Google the word, ‘stress’ and you’ll and the definition to be: “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” Ask someone fresh out of treatment and they’ll give you a completely different answer. Some may even tell you it’s a gnawing, debilitating and painful emotional condition they experience every woken minute of everyday.
A more clinical description might be: a biological and psychological response experienced upon encountering a perceived harmful threat that we feel we do not have the personal and social resources to deal with it. However, it is important for you to know that our response to stress can be triggered by both real and imaginary threats and that everyone experiences stress on their own level. In other words, something you nd stressful and dif cult – such as public speaking – can feel like a walk in the park to others.
Not all stresses are bad. What psychologists refer to as Eustress is beneficial stress which can be uncomfortable at the time it is experienced but has been associated with life satisfaction and well- being. The term Eustress refers to a positive response to a stressor where, through a process, we perceive stress as a challenge and nd new motivation to accomplish a speci c goal.
Unfortunately, bad stress far exceeds good stress in the long-term effect on your health. For example, bad stress triggers our ‘ fight or flight’ mechanism which is our primitive automatic survival instinct. This hard-wired response to perceived danger and/or threats changes our entire physiology. ‘Fight or ight’ causes the release of adrenalin and cortisol throughout our bodies and brains to give us the extra strength and awareness to ght or escape the perceived threat. Moreover, the body shuts down non-essential functions like digestion so that the blood can be channeled to critical areas such as major muscle groups. When you are in ‘ ght or ight’ your vision may narrow, muscles become tense, you may begin to sweat and you become more aware, awake, focused.
On the surface, a bout with ‘ fight or flight’ may not appear to be that bad, but it’s never just one bout. Through the course of an average day everyone experiences some form of stress on multiple occasions. It could be someone cutting you off while driving to work, or an email from your boss, a project delay, money problems, a note from your kids teacher and a host of other encounters can trigger stress. This leads to elevated blood pressure and levels of stress hormones (adrenalin and cortisol) that take a toll on the body and mind.
Moreover, cortisol depletes serotonin and dopamine in the brain and can actually damages the receptor sites of these neurotransmitters. This is of particular importance because serotonin and dopamine are two of the major four neurotransmitters that play a critical role in our mood and behavior. Dopamine and serotonin put the spring in our step and the smile on our faces. When these neurotransmitters function becomes compromised, depression, panic attacks, insomnia, negative thoughts, low self- esteem, eating disorders, chronic pain, migraines, and drug and/or alcohol abuse can easily slide in and take hold.
Stress can be just as damaging to your gut. Most people don’t realize that we have a second brain in our gut, but it is true.
The massive neural tissue – a.k.a. the enteric nervous system, produces 95% of the serotonin, and 50% of the dopamine found in our bodies. Groundbreaking research has revealed that our second brain does much more than merely handling digestion. In fact, they’ve discovered that it has a far more profound sway on our mood and behavior than previously ever considered.
“A big part of our emotions are probably in uenced by the nerves in our gut,” says Emeran Mayer, professor of physiology, psychiatry and bio-behavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
The gut has an inner ecosystem where 80% of your immune system lives. When healthy, your gut contains a solid balance of about 85% good bacteria and 15% bad. Stress depletes your good bacteria without you ever knowing. The ight or ght mechanism triggered by stress that I mentioned earlier can impact the blood ow to your gut by diverting it to areas in the body critical to ight or ght.
This becomes more complicated over time as the effects of stress will deplete the good bacteria in the gut whose purpose is to protect you from stress. It’s a catch 22 with no go options. In addition, stress can weaken your guts intestinal lining – a.k.a. leaky gut syndrome or intestinal permeability – which allows some bacteria and their toxins, incompletely digested proteins and fats, and waste not normally absorbed to leak out and into the blood stream.
No wonder stress around the holidays can be so overwhelming to addicts in recovery when you consider everything the mind and body are going through without it. However there are ways to minimize the stress by taking action before and even during any holiday event. Here is a list!
