The nine steps that form the basis of my approach to mastering stress and living well are, at a basic level, about identifying and changing habits. The subject of my previous post was “Taking Charge,” and once an individual has summoned this crucial resolve, one of the first areas to focus on is our habitual coping mechanisms.
Most of us develop certain habits that act as coping mechanisms and outlets for stress. To beat stress, it is essential to overcome coping mechanisms in order to meet stress directly. You can then become aware of the underlying cause of your stress, whether it’s your response to some challenge, or perhaps choices you are making that are out of alignment with your innermost feelings. This enables you to address issues directly, rather than allowing them to fester by avoiding the root cause through some form of distraction, i.e., a coping mechanism.
A coping mechanism could accurately be looked upon as a type of addiction. Like most habits, coping mechanisms have an addictive quality to them; we feel some degree of compulsion toward them, and we experience some level of difficulty in resisting them. We tend to use a coping mechanism as a distraction, a crutch that we lean on as a way of avoiding stress. These activities, then, are no longer true choices that we make but, rather, unconscious habits that often prevent us from dealing directly with stress and are therefore harmful to our well-being.
Addictions can take many forms, both obvious and subtle. Some are clearly harmful, such as reliance on alcohol, prescription or recreational drugs, gambling, or dysfunctional eating. Almost anything can become an addition, though, from watching TV to exercise, computer use, work, or even socializing. While these may not immediately appear to be destructive, on a very real level they encroach on your time, sap your attention, and prevent you from living fully. Even something as natural and enjoyable as sex can become an addiction and exhibit these characteristics. These habits do not generate any true joy but instead are a source of obsession that constantly needs to be satisfied.
In speaking with many people who live with serious addictions, I have found that most addictions form gradually over time. After my breakdown, I reviewed my own life and realized that I had many addictions, though I would never have recognized these as “addictions” or “coping mechanisms” until I examined my behavior closely. Even a supposedly easily identifiable one, such as alcohol, wasn’t an obvious addiction, because I wouldn’t have qualified as an “alcoholic.” However, in making an honest assessment, I had to admit that my wife and I were, at times, drinking a bottle of wine with dinner every night, and that this was fueled largely by growing anxiety and unhappiness. Other behaviors may have seemed more innocent, but still, they were a reaction to my stress levels. My cravings for large bowls of popcorn, or multiple packets of cookies at night while watching movies in bed, were not conscious choices for normal portions but rather mindless, compulsive eating where I would consume the snack of the moment, pursuing temporary escape from the challenges of my life. Later I was to understand that I had become addicted to the “dopamine high” of junk food.
Mental and emotional patterns that have an addictive quality are equally as important to address, though they may be harder to recognize on our own. This is a key role for an objective, wise outsider. Whether that be a trusted friend, family member, doctor, or therapist, someone both caring and impartial can help bring to light destructive psychological tendencies so that they can be dealt with. Until we are aware of our addictions, we are slaves to them, and we will continue to sabotage ourselves and our progress.
While in the Menninger Clinic, I became aware of some of my own psychological addictions, such as the way I approached my work and the building of my business, or my unhealthy need to care of others more than I cared for myself, which resulted in my often feeling like a martyr. I also understood that I’d been working at a manic pace and in an addictive mode, often taking my briefcase home and working late nights in my study, then working on Saturdays and Sundays. It was clear that my behaviors had become excessive.
Start by observing where and how you spend your time. Consider the activities you turn to when you are stressed or uncomfortable. Ask yourself if the way you engage in these activities has an addictive or habitual pattern to it and if you are letting destructive behavior control your life. If you discover certain activities or psychological patterns that are destructive or feel more “addictive” or like a “release” than they do joyful, then make it your goal to gradually free yourself from these addictions. Next week, I will discuss my approach to overcoming these coping mechanisms and kicking your bad habits. This opens the way to greater freedom and well-being, enabling you to see the root cause of your stress and make profound changes in your life that are in line with your innermost feelings.