It is generally understood that too much stress is bad for your health, but few people understand the complex relationship we have with stress, and how we need to account for subjectivity when talking about stress and health. Some people simply handle more than others, and that is not always something within their control. Stress is intrinsically linked to addiction, and it’s often too much pressure that pushes people to begin using. But what is too much, and why?
Some individuals are “workaholics”, and genuinely possess the drive and willpower to remain passionate about what they do. Their relationship with the stress of the job is mitigated by the enjoyment and feelings of personal satisfaction that they receive from doing their best. On the other hand, there are many who are deeply dissatisfied with the work they do but are left with little options but to do it. This burden reveals a series of consequences.
The same goes for many other aspects in life. How we perceive stress is highly subjective, and impossible to accurately convey. But regardless of the source of the stress, what matters most is how it impacts us, and how we deal with the ramifications of that impact. Take a traumatic event – no traumatic event will affect any group of people in the exact same way. Some will come out feeling much more affected than others, and among those most affected, some will cope much better than others. There are countless complex factors feeding into how we perceive and deal with stress.
Stress and Addiction
When discussing the effects of internal as well as external factors in the development of addiction, many seem to ignore the relationship that exists between the two. For example, our neurobiology – particularly our brain chemistry and even our brain structure – is severely affected by outside events, particularly ones that the brain perceives as traumatic or highly outside of the ordinary.
We’re yet to fully grasp the power of the human brain, and it is only in recent decades that better imaging tools and analytical software have helped us gain more insight into the brain’s abilities and functions, and the nature of things such as plasticity and the differences in brain composition and chemistry between individual subjects.
But what we do know is that stress, particularly chronic stress, has a profound effect on the brain, and often correlates with addiction. One feeds the other, so to speak.
To begin, we need to describe stress. Stress is any stimuli that is challenging. Stress forces us to change in order to adapt and achieve physical or emotional homeostasis. By literally bringing us outside of our comfort zone (balance), we achieve growth. Without stress, we stagnate. In that sense alone, stress is critical to life itself. Life must be stressful, to a degree. But that degree is different with every individual. And in excess, if not managed well, stress does not lead to growth but to deformation and injury. When faced with overwhelming stress, past our emotional and physical capabilities and with little hope for escape, we turn towards ways to relieve ourselves of this challenge. This is one of the ways in which a negative habit for drug use develops – as a coping mechanism.
Alternatively, stress is also enhanced and made a bigger problem through drug use. Regardless of how the drug use began, the presence of stress often calls for the need to overcome a challenge. It can be very stressful to be in a fight with a loved one, but until we resolve that fight, that stress is only going to mount and grow. Without resolution, it metastasizes and becomes worse over time. Much the same way, we grow weaker both physically and emotionally the longer we avoid challenge. And drug use provides the perfect and impenetrable escapism, making many turn away from any stress and causing addicts to develop a longer, much more severe list of problems as a result of their addiction. This turns into a vicious cycle. The more one uses, the harder it becomes to deal with a sober life. The harder being sober is, the more attractive the idea of using again becomes.
Within the right context, stress molds us into the best we can be. We derive a sense of personal satisfaction from overcoming challenges, and our inner natural reward system is wired to make us feel good when we do anything that we deemed very difficult. But consistently overwhelming stress can force us to back down. Sudden, traumatic stress can leave a painful scar on the mind and significantly changes the brain, and the way we react to similar stimuli (becoming anxious, frightened, and stuck in that fearful moment).
Why We Need Effective Coping Mechanisms
Drug use is a superbly potent coping mechanism. Nothing brings as much visceral pleasure as quickly and reliably as an addictive drug. But despite its potency, it is virtually useless when it comes to long-term coping. In fact, it is actively harmful when it comes to long-term coping. Coping mechanisms are meant to help us overcome, not run away. A coping mechanism allows us to conquer our anxieties and manage our stress levels so we can face a challenge effectively and come up with an appropriate solution.
For recovering addicts, finding appropriate and effective coping mechanisms to stress is crucial. Without a good coping mechanism, an addict is left with only one effective concept of stress management: using again. But when given the opportunity to develop a healthier and better way to cope, recovering addicts may also need the guidance and environment to push them in the right direction, and encourage them to step out of their comfort zone, try new hobbies, explore new places, and grow.
Sober living is one such way, by promoting the continued commitment to sobriety through personal growth and overcoming challenges through effective coping mechanisms, from group activities to finding a satisfying form of employment, to exploring one’s own inner passions and creative abilities.