GET STARTED ON THESE ITEMS RIGHT AWAY BEFORE THE HOLIDAYS
I cannot impress upon you how important exercise is to your physical and emotional health. Just a thirty minute a day walk can reduce stress, lower your blood pressure, improve dopamine and serotonin function, promote new brain cell growth, aid in gut health, improves digestion, facilitate better sleep patterns, give you a better outlook on life and a host of other bene ts too long to list here. Exercise is not an option.
The reality is that we simply can no longer get all of the essential nutrients and minerals our body needs to stay healthy through food alone. That being said, here are two supplement recommendations:
Prebiotics, probiotics and enzymes are essential for gut health. An effective supplement regiment can replenish the good bacteria in your gut while helping maintain its balance and improving your mood and behavior.
Make sure you nd a multiple vitamin that contains all the minimum daily requirements especially amino acids; they are the building blocks for many neurotransmitters.
Get Plenty Of Sleep
Sleep and mood are interconnected. The less sleep you have
the more vulnerable you are to irritability, stress and a plethora of other illnesses and problems. Adequate sleep resets the brain and is essential to good health. It helps reduce stress and keeps you feeling your best. In addition, new research has revealed that sleep bene ts your gut’s good bacteria as well.
Call Your Sponsor And Go To Meetings
Sometimes the best plan is to simply have a plan. You know the holidays can be stressful so why not put some thought into what it is that will trigger your stress and develop a plan to address it with your sponsor beforehand? Also, create prepared responses for any awkward questions you can think of. You also may want to talk about managing your expectations. Too often we get caught up in a mental image of what the holidays should be while ignoring the reality of what it is.
Stop Beating Yourself Up
It’s very common for an addict to feel low around the holiday season because of their past behavior. Don’t do it. The best gift you can give anyone this holiday season is the gift of recovery – that includes you!
WHAT TO DO DURING THE HOLIDAYS
Start Each Day Reviewing Your Plan To Fend Off Relapse
You’ve invested time with your sponsor now it’s time to reap the rewards. It is vitally important that you start every day with a
close review of your plan. Rehearse your prepared responses for awkward questions. This will lead you in the right direction and help you build con dence and overcome issues and stressors before they occur.
Bring Along A Close Friend
For many in recovery, this will be the rst time they face friends and family in large groups after their treatment. That is a lot but not insurmountable. Bringing a friend along who doesn’t drink, smoke, or use drugs can be the buffer that lessens the intensity and adds to an enjoyable experience.
Develop An ‘Escape Plan’ Before A Holiday Event
Even with all of your best efforts preparing for a holiday event, you never know exactly what challenges you’ll face. Having an exit strategy helps in a couple of ways. First it lowers the intensity of the event because in the back of your mind you know you can always escape. Next, you have a blueprint that allows for a graceful exit should you nd yourself in a stressful environment.
Avoid Sugar and Sugary Desserts
Eating re ned sugars in cookies and holiday desserts while guzzling soda is exactly what you don’t want to do. The negative effects are far reaching, but for this conversation let’s just say that it will stress you out as well as your body and your brain. It kills body and brain cells while leaving you feeling woozy, nervous, fatigued, and shaky. Nothing good comes from re ned sugars.
Most Importantly, Smile!
Many people think we smile because we’re happy, but it’s a
two way street. It turns out the brain pays attention to our body movements and this effects our emotions. So if you’re feeling sad or blue during the holidays, just smile. The brain interrupts the turned up corners of your mouth as a sign that you are happy. It then releases ‘feel good’ chemicals (neurotransmitters dopamine, endorphins and serotonin) that will reduce stress and actually make you happy.
I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you, your family and loved ones the most blessed holidays and I’d also like to remind you to smile.
John Giordano, Doctor of Humane Letters, MAC, CAP, is the founder of ‘Life Enhancement Aftercare Recovery Center.’ He is an Addiction Treatment Consultant, President and Founder of the National Institute for Holistic Addiction Studies, Chaplain of the North Miami Police Department and is the Second Vice President of the Greater North Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce. Giordano is on the editorial board of the highly respected scienti c Journal of Reward De ciency Syndrome (JRDS) and has contributed to over 65 papers published in peer-reviewed scienti c and medical journals.
By John Giordano, Doctor of Humane Letters, MAC, CAP