Kill Your Stress Addiction
Success feels good — it's incredibly satisfying to hit that goal. Just ask any highly-motivated, deadline-smashing multitasker who's killing it at work right now.
But if you're nodding along, ready to high-five yourself, you may want to take a beat. Turns out this high-functioning lifestyle can actually be a form of stress addiction. A stress response in our body releases cortisol and dopamine — a naturally occurring stimulant that reinforces behaviors through activating the reward center in our brains. And while feeling good can, well, feel good, when repeated over and over, this stress response can wreak havoc on our bodies and minds. “Chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction,” according to Harvard Health.
If you’ve ever had that feeling that your heart is pounding, your palms are sweaty, or your mind is racing, you’re likely feeling stressed. Whether caused by work, personal relationships, or health issues, these can all be indicators of a physical stress response.
Stress itself is not necessarily harmful. It’s your body’s adaptive response to meet a challenge (real or perceived). In fact, short bursts of stress like exercise and cold exposure strengthen the body. Stress becomes harmful when it is prolonged, and there is failure of recovery. If our nervous systems are constantly turned on in fight-or-flight mode, our bodily systems get out of balance, and we start to feel the downside of chronic stress.
Stress is stressful, and people are feeling it. According to a 2022 poll by the American Psychological Association, 27% of people reported that most days they are so stressed they cannot function.
Here, we explore how stress shows up and how to invite in calm. When we learn how stress affects us, we can better manage it and improve overall health and wellbeing.
How Stress Shows Up in Our Body
Bring your attention to your jaw right now. Is it clenched? How about your shoulders — are they relaxed or up by your ears? Tension in these areas is a telltale sign that you're carrying the weight of something. While tension in the body is a warning sign, so are having an elevated heart rate, shortness of breath, or even an upset stomach — all of which are common physical indications for chronic stress.
It's also not great for sleeping — a busy mind and nervous energy can keep you up at night. When sleep is disrupted, it can lead to bigger issues; sleep disorders can promote chronic inflammation. With healthy sleep cycles, the body can relax and restore itself physically. During deep sleep, tissue is repaired, immune function is strengthened, toxic accumulations are washed out of the brain, and growth hormones are released. Stress can interrupt these cycles, making poor sleep and stress a double whammy of bad news for the body.
Pro tip: For nights when you’re tossing and turning, try this 4-7-8 breathing practice that can help you to fall asleep.
Inflammation is an early indication that something is brewing internally, and stress can manifest in over half of all the body’s systems. Stress is the common risk factor for 75%–90% of human diseases.
“Chronic exposure to stressors causes endocrine and immune system dysfunction that contributes to sustained low-grade inflammation,” says this study linking stress, inflammation, and emotional attention. That inflammation, it turns out, is a pretty big deal.
Studies also indicate that people who are suffering are the most prone toward illness — and stress addiction speeds up the timeline. That more you experience stress, the more it can make you sick, keep you sick, and increase how often you get sick.
How Stress Shows Up in Our Mind
If you’re feeling quick –to react, unmotivated, or generally irritable, you may be feeling the mental aspects of stress whether or not you are consciously aware of why. Negative thoughts and difficulty concentrating are common mental signs of stress. A ruminating mind, a day full of diversions from the task at hand, or zoning out while watching TV may all seem innocuous, but ultimately can be clues that chronic stress is starting to take a toll on your mental capacities.
And much like we train our bodies over time on dealing with stress, we do the same with our brains. With acute stress, it’s like how you may feel when running late to an appointment — the temporary stress reaction gets resolved relatively quickly. But does it? How often do we go from one stressful encounter to another without ever fully resetting during the day? It’s normal to experience some form of stress with day-to-day tasks and interactions. Whether it’s a fear of losing momentum or so much to do in so little time, many of us don’t take time to recover until stress already starts taking its toll.
