Break the cycle of stress addiction

Do you feel anxious if you aren’t busy doing something? Ever spend time feverishly worrying about things that might never happen? Or do you overload yourself with so many commitments that your brain hurts?

Experts tell us some people get addicted to the buzz they get out of being busy. Their self-esteem is in part linked to how many extra tasks they can cram onto their already full to-do lists.

But the sense of transitory euphoria, the feeling of purpose, takes its toll on them — both emotionally and physically. If you’re exhausted from taking on board too much, it’s time to take a chill pill and stress less.

The term “stress” was actually coined 50 years ago by Hans Selye, a Prague medical school student. He made the connection between the responses of the body to the demands placed on it.

Recent surveys have shown Australians are indeed a pretty stressed-out bunch. A 2012 Australian Psychological Society survey revealed nearly a quarter (22 per cent) of the 1552 respondents reported moderate to severe levels of stress. And one in five Australians (18 per cent) said their stress levels were having a strong impact on their mental health.

It’s little wonder. As we dive head-first into the new millennium it seems stress is a culturally entrenched part of 21st century Western living. Many of us hit the ground running as soon as we tumble out of bed in the morning, bleary eyed, clutching our mobiles, iPads and laptops, chugging down a shot of caffeine as we ready ourselves to do battle with the world.

But some experts argue that stress is not a modern-day dilemma; that people have been experiencing some forms of stress since the dawn of mankind. Professor Lyn Littlefield, Executive Director of the Australian Psychological Society, says people are now more mindful that stress exists, and they understand the implications of too much stress.

“What’s different from the past is that people are much more aware and free to talk about what’s stressing them,” she says. “They’re identifying things as stresses they wouldn’t have before.”

Good vs bad stress

That’s not to say that all stress is bad. In fact, a little bit of stress is good for you. It’s a little like a block of dark chocolate. Nibble a couple of slivers and the chocolate boosts your antioxidant levels and your heart health. But chomp through a whole block and your sugar levels go into overdrive, not to mention the impact of the excessive kilojoules.

According to Littlefield, while chronic stress can be the catalyst for heart disease, anxiety, depression a host of other illnesses, a little bit of stress can have some benefit.

“Stress can energise you; it motivates you to accomplish tasks, to get things done,” she says. The problem, of course, is when the scales are tipped and you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, tense and struggling to cope.

Symptoms of stress

Those who experience too much stress are likely to feel a broad range of symptoms. They vary from person to person but can include sleep disturbance, stomach upsets, tiredness, moodiness, tearfulness — and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

Scientists have understood for a long time that stress makes you physically sick, but it’s only recently they’ve been able to determine how and why. When you are experiencing elevated stress levels, a hormone known as neuropeptide Y (NPY) prevents your immune system from functioning properly.

Garvan Institute of Medical Research scientist Associate Professor Fabienne Mackay says that, during periods of stress, nerves release a lot of NPY and it gets into the bloodstream. There, explains Mackay, it directly impacts on the cells in the immune system that look out for and destroy pathogens (bacteria and viruses) in the body.

Getting a buzz out of busy

So why do some people get a buzz out of being in a constant state of busyness? Debbie Mandel, author of Addicted to Stress: A Woman’s 7-Step Program to Reclaim Joy and Spontaneity in Life, says being on the go all the time can make some people feel in demand — it makes them feel important.

For some people, there is a certain kind of euphoria and empowerment associated with being active and hard-working. They feel guilty if they take a breather. They think the world will stop if they aren’t racing from appointment to appointment, all while fastidiously juggling the demands of parenthood, work, family and social commitments.

“We have become stress junkies. We need the adrenalin rush of accomplishment to feel good about ourselves,” says Mandel. But, she adds, this feeling of “look what I can do” almost always comes at a cost.

“We become the great performer to prove our self-worth and serve as the consummate go-to person for help,” she says. “However, the result is depletion and a further spiralling down in the quest for identity because we give ourselves away.”

According to Mandel, many people also fall victim to stress addiction because it stops them from thinking about and dealing with other important issues in their lives. Their happiness, for one. “Many people, when they are unhappy get very busy, so they do not have to think or reflect on their fundamental unhappiness; to face it and change the dynamics,” she says.

Once you do become hooked on stress, unfortunately it’s a perilously slippery slope. In fact, researchers have discovered spiralling stress addiction can become an ingrained habit — and leave you craving more.

Neuroscientist and addiction specialist Professor Jim Pfaus says emotional and physical stress activates our central nervous system, causing a “natural high”. “By activating our arousal and attention systems,” Pfaus says, “stressors can also wake up the neural circuitry underlying wanting and craving — just like drugs do.”

Breaking the cycle

If you’ve become a slave to stress, it’s time to break free. To reclaim your authentic self and slow down, Mandel says you need to begin with looking within and challenging your personal beliefs.

