In 2011, Americans rated their personal stress levels an average of 5.2 out of 10. And 22% admitted to being under extreme stress on a regular basis. Gulp!
Stress can be physical, like what we subject our muscles to at the gym. And then there’s the kind that’s in our heads — that OMG I’m so overwhelmed right now feeling. While psychological stress has some definite downsides (chronic freak-outs may increase our risk for cancer and other diseases), take a moment to exhale. In moderate amounts, stress can boost our focus, energy, and even our powers of intuition.
Still, in some cases, stress does more than light a productivity-boosting fire under our butts. Both emotional and physical stress activate our central nervous system, causing a “natural high,” says Concordia University neuroscientist and addiction specialist Jim Pfaus. “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.”
(PHOTOS: 5 Ways to Stop Stressing and Become Happier and More Confident)
This may be why, experts believe, some of us come to like stress a little too much.
Type A and Type D personalities — or people prone to competitiveness, anxiety, and depression — may be most likely to get a high from stressful situations, says stress management specialist Debbie Mandel. Stress “addicts,” Mandel says, “may also be using endless to-do lists to avoid less-easy-to-itemize problems — feelings of inadequacy, family conflicts, or other unresolved personal issues.”
Some stress junkies have difficulty listening to others, concentrating, and even sleeping because they can’t put tomorrow’s agenda out of their minds, explains Mandel. Others tend to use exaggerated vocabulary — craaazy busy right now, workload’s insane!! And some begin to feel anxious at the mere thought of slowing down their schedule.
But psychologist and addiction researcher Stanton Peele cautions against labeling anyone a stress addict. “Only when that pursuit of stress has a significant negative impact on your life could it qualify as addiction,” he said, adding that many people are able to effectively manage — and in fact thrive under — high stress conditions. (Think: Olympic athletes or President Obama.)
(MORE: Study: Stress Shrinks the Brain and Lowers Our Ability to Cope with Adversity)
For budding stress “addicts” or for those who just, well, feel overwhelmed, here are some tips to dial down that anxiety:
- Seek professional help if you’re verging on burnout. (Not only can hashing it out with a therapist take a load off your mind. Some studies suggest it also boosts physical fitness.)
- Do something creative. Mandel recommends carving out a once-weekly time not to think about tomorrow’s agenda by painting, cooking, writing, dancing, or anything else that’ll take you off the clock temporarily.
- Take it outside. Numerous studies show spending time in nature improves general well-being, lowers anxiety, stress and depression, and even boosts self-confidence. Especially for women. (As it turns out, most addiction recovery centers offer outdoor-immersion programs.)
- Calm down quickly. If you really don’t have time for any of the above, these 40 tricks to chill take five minutes or less.
Some of us may seek out stress a bit more excessively than others and struggle to just relax. It takes skill to handle hectic agendas and long lists of responsibilities — without losing sleep or feeling frazzled. So try these tips and try not to freak out.
Worried that you or someone you know seeks out stress a little too much? Think stress addiction is a myth? Tell us about it in the comments section below.
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