grasping onto stress
Honestly when I started writing this post, I was only interested in expressing a certain amount of exasperation and humor that my mind (and I’m sure others’ minds) love being stressed so much. But since starting this, I’ve read some things that have helped me move beyond the annoyance of desiring stress and have given me an extra boost of hope to change. It turned out being a lot more positive than I thought which surprised me because I am (use to be?) a very cynical, jaded, pessimistic, sarcastic person in every area. But now am somehow becoming annoyingly positive haha (but let me keep some sarcasm tho). Hope you enjoy.
Lately I have been noticing how annoyingly attached I am to stress, worry, and anxiety. A bunch of times over the last few months I have found myself wanting to come back to and remember a previous thought spiral. I’ll sit down to relax, and think, “now…what was I just worrying about? I need to think about it a little more…”
It’s almost laughable. Like I said, I’ve caught myself doing this multiple times already, and that just means I was probably doing it unconsciously before!
My mind is trying so hard to grasp onto thoughts and memories that make me feel stressed/upset/embarrassed. Recently I was peeling the sticker off of a nectarine and tried to throw it into the trash. It was almost like slapstick comedy—it kept sticking on another finger; I couldn’t get rid of it! It’s like my brain and stress. I’m trying to shake this stress sticker into the garbage, but it keeps getting stuck on me again. I’m addicted to feeling this way.
It makes sense. Now that anxiety is more widely talked about and happens to be such a hot topic in the self help industry, I’ve read more and more about it. You can be and probably are addicted to anxiety. You can get addicted to any emotion for that matter.
The first time I realized I had a problem with anxiety was a year into our move to Portland. Every day I was waking up with an “anxiety belly” as I liked to call it. Maybe you would call it a “pit in your stomach.” I would wake up with the pit almost every day, but at the time, I didn’t think it was unusual. I was going through a career change, going to meet new people, and be a part of new photo shoots. So on meeting days, conference call days, and shoot days, I would get an anxiety belly right away in the morning simply anticipating the discomfort of those things. This seemed normal. It’s okay to be nervous, right? Nerves just mean you care, right? Hmmmm.
It became a problem for me when I would wake up with the pit on days that nothing was happening—on a weekend or an off day. I didn’t understand it then, but it was definitely a learned reaction by repetition and association. What is happening to me most mornings? I’m waking up with anxiety in my same bed, my same home, my same mind. So why wouldn’t I wake up every day with that same pit in my stomach? My body was used to it.
I finally went to see a doctor—a naturopath. She probably told me I was addicted to anxiety, but I wasn’t ready to hear and understand that yet.
(Does that ever happen to you? You look back and realize you “heard” something long ago, but it didn’t “take”?)
I do, however, remember my blood test results came back showing very overworked adrenal glands. I had never heard of adrenals before, and I’m about to give you some googled wisdom about them. Adrenal glands produce hormones that help regulate your body’s metabolism, immune system, blood pressure, and response to stress. I think they are best known with regards to the stress response because they are in charge of secreting adrenaline and cortisol which, put simply, gets you ready to take fast action in a stressful situ. In this scenario, your body is is fight or flight mode. But instead of running from a bear, we are running from the stressors of our modern life. Money, work, deadlines, social situations all can cause the fight or flight response.
Okay so what happens if your body doesn’t calm back down from that fight or flight response? What happens if you are stressed all the time? To put it simply, your adrenals are constantly producing adrenaline and cortisol, your body thinks those hormones are the priority, and so it neglects the other important processes in your body.
At this point, I get it. Yes, long term stress is bad, but now I’m stressed that I have long term stress. I don’t know how to react to this other than being stressed because I’m addicted to being stressed.
I’m looking back at this right now and thinking… “I’ve known this for so long; why has it taken me so long to take it seriously?” Learn from me.
As you may know, I have a small meditation practice. I’m not in the habit of doing it every day, but I have seen dramatic improvements to my headspace from regualr meditation. I’m very interested in the mind and what makes us who we are and what we do consciously and unconsciously, so naturally I was interested when my husband started reading a book called Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself.