“Question your emotional programming about your perfectionism,” she says. Striving for ultimate perfectionism can lead to self-doubt and anxiety. Accept that you cannot ever have ultimate control over your universe and that you are allowed to make mistakes. Accept that sometimes good enough really is good enough and that others are capable of sharing the load.

Mandel says embracing who you are also means taking off your mask and speaking your truth. “You don’t need to please others to be liked,” she says. “You can express your truth gracefully and quietly by responding to a request instead of reacting with suppressed stress.”

You are important

This also means rethinking the way you order your priorities. Leah Hechtman, president of the National Herbalists Association of Australia, says our expectations of ourselves have escalated to the point where health and self-care are no longer the priorities they should be.

“Relaxation, sufficient sleep, exercise and pleasure are all seen as luxuries and are prioritised accordingly,” she says. “As we push ourselves further and further, these considerations lose their priority and we end up pushing ourselves towards burnout.”

Finding time to recharge and rejuvenate is not a luxury; it’s necessary for your emotional health and spiritual wellbeing. Whether you enjoy chatting over a cuppa with friends, diarising your day in a journal or soaking in a warm, scented bath, having “me” time when you need it is more important than picking up the dry cleaning or scrubbing the bathtub.

As part of this process, Mandel says, it also helps to tune into your artistic, imaginative self. “Find a creative part of yourself and engage in a hobby where you accomplish just for yourself instead of for everyone else,” she says. “You will bolster your identity, the authentic part, and you will slow down by immersing yourself in the creative process.”

Natural remedies

Some life stresses, of course, are inevitable. Hechtman says it’s possible to strengthen the body’s ability to handle the unavoidable stresses in life. “The main supportive herbs that assist are those classed as adaptogens, which means herbs that tonify the body and support the body through stressful periods,” she says. A few examples include liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) and Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha).

Nutrients that are crucial to support the body in its recovery from stress include B vitamins, magnesium and vitamin C.

Addressing the psychological issues associated with stress is also important.

Know your triggers

Littlefield says, while there will always be situations or circumstances that induce stress, these vary from individual to individual. “If you can learn to recognise the triggers that cause you stress, you can take steps to either avoid the situation or work out ways to better manage it,” she says.

So, next time you feel stressed, consider what you were thinking about beforehand. Understand how your body responds to stress, then you can tune into the early warning signs and take action.

Learn to say no
This means setting boundaries. If others are making unrealistic demands on your time, you need to learn to politely and firmly refuse. Littlefield says the key is to know your limits and to honour them. “Many of us take on board too much,” she says. “We don’t like to refuse requests, and as a consequence end up overworked, stressed and agreeing to things we sometimes wish we hadn’t.”

Play it forward
If an incident occurs that’s causing you to feel stressed to the max, look ahead. It might seem hard to do at the time, but ask yourself, “Is it really going to matter in a week or a month from now?” If you get stressed and catastrophise an event, projecting forward helps you to keep things in perspective.

Quiet zone
Lives are lived at such a frenetic, heady pace that there is little time to pause and think. Littlefield says taking time out helps to balance your energy and keep you focused on your life goals. “You need time to reflect on what you have achieved and what you want out of life,” she says. “Are you doing things that are important to you? Are there changes that you want to make?”

So how do you know you are heading for burnout? Sleeplessness, anxiety, hyperactivity, loss of energy, or feeling helpless can all be indicators that you are stressed to your limit. If you feel unable to cope or are overwhelmed by events in your life, talking to a health professional can help you to gain a clear understanding of how you can make positive changes to reduce your stress levels.


Stress busters

Getting dirty makes you feel good
Want to stress less? Get out in your Garden. Researchers at Bristol University in the UK have given us a good reason to give our green thumbs a workout. Researchers led by Dr Chris Lowry discovered, through experiments on rodents, that the “friendly” bacteria found in soils work with brain chemistry to produce the body’s own feel-good brain chemical, serotonin.

Sound bites
Music is good for your soul. It’s also good for your stress levels. When you listen to music your body relaxes into the beat and your breathing patterns alter to match the tempo of the music being played. Registered music therapist Joanne McIntyre says some music will work better than other kinds to relax you. “Research shows music with a tempo of around 110 beats per minute is the ideal, but everybody is different. Experiment to find what works for you,” she says.

Take Fido with you to work
Research shows pet owners enjoy better physical and mental health than non-pet owners. Patting a pet is therapeutic. Your pet also knows when you need a hug because they can tune into your moods. A new study conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University shows that dogs in the office can also reduce stress. Can’t take your dog? What about a pet fish?



Carrol Baker is a freelance journalist who writes for lifestyle and health magazines across Australia. She loves climbing mountains, trekking and exploring the great outdoors with her young family.

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker is an award-winning freelance journalist who is a passionate advocate of natural health and wellness. She writes for lifestyle and healthy-living magazines across Australia and internationally.

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