Stress is something we are all very familiar with. We use the word more in everyday life than ever before: “I am so stressed right now”; “This is so stressful.” It is almost seen by some as a prerequisite for success or challenge – without stress there is no achievement.
However, the more we know about our lifestyles and the more we learn about the effects of stress, the more it becomes a holy grail for those deeply affected by stress to release ourselves of it. And for good reason.
Did you know that “stress” is a modern term? And what we experience as ‘stress’ is the long-term exposure of the body to the limbic fight, flight, or freeze response? In other words, when our ancestors required the energy boost of cortisol and adrenalin to get out of a threatening situation, the mind and body combined to make that happen. Once the threat has abated, the hormones had been used, and the system switched to “off.” Alongside the physical limbic system response, is the mind orchestrating it all- it is the mind’s declaration of a perceived threat, which triggers the stress response. You think there is a threat, the limbic system leaps into action. Modern stress is the constant state of being “on”; of feeling constantly under threat, with no release and no “off.”
This has many physical and mental consequences we are familiar with: headaches, sleeplessness, depression, anxiety, heart conditions, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and many others.
It is thought, through the study of epigenetics, that truly stressful and traumatic events in early life, even in utero, can have a long-term effect on how the body reacts and responds to modern stress. Creating an almost addiction-like situation, it is suggested the mind and body only respond when the stress levels are inordinately high, or when there is a continuing amount of extreme stress. The body has become “immune” to stress triggers.
So What Has This Got To Do With Addiction?
Not much when you consider the most common definition we use for addiction:
The fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance or activity.
There is little to be read here about stress, except perhaps to infer that having an addiction or dealing with someone who does, can be stressful, especially related to crime, ill health and other consequences of addiction.
It is interesting then to read of an alternative and considerably more defined, refined, and detailed definition that shines a new light not only on addiction, but perhaps too on how we view stress.
Addiction is a condition that results when a person ingests a substance (e.g., alcohol, cocaine, nicotine) or engages in an activity (e.g., gambling, sex, shopping) that can be pleasurable but the continued use/act of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary life responsibilities, such as work, relationships, or health. Users may not be aware that their behavior is out of control and causing problems for themselves and others.
However, most addictive behavior is not related to either physical tolerance or exposure to cues. People compulsively use drugs, gamble, or shop nearly always in reaction to being emotionally stressed, whether or not they have a physical addiction.
When referring to any kind of addiction, it is important to recognize that its cause is not simply a search for pleasure and that addiction has nothing to do with one’s morality or strength of character.
Addiction – A Reaction to Being Emotionally Stressed
This definition and the understanding it engenders is incredibly valuable – to those with addiction, those dealing with the effects of another’s addiction, and those who know nothing about addiction and don’t want to. Because this changes everything.
What is addiction?
Addiction is the manifestation of unresolved stress and trauma. It is not a lifestyle choice or a personality deficit. Nor can addiction be “cured” through the resolution of any low-level stress, addiction is more complex than that and goes deeper, to an original trauma.
And while epigenetics is a growing field of research behind the effects of high stress or trauma in relation to addiction, it is unlikely that just managing low-level stress will in any way contribute to recovery from addiction. It is perhaps at the point of addressing low-level stress that we are more likely to have any everyday impact on general health and wellbeing – taking the stance of being active with an early intervention role.
Managing Low-Level Modern Stress
Reducing low-level stress can be gained by:
- Breathing slowly. Not only does this counteract the potential triggering of adrenalin, but it gives you time to stop and re-evaluate the situation – “Am I truly in harm’s way?”
- Engaging in physical activity. Physical activity is the modern equivalent of using up any leftover or lingering cortisol.
- Actively keeping the mind inactive. The mind is where it all starts, when you perceive the threat. Occupying the mind with nothing lessens the flow of constant busyness noise, and reduces anxieties and worries to low-level status rather than one of harm and threat.
Low-level modern stress can be managed when you see it as a choice of perception: how do you see this situation? Is it stressful? Or is it something I can manage? Am I under threat? Or am I creating more out of this situation than what is truly warranted?
Managing low-level stress will never take the place of the expertise and therapeutic intervention required in cases of unresolved trauma and addiction. However, it is this everyday intervention at ground level that can reduce the effects of low-level modern stress and lead to better all-round health and wellbeing.
Photo Credit: Ben White