Food for Thought: Stress Addicts Anonymous (Part 2)

The holidays, while meant to be a time of peace, love and joy, are often a time of stress and overwhelm.  Here is part 2 of a series for you who get "holiday stress out" or even those of you who secretly thrive on the drama.

In Part 1 of our Stress Addicts Anonymous series, we introduced the very real, very dangerous condition of stress addiction. Now, in part 2, let’s take a look at the physiological effects of living in a chronic state of stress, and more importantly, some steps you can take to rehabilitate your own inner stress junkie.

Stress Gone Bad

In moderate amounts and for brief periods of time, stress can be beneficial – and most people are well-equipped to deal with it. During an acutely stressful situation, your body undergoes an elaborate series of adjustments. The cardiovascular system, the immune system, the endocrine glands and brain regions involved in emotion and memory are all recruited into action. Nonessential functions like reproduction and digestion are put off until later. Adrenaline, and later cortisol, both stress hormones secreted by the adrenal glands, flood the body. Heart rate and blood pressure rise, respiration quickens, glucose is released into the bloodstream for energy, oxygen flows to the muscles, and immune cells prepare to rush to the site of an injury.

When the acute threat is over, another complex set of adjustments calms things down, returning the body to normal.But in the case of chronic stress, that return to “baseline” doesn’t happen often enough (if at all). When stress persists for too long or becomes too severe, your body’s finely tuned feedback system is disrupted – and over time it runs amok, causing damage.

Your Nervous System, In a Nutshell

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a vast network of nerves reaching out from the spinal cord, directly affecting every organ in the body. It has two branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic, which have opposite effects.  The sympathetic ANS helps us deal with stressful situations by initiating a ‘fight or flight’ reaction.  After the danger has passed, the parasympathetic ANS takes over, decreasing heartbeat and relaxing blood vessels (‘rest and digest’).

In the case of stress addiction, however, your body’s return to a normal, relaxed state may not be so easy. Although the sympathetic nervous system jumps into action immediately, it is very slow to shut down and allow the tranquilizing parasympathetic nervous system to calm things down.

Jane Collingwood, author of The Physical Effects of Long-Term Stress, explains.  “In healthy people, the two branches of the nervous system maintain a balance — action followed by relaxation. In the case of chronic stress, however, many people’s sympathetic ANS stays on guard, making them unable to relax and let the parasympathetic system take over.”  At this point, the body moves into an “exhaustion stage”, in which it continues to produce large amounts of stress hormones. Prolonged exposure to these hormones, particularly cortisol, can have devastating effects.

The (Chronic) Stress Effect

According to Robert M. Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, in the case of chronic psychological stress, the stress response can become more damaging than the stressor itself.  Think of your body’s stress response as short-sighted and inefficient – extremely costly tasks your body must perform to respond effectively in an emergency. (After all, your body’s ‘fight or flight’ response can save your life in an emergency.) The trouble for the stress junkie, however, is that we’re not designed to stay in that mode. And the way we often handle stress – eating sugary, calorie-dense processed foods, staying late at work, exercising too little (or too much) or drinking to excess – makes a bad situation even worse.

Many disorders – some say most – are aggravated by chronic stress. Being constantly awash in stress hormones has some serious side effects, including (but not limited to) impaired memory, concentration, and work performance, speeding up the aging process and damaging memory cells in the brain, sexual dysfunction, infertility, hypertension, a weakened immune system and deposition of fat at the waist (a risk factor for heart disease and other illnesses).   According to Dr. Bruce McEwen (author of The End of Stress as We Know It), prolonged or severe stress has also been implicated in cancer, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes, among other illnesses.

Finally, excess cortisol in the blood interferes with mood enhancing neurotransmitters called serotonin. Disturbances in serotonin levels can be a factor in causing clinical depression and anxiety disorders, and have also been linked to insomnia and increased sensitivity to pain.

Tick Tock, Tick Tock

More interesting to us, elevated cortisol also skews time perception – making us feel as though we’re always behind schedule and time is always running out. As T.S. Wiley and Bent Formy, authors of Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar and Survival write, “Chronic high cortisol… makes you feel chronically rushed.  It’s the altered time perception that fosters much of the late-night stalling before bed, while you stay up under the impression that there must be more to do or that you haven’t finished your work.”  So it’s like the worst kind of chicken/egg – we are stressed because we think we’re behind schedule, but we think we’re behind schedule because we are stressed. Brutal.

Do we really need to continue to make the case that chronic psychological stress – especially the self-created kind – is super-duper unhealthy?  We rest our case.

Stress Rehab

So what’s a stress junkie to do? Telling one to “chill out” or “relax” is inane in this situation, given the addictive nature of the stress response. (It’s like telling an addict, “You know, you should just stop using.” How effective is that strategy?) Still, identifying habits and patterns and admitting you have a problem is the first step. So stop the 27 things you’re doing right now, take a deep breath and say it with me – “I am a stress junkie, and I have a problem.”

