Are You Secretly a Stress Junkie?

Photo: ThinkstockPhoto: ThinkstockBy Martha Beck

Like most recovering addicts, I clearly remember the moment I finally hit bottom. I'd been strung out for months: sleepless, poorly nourished and hollow-eyed, but still manically active. No matter how dilapidated my body became, my favorite chemicals could always make me feel fine. Until one day, they couldn't. Hello, my name is Martha, and I'm a stress junkie.

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Stress Abuse
Stress junkies are people who, without even knowing it, use their own physiological responses as a mood-altering device. When we perceive ourselves to be in a threatening situation, we have specific reactions designed to help us either run like hell or battle for our lives: Our blood pressure increases (rushing extra oxygen to the muscles) and our digestive processes slow down (preserving energy).

Naturally, there's a catch. Just like heroin or aerosol fumes, stress hormones have side effects that can kill you. Pumped into the bloodstream at high levels for long periods of time, these chemicals contribute to ulcers and heart disease, weaken the immune system, and leave us vulnerable to everything from automobile accidents to depression.

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Pick Your Poison
Stress junkies indulge their habit in any number of different ways. My favorite methods include procrastination, perfectionism, obsessing about obligations, and inventing catastrophic fantasies about What Could Go Wrong. If this sounds like you, it may be time to examine your own addictive tendencies. But even if you're as unflappable as a Zen master, you're still dealing with stress junkies every day. There's your office manager who freaks out over every hitch in the workday. There's the friend who broods obsessively about appalling current events: terrorism, child abusers, killer bees-terrorism committed by child abusers using killer bees.

The common factor that links these very different personalities is their single-minded devotion to repeatedly creating specific kinds of upsetting situations. Why would anyone do such a thing? There are several very powerful reasons:

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The emotional geyser effect: Most stress junkies have unhealed emotional wounds. The unresolved pain remains stuck in a sort of holding tank, filling it up until there is little or no space left. An explosion of anger or tears, like a geyser eruption, lessens internal pressure so that the addict can function until the pressure builds up again.

The anxiety diversion tactic: Creating stress is an excellent way to avoid dealing with the frightening tasks necessary for personal growth. Safe in the familiar cocoon of these stresses, we become gratifyingly numb to the uncomfortable knowledge that we need to take on deeper, more significant challenges.

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The love hunt: This is a common syndrome for people who, in their formative years, never received much positive attention unless they were sick or hurt. Associating love with stress, they find a way to feel victimized whenever they want an emotional connection.

Stress-Junkie Rehab
These examples should help you see that, as paradoxical as it seems, stress can be a sanctuary. The problem is that as time goes by, the stress hormones and behaviors that once created fearlessness or euphoria become ineffective, then counterproductive. Take it from me: Even if you're only mildly addicted to stress, it's best to get into rehab now. You'll find the compulsion to fret becomes much less severe if you employ the following strategies:

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Let yourself go. Indulge your desire to flee by running or walking quickly, and you'll find yourself calmer about everything. If your stress reaction is anger, punching and kicking are wonderfully salubrious, even if you're just shadowboxing.

Give in to your stress. Most stress junkies try to break their habit by telling themselves, Stay calm, dammit! This is like trying to put out a fire with gunpowder. A simple acknowledgment like "I'm scared and that's okay" eliminates the escalating response caused by resisting those feelings.

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Care for the worried one. Try welcoming your worried heart as you would a traumatized guest. Ask yourself, Why are you in pain? How can I help? The attitude of kindness will go a long way toward breaking the addiction.

By giving our stress-addicted side permission to act, to feel, and to receive care, we establish what we were after all along: a sanctuary where our wounds can heal and we can hear the voice of our true self. We grow calmer. We become a force for peace, instead of panic, not only for ourselves, but for everyone whose life touches ours.

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