What The Wild Things Are

Understandings of Self, Awareness, and Mental Health in an Ever-Changing World

Too much stress? Try pleasure.

The link can help us make healthy choices.

Often people turn to pleasurable activities when feeling stressed, and we tend think of this as being an "escape" or an unhealthy coping mechanism. This is especially true when the pleasurable activity is unhealthy for us and/or our relationships with others. But recent research at the University of Cincinnati has demonstrated that pleasurable activity such as food or sex actually reduces stress via brain pathways by inhibiting anxiety responses in the brain.

The researchers found that even small amounts of yummy food can reduce stress for a week - and that it was the taste that made the difference rather than the content or the quantity. Additionally, access to a sexual partner also had a similar effect. This helps to explain why seeking such activities continues during stressful times, even when it is a behavior that is unwanted, such as overeating or sexual acting-out.

But these findings are not simply important because they explain issues related to obesity or sexual addiction, although certainly that is important. These findings also point us towards finding a solution - alternatives to behaviors that someone desires to change. In other words, if it is true that a small taste of something delicious or pleasurable sexual activity can reduce stress, then it would follow that other pleasurable activities can reduce stress as well.

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Furthermore, we know from prior research that there are activities that the body and mind can find deeply pleasurable and highly effective in reducing stress, even if intellectually we may not think of them as enjoyable. For example, exercise is an effective stress reduction activity (and pleasurable for the body), even if the person exercising imagines it to be a chore or tiresome. Similarly, people complain that they wouldn't be able to find time to mediate or think of it as a waste of time, when techniques such as Transcendental Meditation have been found not only to be pleasurable for the mind and body but also highly effective stress-reduction techniques.

The link between stress reduction and pleasure is becoming clearer, and adds to the list of explanations as to why some people may engage in activities that aren't necessarily good for them during periods of stress. But this link also provides us with alternatives that can bring about the (ultimately) same desired result in a better way. This is especially important in the weeks ahead, as we head towards the holidays. Holidays often bring a combination of both stress and the availability of unhealthy pleasurable activities. Becoming conscious of the link between the two can help us choose the option for pleasure that not only helps us to relieve the stress but makes us healthier in the long run.

 

 

Photo by Alexandra Beier/Getty Image

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco.

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