The trouble with identifying a strategy to break the stress addiction cycle is that there is no one-size-fits-all. We’re going to address a few different coping mechanisms here, but you’ll have to try them on for yourself to see what fits your personality and stress-style the best. (Melissa also included strategies that worked for her personally.)

  1. Identify your triggers, change your habits. Take time to figure out what precipitates stress in your life. (Ask family and friends to help you here, as you often aren’t a good judge of your own triggers.) If you know you jump into “stress mode” the second you turn on your computer or as soon as the kids get home from school, then change that routine. Take 30 minutes of quiet time to wake up and set the tone for the day before you power up. Create an after-school routine to help keep noise and chaos under control (or hire a babysitter for an hour a day to help you manage post-school homework and snacks).
  2. Control and predictability – create a routine. Procrastination, multi-tasking and chasing your own tail self-perpetuates the stress cycle. Creating (and sticking to) a routine can to add some predictability to your day, and remove some opportunity for unexpected stress. Creating a normal bedtime and wake time can be an especially helpful routine, as it also ensures you’re getting enough sleep each night.
  3. Exercise some, not too much. Low intensity exercise (like hiking or swimming) blunts the stress response for up to a day after each session – but it has to be something you want to do. (Forcing yourself to exercise only creates more stress.) Don’t overdo it – more is not better. Consider low to moderate intensity activities, as high intensity exercise may only be feeding your stress junkie tendencies. (In fact, high intensity activity may not be appropriate for you at all. For real.)Don’t (purposely) fast. Deliberate caloric restriction and extended (or regular) fasting provokes a physical stress response, and only adds to your overall stress burden. Plus, taking the time to eat healthy meals on a regular basis ensures you’re stopping to care for yourself every few hours, which is a good thing. Eat breakfast within an hour of waking; emphasize protein, and include some starchy carbs like sweet potato or butternut squash. If you often “forget to eat,” set a timer to remind you – it’s that important.
  4. Skip the coffee. Caffeine is a stimulant, and the last thing you need is more stimulation. Try backing off your daily dose, or taking a month-long caffeine holiday. This one is gonna hurt – but your adrenals will thank you. (Read our Coffee Manifesto for more details.)
  5. Meditation – sort of. Studies show psychological benefits while someone is meditating – but those benefits don’t necessarily continue after the session is over. (Plus, the idea of jumping into an hour of meditation a day is probably unrealistic for you right now.) Start off with five minutes at a time, every hour on the hour. Force yourself to stop whatever you are doing and take a walk, get some water, eat something or just sit quietly. (Time it – don’t cheat yourself.) Physically removing yourself from your stress-cycle may inhibit the degree to which you wind yourself up.
  6. Social support – try giving. The right network of friends or family can help you manage stress, but often the stress junkie simply won’t ask for help. So try giving – offering social support in a volunteer or charitable setting. Seeing your impact can be a powerful experience, and make you believe you do, in fact, have some control over life’s situations.
  7. The E – R – C strategy. Make a list of stressors, and identify those you can Eliminate, those you could Reduce and those you must simply Cope with. Consider evaluating time, money and accepted obligations all at once; you may be able to eliminate or reduce more stress than you believed. (For example, if cleaning the house on your day off is a big stressor, consider revising your budget to hire a cleaning service. If you’ve accepted too many social requests, prioritize one or two that are the most important to you, and beg off the rest. They’ll forgive you, and you really can’t afford to take on any more right now.)
  8. Practice the 80/20 rule. In the case of stress, take the 80/20 rule to mean that 80% of your stress reduction can be accomplished with the first 20% of effort. Taking the first step – admitting you have a problem, asking for help, starting a stress-reducing practice (any practice) – can provide tremendous stress relief. So don’t wait until you’ve got the perfect stress-reducing strategy to start, and don’t wait until the next time you’re at a stress level 9 out of 10. Do something – anything – on a daily basis and see if you don’t feel better having at least taken a step in the right direction.
  9. Get help. Sometimes, working through your situation with an impartial party is exactly what we need to put things into perspective. (And if you’re practicing your stress 80/20, the very act of making an appointment with a psychologist, a life coach or a professional organizer will make you feel better!)

In Conclusion

For those of you identifying with this post, take heart – there is hope. After a year of major life overhaul (including giving up caffeine, a major revision of her exercise program and a restructure of business responsibilities and work habits), Melissa’s cortisol profile is back in the healthy range, and her stress junkie tendencies are far better managed. With some awareness, attention to detail and commitment to changing your life, you, too, can overcome your addiction to stress. The first step is admitting you have a problem. (And the second step is to re-read our Whole9 Health Equation, because as a stress junkie, you are by definition spending resources waaaaay faster than you can bank ‘em.).

So cop to your bad habits, ask for help and offer each other some healthy social support right here in comments.