Stress is very topical at the moment and so it should be. It has a significant impact on health and on the way people live their lives. Finding healthy ways to minimise the negative impact of stress is very important. Unhealthy stress relievers may help us cope, when we are struggling, but they can cause us harm.
In my first article on unhealthy stress relievers, I talked about smoking, caffeine, sugary and fatty foods and alcohol. In this article I will focus on some of the activities that people use as a means of coping.
STRESS, PLEASURE AND THE BRAIN
There are two systems in the brain that are useful to know about when it comes to stress. They help us understand why we so often engage in activities that end up causing harm.
Our brains have developed an amazing way of protecting us from dangerous and life-threatening situations. It is called the Acute Stress Reaction or Flight, Fight, Freeze response. When fear is felt in a part of the brain called the amygdala, it sets in motion a whole series of changes in the body and the brain. These changes enable us to respond to the danger with increased alertness, strength and speed. Some systems are activated whilst those not needed, in this dynamic situation, are suppressed. Once the danger has passed, everything reverts to its resting state and normal life resumes.
When we face chronic stress, similar changes are activated and then persist. So, when we are feeling anxious or stressed, the stress centre in our brain is active. When the stress centre is active, other parts of the brain become less active. This includes the pre-frontal cortex, which is involved in decision making, self-awareness and emotional regulation, amongst other things. So, it makes sense that when we are feeling stressed, we find it harder to concentrate and are more vulnerable to our emotions.
The second system is the reward system, where we experience pleasure. When we do something our brain perceives as pleasurable, it releases dopamine which gives us the sensation of pleasure. We are then motivated to repeat this activity. (This motivation to repeat activities that reward us with pleasure underlies addiction.)
So, when are stressed, we find much of life hard and are more vulnerable to engaging in activities that make us feel better, whatever the consequences!
EXAMPLES OF UNHEALTHY STRESS RELIEVER ACTIVITIES
Spending time on social media is very common. It is a good delaying tactic when we are struggling to get down to something and it’s also a good distraction from our worries. In addition, it is pleasurable. However, hours spent on screens can affect our physical and mental health.
Consider our eyes. It is when we are looking at things close-up that the muscles controlling the shape of the lens in the eye tighten. So prolonged screen-time can ultimately impact on our vision. A good piece of advice is the 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 metres away for 20 seconds. This will help to relieve the strain on the eyes.
Consider our posture and back and neck muscles. Being hunched over a screen for long periods can lead to muscle tension and subsequent problems. It’s important to think about our sitting position and not to spend long periods of time on screens. Keep our neck, shoulders and back moving at regular intervals.
Then there is the impact on mental health. When we look at photos and hear stories of other people’s seemingly perfect lives and looks, it can impact on how we feel. Reading news stories from around the world, can leave us feeling sad, anxious and helpless. Try to hunt out the positive stories, of hope, kindness, inspiration and joy!
Spending money is another enjoyable but potentially harmful stress reliever. People often enjoy the process of looking, either online or in the shops. Clicking on a button is satisfying and easy, especially if card details are saved. It is exciting when the item arrives in the post. Unpacking and seeing the new purchase is highly pleasurable. Alternatively, the shopping experience, alone or with friends, is fun. Looking around the shops, walking out with a bag full of goodies, getting home and unpacking them. It is a joyful experience. However, if we don’t keep an eye on our spending, it can get out of control. Especially now, with the cost of living being so high, finances are tighter. It is important not to let our desire for pleasure override our ability to afford it.
Other activities that people engage in and which can become highly addictive include gambling, porn, drugs and sex. The desire to achieve the pleasure associated with them can start to control a person and take over their life. It is important to recognise, early on, what is happening. Then try to find alternative ways to handle stress before the addictive desires become too strong to resist.
Do you engage in any unhealthy stress relievers? Are they under control or are they causing you harm?
As I said in my first article, when we are feeling stressed, it is easy to reach for unhealthy stress relievers which often help us feel better quickly. However, if they are not moderated, they can cause significant harm to our health and to our lives. Try to focus on nurturing your mental, physical and emotional health. When it comes to all these unhealthy stress relievers, I recommend the following: let them be a treat, not a treatment for underlying issues that need attention.
Reflecting on our unhealthy stress relievers can help us identify stress in ourselves when we might not have otherwise recognised it. Do get in touch if you think I might be able to help you find a healthier way to manage stress in your life.