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Are You a Stress Junkie?
Why experts say you may be, and how to change those habits.
by: Heidi Smith Luedtke, Air Force spouse
STRESS IS AN UNAVOIDABLE PART OF MILITARY LIFE
Uncertainty about promotions, PCS orders, and even our loved ones’ physical safety has so many of us living in a constant state of high alert. Anything could happen at anytime.
And, honestly, many of us create our own added stress. We embrace a “work hard, play hard” approach to life that can exhaust us. We join clubs, take classes and volunteer in our communities. We offer to bake 30 dozen cookies for the installation’s holiday cookie drive and run the Marine Corps marathon with our girlfriends “just for fun.”
WHAT HAPPENS TO THE BODY AND WHY WE MIGHT CRAVE STRESS
Because they provide an adrenalin rush, stressful activities can become addicitive just like shopping and gambling, says licensed marriage and family counselor Faith Mitchell of Redondo Beach, California.
“When your emotional brain is lit up, you get a high because your body pumps out stress hormones,” she says, “People are terrified to sit quietly with their feelings, so they keep pursuing things that activate their emotion systems.” Choosing our stresses allows us to avoid thinking about the ones we cannot control.
Technology can also add stress to our lives, despite how often we’re sold the idea that it simplifies things.
E-mail, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest all have their benefits. But our brains weren’t designed to handle the information overload they create. “We may busy ourselves with technology because we feel a fear of missing out,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Cindy Liu, and instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “The same idea extends to social functions. We feel like we need to be a part of what’s going on around us.”
Stressful situations are exciting because they activiate the body’s fight-or-flight response, Liu says. This allows us to accomplish amazing things and keeps us going when our energy wanes. But the stress-induced high doesn’t last forever. There’s often a letdown when we finish a big project with and the adrenaline rush subsides. “One way to cope with post-project letdown,” Liu says, “is to find another project to pursue.”
WHAT HAPPENS TO YOUR BRAIN ON STRESS
Exposure to chronic stress actually changes the way our brains work. “When the alarm goes off, the focus narrows,” says clinical psychologist Julian Ford, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut Health Center and co-authro of “Hijacked by Your Brain.”
The emotional brain begs for your attention like a persistent toddler who can’t pull himself together. Until the alarm system is quieted, you’ll feel frazzled and unfocused.
When you experience chronic stress, the brain’s emotional alarm system can get stuck in the “on” position, Ford says. This may leave you feeling wired and tired. You may have tightness in your back, neck, or shoulders or suffer from tension headaches. Stress-related sleep problems can cause mental fuzziness, physical exhaustion and changes in mood.
“Chronic stress creates a sense of frustration, annoyance and disappointment that causes us to overreact to minor problems,” Ford says. A hair-trigger temper is sign you’re not coping in a healthy way.
The brain can be re-directed with a simple self-check. Rating your stress level on a 1 – 10 scale helps you to step back mentally and tells your alarm system you’re paying attention, Ford says. As the alarm’s intensity decreases, you’re able to shift from reaction mode to learning mode. That puts you back in control of your reaction to stress.
HOW TO LET STRESS GO
Breathe“Put one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly then focus on your breath,” Mitchell says. “As soon as you focus on your breathing, you begin to breathe deeper.” This prompts your nervous system to relax and allows you to regroup.
Focus your mindYou can’t control every stress that happens in life. But you can control your response, Ford says. Increase your sense of personal control by thinking about what matters most to you, such as your spouse, your children, or your spiritual values.
Change your behavior
As you look ahead, ask yourself, “Do the activities on my calendar make me feel satisfied and refreshed?” If the answer is “no,” it’s time to refocus on your priorities. “You may have to accept the fact that you can’t do it all,” Liu says. Say “no” to activities that create craziness so you can say “yes” to your health and wellbeing.
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/anniferrr/4097009340/”>anna gutermuth</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a>