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I used to wear busy like a badge of honor.
Piling one thing on top of another and plastering a forced smile on my face through all of it.
Single mom of three, ER Nurse, PTA and room mom, maker of cupcakes for every occasion, doer of everything for everyone all day, every day.
You needed a ride to the doctor after my 12-hour night shift? No problem, I got you.
I could handle it all. I was fine.
Somehow, that extraordinary stress fed a deep need to feel useful and accepted. So I burned the candle at both ends for years in this state of self-sacrificing autopilot.
Between the compassion fatigue I was experiencing in my career, the amount of work it required to raise three energetic boys, and the unspoken self-expectation of perfection, I eventually crumbled. Burnout set in.
My solution: alcohol.
I remember the first time I had some wine at home by myself. I thought, where has this been all my life?
Everyone identifies their addictions differently. I know that I was an immediate alcoholic at that time, even though I had (very sporadically) drank alcohol “normally” in the prior years of my adult life.
However you choose to see it, it was alcoholism for me, and since I am a chronic overachiever by nature, I did alcoholism 11o percent and managed to destroy my entire life in two short years.
When I got sober, removing the alcohol from my life was the easy part. It was the self-assessment that I struggled with, along with the acceptance that I was the one responsible to make the hard changes.
I had made it through 39 years of life with basically zero boundaries and an identity based on who you needed me to be in the moment and how much I could achieve in a day.
I needed to stay constantly busy because I didn’t want to be alone with myself. Translation: avoidance and dissociation, dismissing and compartmentalizing any feelings.
I needed to be the hardest worker and the best at everything. Translation: my self-worth was based on outside validation and a deep-seated core belief that I wasn’t enough.
I saw the world through victim lenses. Translation: doesn’t anyone see how tired I am, how hard I work, how much I do for everyone all the time? Hello, codependency…
Then came the toughest realization of all: before I found alcohol, my high came from stress. I craved the adrenaline rush without even realizing it.
The humble bragging of exhaustion and lack of sleep made its way into all my conversations. This false identity felt superior to me: the strong, independent woman who didn’t need help from anyone.
The American Institute of Stress (2017) breaks stress down into four categories:
Acute Stress: Fight-or-flight. The body prepares to defend itself (it takes about 90 minutes for the metabolism to return to normal when the response is over).
Chronic Stress: The cost of daily living: bills, kids, jobs. This is the stress that we tend to ignore or compartmentalize. When left ignored, this stress affects your body, your health, and your immune system.
Eustress: Stress in daily life that has a positive connotation, such as marriage, baby, graduation, promotion.
Distress: Stress in daily life that has negative connotations, such as divorce, injury, financial problems, work difficulties, punishment.
With each stressful event or thought, our bodies react at a cellular level—even when we are unable to identify it physically.
Stress is introduced, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in, and the body produces an enormous amount of energy in response to the stressor. Physiologically, the body taps into resources that it needs to deal with the perceived danger. The pupils dilate, the heart rate and respiratory rate increase, more glucose is released into the bloodstream to make more energy available to our cells, and blood flow is shunted to the extremities and away from our internal organs so we can move quickly if we need to. Adrenaline and cortisol flood the muscles, providing a rush of energy. Circulation moves out of our rational forebrain and into our hindbrain so we have less capacity to think creatively and instead just instinctively react.
If stress is a constant in our lives, we begin to adapt to this process as our norm.
We enjoy the high of the adrenaline rush—at least we think we do. We live in a state of functional fight-or-flight. Eventually, we need more stress to feel the adrenaline rush. Our bodies are constantly trying to keep up with this and will eventually fail.
We usually don’t recognize our need for help until we have a physical, mental, or emotional manifestation of stress (i.e., illness, mental health issues, addiction, insomnia, chronic pain).
When I started drinking, I also had chronic headaches, digestive issues, and insomnia. My body was tired and angry with me, and that was its way of letting me know. I dismissed it and poured alcohol on the problem instead. (I do not recommend that solution.)
The true healing began for me once I was sober and able to acknowledge my addiction to stress. I started to identify the reasons behind the patterns in my life.
This is something that can be done long before a physical, mental, or emotional manifestation of stress appears.
My recommendations for this process are:
- Slow down. Have a morning practice that will help set a conscious theme for your day (meditation, yoga, journaling). At the end of the day, spend a few minutes reflecting on the day, your emotions, any emotional triggers, and identify where you need to make changes. Change is gradual, and being gentle with yourself during this process is imperative.
- Be kind and full of love, but have boundaries like a motherf*cker. I went from having zero boundaries to having steel-wall boundaries. It took some time to find the happy medium there. Having healthy boundaries is like building a lovely little fence around your life. You decide how narrow the slats will be based on your personal preferences. Expect some resistance from all the people who were used to your lack of boundaries
- Stop saying yes to sh*t you hate. Don’t do things out of obligation. If people are disappointed when you say no, it’s okay. Let them have their feelings about it. Their feelings are theirs and do not belong to you. Saying no can be done with grace, and without lying or making excuses. It comes with practice. Start practicing!
- Take care of your whole self. Your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health are all of equal importance. Make sure you are taking care of yourself first in all these areas of your life. When we show up for ourselves and take the best care of ourselves, we are able to show up fully for all the people who depend on us. They will get the best version of us—not a resentful, depleted, burned-out mess.
At the rate we are living these days, I’m sure there are so many people who are addicted to stress without even recognizing it. We are working, parenting, volunteering, running around constantly, and then we come home and scroll through everyone’s highlight reels on social media as we subconsciously play the comparison game. That inadvertently adds to our already stressful lives.
So slow down, unplug, self-reflect, build a lovely fence around your life, and shower your amazing self with some love.
We all have the ability to overcome a stress addiction before it becomes a more serious issue.
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