Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to actually relax? For something that’s supposed to be enjoyable, slowing down can actually cause a great deal of discomfort to someone who’s used to being on the go all the time. Try it right now. Close your eyes for a few moments and just try to completely relax your body and quiet your mind. See how long it takes for your brain to start wandering to your long to-do list or other worries you might be holding onto.
The stress response acts on the same triggers in the brain as other addictive substances and behaviors such as drugs, alcohol, sugar, shopping, gambling, or even falling in love. Our reward system, fueled primarily by a chemical in the brain called dopamine, keeps us doing things that we perceive to be helpful for our survival.
We all know the things mentioned above are toxic when used in excess. Despite this, when your body and brain get a hit of any of these addictive chemicals, they don’t just experience the initial reward response; they begin to crave it once it’s gone. Just like any other addiction, our tolerance level actually increases over time—even when it comes to stress. This means that we need greater amounts of stress to get the same endorphin rush, which creates a dependence that makes it increasingly uncomfortable to eliminate sources of stress.
You may consider it a strong statement to call stress an addiction; however, think about how long it takes you to relax when you’re on vacation. Or how challenging it is to keep away from email during the day even though you know it’s a distraction from other things you may need to focus on. Each phone call, email, or text initiates the reward system just in anticipation of something new and potentially positive. Even though we may not enjoy what we hear on the other side, novelty itself is something we crave. “Multitasking” has become the norm. And it is common for people to become addicted to checking all forms of connection such as cell phones, emails, and texts because the brain craves new information.
Stress and Health
There are many studies available that clearly document how toxic stress can be to both our bodies and our brains. According to Brain Rules by John Medina, people who experience chronic stress have an elevated risk of heart attack and stroke, decreased immune functioning, increased rates of depression, impaired sleep, poorer short- and long-term memories, and decreased cognitive performance. Additionally, stress can contribute to extra pounds because it causes your body to produce hormones such as cortisol that promote weight gain.
Avoid Multitasking Disasters
The rush of needing to get things done quickly feeds stress addiction by neuro-chemically rewarding us for bad behavior. What’s more, when we multitask, we tend to drop out of high-level rational decision-making in our various split activities. In other words, because we have so many things going on, we operate mostly on automatic pilot, rather than reflecting on our decisions and actions. Multitasking often prompts us to make mindless decisions that may end up causing serious problems with important responsibilities or relationships. Remind yourself to slow down and give each moment your full attention, so that you can respond to people and events in a thoughtful way.
Meditation is helpful for all types of stress. Sit comfortably in a quiet space free from distraction. Repeating a phrase like "Be here now," or "Presence is a present," can be used to quiet your mind. Thoughts will pop up from time to time, but don't beat yourself up over it; rather, acknowledge thoughts and let them pass by without judgment. The more you do this, the more you strengthen your ability to focus on one thing at a time.
Nutrition and Supplement Strategies
When the brain isn't getting adequate nutrients from whole (unprocessed) foods, it becomes more susceptible to addictive behaviors in its weakened state. Balanced nutrition can keep our brains out of “survival mode,” which occurs when we go too long without eating, or eat simple carbohydrates in isolation that spike and crash blood sugar. Eating simple carbohydrates can also cause cravings for sugars and starches that provide a quick hit of sugar to the brain, leading to an energy roller coaster that can trigger other cravings for stimulation, such as engaging in a stressful or addictive behavior. Be sure meals contain a balanced ratio of protein, carbs, and healthy fats such fish, olive oil, nuts, and seeds to nourish the brain and keep it running smoothly.
Take a fish oil supplement along with a multivitamin/mineral that includes magnesium (known to ease anxiety) and adequate amounts of vitamins B6 (50–100 mg) and B12 (500–5,000 mcg), important for healthy nervous system function. And start drinking green tea—it contains the amino acid L-theanine, shown to promote brain waves associated with calmness.
Managing blood sugar is also key to keeping the brain on an even keel. L-glutamine, alpha lipoic acid, magnesium, vitamin D, chromium picolinate, and chromium histidinate are a few supplements that can help to regulate blood sugar. Cinnamon can also benefit blood sugar; just a half a tsp. of cinnamon a day has been shown to significantly reduce blood sugar levels.
Heidi Hanna, PhD, is author of The Sharp Solution: A Brain-Based Approach for Optimal Performance.
Biofeedback: Thought Control
Ironically, being hooked up to a machine may help you break technology addiction. Biofeedback, now in its 5th decade, is often used to help relieve stress-related symptoms such as headache and anxiety, and as a tool in overcoming addiction of all kinds.
Biofeedback uses precise instruments to measure physiological activity including brainwaves, heart function, breathing, muscle activity, and skin temperature. These instruments rapidly and accurately "feed back" information to the user. The presentation of this information helps the user focus attention on these areas—changing thinking, emotions, and behavior—to learn to control the body’s functions, such as heart rate. Over time, these changes can endure without continued use of an instrument.
A biofeedback therapist sits with the client while the client works with a computer display of line or bar graphs representing what’s happening in the body. Sometimes the feedback is in the form of a game that earns points as the patient reaches goals such as relaxed muscles or a change in brain wave frequencies. The therapist coaches the client in ways to alter physiology.
“Learning to bring on the relaxation response shifts the nervous system away from fight/flight arousal patterns into healthier and efficient body function,” explains Steven C. Kassel, MFT, who uses biofeedback in his own practices in Santa Clarita and West Los Angeles, Calif. “Continued practice allows the body to change.” To learn more, visit Kassel’s website at www.kassel.us.