06/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Caution: Stress Can Be Habit-Forming

Did you ever think of stress as being habit-forming? Well, it is. In fact, the habitual qualities of stress are why some people thrive on stress to the point of abusing it while others find it difficult to prevent it or eliminate it from their lives. However, whether you misuse it or can't seem to lose it, stress begets stress, and developing a stress habit is definitely not a good thing.

How It Begins.
A stress habit starts as a conscious reaction to some outside stimulus. For example, the stress you feel while you are stuck in traffic when on your way to an important meeting. While you sit in your car and fume, your brain is busy tagging that experience as a stressor and establishing an associated memory in which it equates traffic with stress. Then, whenever you are caught in traffic (even if you are not in a hurry), your brain recalls the associated memory and you register a stress response.

Unless you aware this is happening, and unless you tell your brain to stop, the process will repeat. On each repetition, it finds a shorter route through your brain circuitry, allowing it to occur faster each time. Within a short while, the process has transformed your original conscious stress reaction into an automatic unconscious reaction -- and you have yourself a stress habit. Continuing with our example, this is why you might stress out so easily whenever you sit in traffic, or get stressed just thinking about traffic.

Does Any of This Sound Familiar?
The type of people most likely to develop stress habits fall into two basic groups. Let us refer to them as Group A, the people who seem to feed off stress; and Group B, the people who seem to fall victim to it. Each group has a specific set of habits, although it is possible for a person to exhibit symptoms of both groups.

The stress habits of the people in Group A include believing they work best when under pressure or in a crisis mode; being impatient; disliking situations in which they are not in control; and becoming easily annoyed by situations other people usually take in stride. They will often talk about how busy they are and yet they will seldom turn down an opportunity to take on more work or responsibility. However, their eagerness does not necessarily result in positive outcomes.

The stress habits of people in Group B include using stress as a way of compensating for feelings of fear or inadequacy; becoming easily distressed or overwhelmed; being reluctant to initiate solutions to their problems; and having a tendency to employ unhealthy coping strategies, such as over-eating or self-medicating, on a regular basis. They also develop mindsets that become increasingly constrictive, making them prone to focus on obstacles or difficulties as opposed to opportunities and benefits.

Such a Bad Habit
As with most habits, the longer you have a stress habit it the harder it is to break and the worse it becomes. As your stress level increases, so does the threat it poses to your physical health and well-being. A high stress level also adversely affects on your emotional and behavioral functioning. It diverts your attention, skews your perspective, restricts your thinking, and promotes regressive, passive aggressive, or avoidance behaviors.

You can never derive any real benefit from a stress habit since both its short-term and long-term effects are either self-destructive or self-defeating. Nothing good can come from relinquishing your self-control over to the effects of stress or making stress a staple of your life.

But Here is a Good Idea
It is very difficult to notice when your brain initiates a stress habit. However, now, you at least know what signs to look for so you can tell your brain to stop! If you have a stress habit, I urge you to get the help you need to get rid of it. Think about how foolish it is to have this habit and how it is actually making you miserable. Stop being your own worst enemy! Besides, with all the stress that exists in our environment or naturally occurs in your life, why in the world would you want any more?