• Can You Numb Away Your Stress?

    What do Margarita Monday, Winedown Wednesday, Beer thirty, and Whiskey O’clock have in common? They’re all popular ways we joke or half-joke about relieving our stress. But do they work? Turns out, not so much.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love me a Margarita Monday (or Tues or Wed… or any day, really) as much as the next person, especially if we’re talking an Italian margarita from Olive Garden. Pouring amaretto on top of a margarita was total brilliance. Tasty, tasty brilliance! Too bad it doesn’t have any real or lasting effect on my stress. It only numbs it for a little while. But it numbs the good stuff as well. That won’t stop me from drinking them, but it has changed the reason I drink them. I drink them not to relieve stress, but to make my taste buds ecstatically happy.

    Stress = Vulnerability = Stress

    It’s no secret that stress often makes us feel vulnerable, and we don’t generally like to feel vulnerable even if we know how beneficial it is to living a happy and satisfying life. It’s also no secret that feeling vulnerable is a stressor for most of us. It’s a vicious cycle.

    Don’t believe me? Think about the things that might make you feel vulnerable – asking for help, getting laid off, asking someone out – are they also stressful? You know it.

    Now think about some of life’s stressors – the boss yelling at you, unanticipated expenses/bills, not getting a promotion – do they also make you feel vulnerable? I’ll bet they do.

    Numbing away your stress with alcohol, drugs, or even distractions like video games will also numb everything else in your life, including happiness, gratitude, and joy… the very things you want to cultivate to counteract the effects of stress. Brené Brown talks about this toward the end of her TED talk “The Power of Vulnerability.”

    “You can’t selectively numb emotion.”

    Here’s a little of what she has to say: “Here’s the bad stuff. Here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment. I don’t want to feel these, I’m gonna have a couple beers and a banana nut muffin… [responds to audience]… You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects or emotions. You cannot selectively numb. When we numb those, we numb joy. We numb gratitude. We numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable so we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle. One of the things we have to think about is why and how we numb. And it doesn’t just have to be addiction.”

    It doesn’t just have to be addiction.

    I’ll bet most people are guilty of numbing their stress at some point. I certainly was. It used to be my go-to method of coping with life’s big (and little) discomforts, stressors, and vulnerabilities. I was an expert; a “couple” drinks after work, an entire weekend of doing nothing but playing video games, an entire package of Oreos consumed in just one day. I didn’t feel very stressed at all. Actually, I didn’t feel much of anything at all. Sadly, when I look back at that time I can see that I defined happiness as an absence of anger or sadness, when really that would just be a neutral state… definitely NOT happy.

    True confession: I’m still guilty of numbing, but I don’t do it to the extent that I used to. For instance, I might now have a ginormous cookie from the awesome bakery up the street instead of eating a whole pack of Oreos or play a few games of mahjong on my phone instead of playing video games all  weekend. The difference is that now I’m aware of what I’m doing (most of the time, anyway) instead of doing it unconsciously like I used to. I’m also a whole lot happier and more satisfied with my life.

    If you haven’t watched Brené Brown’s TED talk “The Power of Vulnerability” or if it’s been a while, I highly suggest finding 20 minutes to watch it soon. She’s an engaging speaker and storyteller.

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