accomplished and checked off the list. Once it becomes an assignment, it will no longer be associated with guilt and idleness, but be more a duty.
Unplug from one of the most prevalent stress sources in modern society: your phone. Set internal rules, such as no checking the phone at dinner, or no email for an entire weekend day.
Exercising is one of the absolute best 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.
Make yourself your top priority and set aside “you time.” Whatever you choose to do— walking in nature, reading a book, taking an exercise class, etc.—make sure you’re doing it just for yourself. Stress addicted people often use their extra time to catch up on chores or to do extra work, not to relax. Stress can rob you of your identity, but you can reclaim it doing what you love.
It’s important to remember that relaxation isn’t a luxury nor is living in a state of stress a badge of success or accomplishment. You can make the choice to approach each day of your life in a relaxed state of mind because, just like stress, relaxation is ultimately a choice.