The book is along a similar vein to what I’m talking about now. There are chemicals secreted when you think a thought that signal your body to match your thoughts with a feeling. If you think an anxious thought, your body will feel anxious:
“You do not think in a vacuum. Every time you have a thought, there is a biochemical reaction in the brain—you make a chemical. And as you’ll learn, the brain then releases specific chemical signals to the body, where they act as messengers of the thought. When the body gets these chemical messages from the brain, it complies instantly by initiating a matching set of reactions directly in alignment with what the brain is thinking. Then the body immediately sends a confirming message back up to the brain that it’s now feeling exactly the way the brain is thinking.”
In turn, a repeated process of thinking anxious thoughts and producing matching anxious feelings can result in a chemical addiction to your stress.
(In this next quoted block, I substituted the author’s example emotion of ‘guilt’ with our example emotion ‘stress.’)
“It’s like living for years near an airport. You get so used to the noise that you no longer hear it consciously, unless one jet flies lower than usual and the roar of its engines is so much louder that it gets your attention. The same thing happens to our cells. As a result, they literally become desensitized to the chemical feeling of [anxiety]; they will require a stronger, more powerful emotion from you—a higher threshold of stimuli—to turn on the next time. And when that stronger “hit” of [anxiety] chemicals gets the body’s attention, your cells “perk up” at that stimulation…And when each cell divides at the end of its life and makes a daughter cell, the receptor sites on the outside of the new cell will require a higher threshold of [anxiety] to turn them on. Now the body demands a stronger emotional rush of feeling bad in order to feel alive. You become addicted to [anxiety] by your own doing.”
An initial response to learning that you may be addicted to an emotion—or that (like I learned before) prolonged bad emotions such as stress can be very unhealthy for you—could be more of that same emotion. When I found out I was too stressed, that caused me more stress.
But if you think about it, stress is an emotion I have memorized so well that it has become my reaction to almost any news, so why would I feel any differently? When you see your unwanted emotional reaction as simply a learned response because of years of repetition, you can better understand that it’s not you. It is only a part of you. If you can learn this emotion, then you can unlearn it.
Once I realized stress was not an integral part of who I am, it made it easier to see hope for change. I think one of the biggest lessons I have learned over the past few years is that there is hope for change. If you believe—like I used to—that “I am this way, and I can’t change,” change becomes almost impossible.
It’s a very simple message but can be difficult to truly apply to your life. It took me while to get it, and there are still some things I’m struggling to believe can change. I’m still working on it, too.
I am continuing “breaking the habit” of stress in my life. I no longer want to grasp onto it when my mind tries to relax and rest. And the first step to that is waking up and becoming conscious to what is ruling my life. When you start to separate yourself from your stress, you can start to practice different reactions and responses, and reframe the way you view the world.
I’m not an expert yet in changing my emotional addictions, but I believe change starts with awareness!
For more practical purposes, there is a meditation practice at the end of the book quoted above designed to break you out of unwanted habits. I just started this process, so I’ll let you know how it goes!
Here are some extra quotes I loved from Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself if you are interested in reading a little more!
“There’s a certain synchronicity that takes place moment by moment between the brain and the body. In fact, as we begin to feel the way we are thinking—because the brain is in constant communication with the body—we begin to think the way we are feeling. The brain constantly monitors the way the body is feeling. Based on the chemical feedback it receives, it will generate more thoughts that produce chemicals corresponding to the way the body is feeling, so that we first begin to feel the way we think and then to think the way we feel.”
“…years of thinking certain thoughts, and then feeling the same way, and then thinking equal to those feelings (the hamster in the wheel) creates a memorized state of being in which we can emphatically declare our I am statement as an absolute.”
“It is one of the many masks of your personality that you have memorized. It started from an emotional reaction to an event in your life, which lingered into a mood, which developed into a temperament, which created your personality. This emotion has become the memory of yourself. It speaks nothing about your future. Your attachment to it means that you are mentally and physically bound by your past.”
“…that seems normal to you now. You don’t even have to think about feeling [anxious]—you just are that way. Not only is your mind not conscious of how you express your [anxious] state by way of the things you say and do, but your body wants to feel its accustomed level of [anxiety], because that’s what you have trained it to do. You have become unconsciously [anxious] most of the time—your body has become the mind of [anxiety].”
“The body becomes addicted to [anxiety] or any emotion in the same way that it would get addicted to drugs. At first you only need a little of the emotion/drug in order to feel it; then your body becomes desensitized, and your cells require more and more of it just to feel the same again. Trying to change your emotional pattern is like going through drug withdrawal.”