Addiction can simply be defined as making short-term choices that have long-term negative consequences. It stands to reason, then, that continuously living life immersed in overdrive could reasonably be considered addictive behavior. In today's world, more and more people are doing just that and regularly confess to me that they are totally stressed out. Yet they continue to pile on the excesses of information, obligations, over-commitments, and instant gratifications at the expense of their physical, emotional and spiritual health.
Current scientific information reveals that inflammation of the brain and nervous system is highly correlated with emotional and physical illness. Other than caused by trauma, viruses, or bacteria, stress is the most obvious culprit. Stressing the human body beyond its capacity to heal interferes with its capacity to rebound. Stress is caused by overloading the body, mind, and spirit with too much for it to handle. In short, there are not enough resources to handle what is demanded.
The grandfather of stress research was the innovative Canadian physician Hans Selye. His seminal work, published in 1936, provided us with what we know happens to the human body and spirit when it is exposed to extended stress of any kind. He clearly demonstrated that overwhelming demands on the body's capacity to respond to challenge will eventually break it down.
The sheer amount of data infiltrating our every moment of every day can hardly be absorbed by a normal body or mind. There are multiple choices for each decision, as well as competing and rapidly-changing resources that may or may not provide us with the best answers. We are bombarded with conflicting challenges and the ever-newest way to do the ever-newest thing.
Whether using rapid-dating sites like Tinder, shopping for medical advice, or creating multiple spread sheets, you are likely spending most of your day multi-tasking and multi-deciding under pressure. And when you are at the end of your rope, you push yourself to work hard at refurbishing through your yoga class, your transcendental meditation, or your workout regimen as you desperately try to compensate for the damage you've done to your body and soul.
Here's what too much pressure looks like in your body. There is a crisis looming in front of you that requires you to adapt to the incoming challenge. Your body produces cortisol and adrenaline, taking nutrients and energy from other organs to prepare you for fight or flight. Your sympathetic nervous system is in full military gear, ready to take on the demand for action.
Liken yourself to a fire engine. You're prepared and ready to efficiently respond to the next alarm. The bell goes off and you're out the door. You are adrenalized, focused, tooled, and efficient. When the fire is out, and the necessary arrangements are made for damage control, you come back into the station where you are washed, refurbished, gassed up, and rested until the next alarm goes off. You're not only at peak efficiency; you are being constantly updated, retooled, and improved.
After you put out the symbolic fire, your body drops into a parasympathetic state, your place to rest and rebalance. All your internal machinery's millions of "Santa's helpers" are running around like crazy putting everything back where it belongs, and getting you ready for the next crisis.
But what if another challenge is immediately in store? And then, another? Now your body is filled with stress hormones, you have lost the ability to comfortably weigh alternatives, and you are limited in what's left of your resources. You're making too much stomach acid, your adrenals are enlarging, and you're badly sabotaging your immune system. By this time, you're having trouble sleeping at night, breathing too rapidly during the day, forgetting things you never would have before, and feel a panic attack lurking.
But the demands keep coming because you can't let anything go and you feel that no one can do it as well or as correctly as you can. So you continue to pile up the counter-attack repository. A tranquilizer to calm down. Ambien to sleep. Maybe an anti-depressant to balance out your serotonin. Starbucks on retainer. Perhaps a stimulant to counteract the ADHD that you've enervated by too much hyper-focus. Alcohol to stay in the moment and let the past and future artificially disappear for a while, then do damage control when you're sober. You're going down for the count, and it's only a matter of time that your weakest link will go.
You are now officially experiencing battle fatigue. You are a soldier on your own front lines who has probably forgotten why you are there, and are in danger of mistaking your enemies for your allies. Your best friends are beginning to avoid you, your boss has started waking you up after your coffee break, and your intimate partner is making plans to hang out with calmer and less dangerous people who are actually happy.
You have become an addict to excess.
In my 41 years of practice, I have watched many quality people of both genders put this kind of wear and tear on their bodies and minds. We now have legitimately established that this level of extended pressure not only precedes and causes illness, but also accelerates aging. Unfortunately, some of my patients have experienced actual traumas like heart attacks, severe auto-immune responses, or emotional breakdowns. Every one of them told me they saw it coming. They just thought they could outrun the odds.
If you're one of those normally sane and clear-thinking people who have fallen into the trap of entangled and extreme intertwinement with the demands of the modern world, you can change some of your behaviors and take better care of yourself, without needing to escape to a remote island. In lieu of the absence of an "excess anonymous" group, they may keep you from burning out.
1) Get rid of all energy drains. Those are behaviors that take a great deal of your time but rarely change your life in a positive direction. For instance, don't waste physical or emotional fuel dealing with unresolvable conflicts or fussing over something that is going to stay stuck. Outrage makes people physically and emotionally sick and the person causing you to feel that way is probably not upset. Defensiveness is exhausting and rarely resolves any disagreement. The most confounding and energy wasting behavior of all is being attached to an improbable outcome.
2) Lose your lists. You don't want on your tombstone, "I got that one crossed off, too." Post-it notes are wonderful reminders of things you'd like to do but can become "obligation wallpaper" when you have more to do than you can possibly accomplish.
3) If at all possible, disconnect from anything, anyone, or any concerns that cost more in the long run than what you get in return. Sacrificing for something deeply meaningful is good for you, but martyrdom and resentment feed and sustain tortured souls.
4) Adopt the maxim, "Don't put energy into anything you cannot change." Feeling responsible for someone or something when you cannot affect the outcome will drain your resources with no tangible result. Try to emotionally step back from offering time or energy to situations over which you have no control. You can be concerned, but not involved.
5) Dump unnecessary drama. We often unknowingly and unwittingly make small things too big, and use up resources we need for other things.
6) Get your priorities straight. It is as important to say "no thank you," as it is to be fully able to embrace what you choose to do.
7) Don't try to balance your excesses with escapes. For many, that is the overuse of alcohol or drugs, but can refer to anything you do that tries to compensate for overdoing it. Intense attempts to heal what should never have been broken in the first place can mask the damage that is still occurring.
8) Pay attention to daily miracles. Like, for instance, the fact that your body will separate out nutrients from waste automatically for you. You'd be pretty busy if you had to do that manually and it wouldn't be a job you'd look forward to. Breathing is another miracle we take for granted. Yet, most of us take that process for granted. Think about what happens every day of your life you would be terribly sad without. Keep a running list that you can refer to every day.
9) Move. Your body needs to metabolize efficiently so that it keeps a perfect balance between taking in nutrients and getting rid of waste products. Moving keeps you in touch with your body and helps it to run more efficiently. Think never driving your car and expecting it to start when you need it.
10) Meditate or pray regularly. Current scientific evidence shows that you can actually remodel your brain when you take the time to go inward and remember why you are on the planet.