Studies show that chronic stress reduces neuroplasticity, making the brain less able to adapt and more likely to “get stuck” in old patterns. Over time, if you continue to experience repeated, stressful instances, (a stress addiction or chronic stress), you may begin to alter your brain’s neurochemistry in a way that keeps you trapped in behavioral loops. As we repeat any action, we strengthen our neural connections. In this way, stress gets hard-wired and harder to overcome.
This is a major reason why stress relief practices are good for the brain — they help the brain stay malleable in key regions like the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala. These brain regions are key for thinking clearly, making wise decisions, retaining memory, and dealing with emotional reactions.
Pro tip: Try this body scan technique and discover how to manage stress with this helpful practice that you can do anywhere.
Addressing Stress with Mindful Methods
When you recognize the signs of stress, you can work to immediately mitigate them, avoiding any chronic or addictive patterns and cutting straight to resolution. If repetition builds patterns of being stressed, it stands to reason that repetition can also build patterns of calming actions.
Try this: Read about how to make meditation a habit.
Science shows that mindful meditation, practiced regularly, can reduce stress, help regulate emotions, and enhance self-awareness.
Mindfulness teaches us how to pay attention to thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations without judgment, becoming more aware of your internal state. It is through this awareness that you can identify early signs of stress and act quickly to quell them.
Reducing stress through breath is a fast way to provide immediate relief to stressful situations. Simply taking a pause and breathing deeply is known to calm an elevated heart rate and bring more oxygen into the body, helping to lower blood pressure.
“Resting awareness on the breath has shown to directly activate the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the relaxation response, providing a direct experience of calm,” says Roundglass Research Lead David Vago, Ph.D.
And while breath has proven physical benefits, it can also benefit a busy mind. While stress and anxiety can cause feelings of overwhelm and disorientation, “breathing exercises will help you anchor into a state of deep relaxation, bringing calmness to your mind and body,” says Roundglass meditation teacher Sophie Fox.
Stress Less with Routine
To get started, try establishing a routine, setting yourself up for (healthy) success. You may be surprised to discover that a little discipline goes a long way in building a healthy habit. In just a few days, you may start to notice you’re calm where once you were not — with the kids, stuck in traffic, or on a work call. Incorporate wholistic wellbeing into every day, and make a habit of relaxation and calm.
Meditate – We know using mindfulness for stress helps to mitigate feelings of overwhelm and introduce more balance into our lives. Making a habit of using meditation for stress in this 12-session course from Roundglass meditation teacher Vishvapani Blomfield, Release Stress & Anxiety Through Mindfulness.
Moving Meditation – Exercise is a great way to introduce movement into the body, helping to release tension from stress, and yoga can feel like a moving meditation. Try moving each day in this yoga course Everyday Exercises for Stress Relief, by Roundglass yoga teacher Shani Dayal.
Make Time – You don’t need a lot of time to build a practice. Start with a short, daily practice to mindfully release stress and anxiety. Try this 2-minute meditation practice from Sophie Fox.
It’s no surprise that chronic stress is genuinely bad for you. So, while early triggers are helpful to recognize, it’s may be more important to understand that consistently feeling the burden of stress or anxiety will eventually start to change the body’s biology.
Breaking a cycle of stress addiction, and taking steps to minimize and manage stress can help us lead healthier, happier lives. By prioritizing self-care, building a support network, setting boundaries, and identifying and managing sources of stress, you can influence your wellbeing in a positive way and reduce the impact of stress on your life.
We have a library of practices to help release stress and anxiety. Download the Roundglass app to find what's right for you.
- Prolonged stress can have a significant impact on the body and mind, affecting our thoughts, emotions, and physical experience.
- Stress can make you sick, keep you sick, and increase how often you get sick.
- With repeated, stressful instances (chronic stress), you may alter the brains neurochemistry, keeping you trapped in negative behavioral loops.
- Simply taking a pause and breathing deeply is known to calm an elevated heart rate and bring more oxygen into the body, helping to lower blood pressure.