Can you identify with these situations?
- It’s 11:00 p.m. The day is over. The kids are in bed. But your mind is still going full tilt. You toss and turn in bed for what seems like hours.
- Not long ago, you finished a large meal. But now you find yourself aimlessly looking through the fridge or the pantry. You’re probably not really hungry—just craving something to eat. But before you know it, you’ve binged on a plethora of unhealthy foods.
- Everyone is excited about the vacation—except you. You can’t stop thinking that you’ve got too much work to do to enjoy a few days of rest and relaxation.
- You have trouble sitting still, foot tapping, pacing, nail biting, constantly shifting in your seat, or fidgeting with one thing or another.
Make no mistake about it; stress has detrimental effects on your behavior. It can lead to impulsiveness (acting without thinking carefully), unhealthy habits, treating others poorly, becoming socially isolated, and overworking yourself until you’re literally exhausted. Let’s learn about how stress causes these different types of behaviors—and how these behaviors can actually create more stress.
Most people have healthy and adaptive ways of coping with stress, for example, venting or problem solving with friends or family. Others hit the gym and lift weights or take to the streets and go running. Some people meditate or pray; others lose themselves in their favorite video game, TV show, or movie. Musicians might turn to their instrument, and painters to their canvas, in stressful times. But some stress-related behaviors are dangerous—especially those that involve the use of substances that create an artificial feeling of well-being. Cigarette smoking is the perfect example of such a “quick fix.”
The nicotine in cigarettes causes the brain to release chemicals, such as endorphins, that actually raise your mood for a while. Lighting up and smoking also distracts you from thinking about or dealing with stressors, and because it’s often a social activity, you might associate smoking with positive feelings of comfort and support. It’s no wonder research shows that people with high levels of stress are twice as likely to be smokers as those who are less stressed.
Alcohol and many types of drugs are also dangerous quick fixes for stress because they artificially produce a mindset of relaxation or pleasure. Where stress increases alertness and anxiety, alcohol and many other drugs diminish these feelings, leaving you less worried about the situation. They create a diversion from healthy coping and hinder your ability to address the real problem; so when their effects wear off, you’re right back where you started. And if the stressful situation continues for a long time, it can lead to substance abuse and becoming dependent. It’s a vicious cycle: using alcohol and drugs to escape from stressful feelings, which prevents healthy coping and prolongs stressors turning to substances again and again, causing further delay in healthy coping. Similarly, eating is a pleasurable behavior that can temporarily reduce stress (this is called “emotional eating”). Perhaps you have particular “comfort foods” that you turn to when feeling stressed.
Foods that are high in fat, salt, and carbohydrates make us feel better because they taste good and produce changes in the brain that cause a temporary feeling of well-being. You’re especially likely to overeat if you’re under constant stress because the prolonged release of adrenaline and cortisol causes hunger and sets off food cravings. These chemicals also make your body store fat, increasing the chances that you’ll pack on the pounds. Excessive gambling and impulse buying (that is, making large purchases just to help yourself feel better) are also often used as stress relievers and diversions. But these behaviors don’t actually help you solve the real problems in your life, and in fact, might create new ones (for example, financial strain).
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