Stress has long been linked to chronic health conditions, such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, depression, and anxiety disorders. But in between the stress and the development of health problems, usually lies some dangerous coping mechanisms. Even if they offer temporary relief, these harmful coping strategies, rather than truly helping, ultimately cause more stress and accelerate health concerns.
Overeating, emotional eating, and binge eating
Stress-eating, or emotional eating, is one of the most common harmful coping techniques we see among stressed-out individuals. There’s no avoiding the fact that food can be comforting, and for this reason, eating is often adopted as a means of stress relief. If you find yourself eating when you’re not hungry, eating to the point of being uncomfortably full, or craving food whenever you’re upset, you could be using food to fill an emotional void or calm yourself down. This behavior can quickly spiral out of control, and lead to obesity, Type II diabetes, hypertension, and other related and potentially fatal conditions.
Self-injury, which includes cutting, burning, hitting, and other methods, is most common among teens and young adults, but can last well into adulthood if the underlying causes are not addressed. Those who self-injure say that it becomes a way of releasing pent-up feelings for which they don’t feel there’s any other outlet, or of feeling in control of something when everything else seems chaotic. It is especially common among those who’ve suffered childhood trauma and those who do not feel free to be open with their emotions. Because of the endorphin release that occurs after self-injury, this behavior can be addictive, and often becomes the first option that self-injurers turn to for stress relief. Unfortunately, the feeling of relief is also accompanied by shame, self-loathing, and more anxiety. While self-injury is not considered to be an indication of suicidal thoughts, those who engage in the behavior are far more likely to attempt suicide at some point.
Abuse of drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and even caffeine are very real problems that affect a significant portion of the population. For a stressed-out person, substance abuse is a behavior that can spiral out of control and turn into addiction before the person even sees it as a problem. Prescription drug abuse is of particular concern, as drugs such as benzodiazepines are often prescribed to those who complain of high stress and anxiety. Because they are medicines prescribed by a doctor, many people don’t understand just how dangerous and addictive these behaviors can be. Popping a pill or having a few drinks may seem like a great way to unwind at first, but once it crosses the line into abuse or addiction, these things only lead to deterioration of physical and mental health.
Drugs and alcohol are commonly understood to be addictive, and the behaviors are relatively easy to identify. But other compulsive and addictive habits, such as shopping and gambling, can fall under the radar of concerned friends and family. Like self-injury, compulsive shopping and gambling release endorphins that result in a “high,” which is why many people turn to these behaviors again and again for relief from stress and sadness. While excessive shopping and gambling don’t lead directly to health problems, the financial burden creates even more stress and anxiety, and can ultimately lead to financial ruin and destroyed relationships from which it is incredibly difficult to recover.
Too much sedentary time
Leading a sedentary lifestyle may not seem as dangerous as using drugs or self-injuring, but it is much more common. If you’re like the majority of Americans, you spend somewhere between three and seven hours watching TV each day, and around five hours online using phones, tablets and computers. All this time spent in front of a screen means that the average American is sedentary during much of his free time. If you find yourself skipping the gym for a few hours on the couch with Netflix, you’re not only missing out on the healthy stress-relieving effects of exercise, but you’re also putting yourself at risk for obesity and its related health problems.
If you find yourself turning to any of these behaviors in times of stress, it is never too late to seek help and start making changes. Coping with stress in a healthy way is something that can be learned, with a little effort and practice.