As a culture, Americans place a great value on productivity and efficiency in the workplace. At the same time, this culture often downplays the importance of leisure, relaxation and family time. The Wharton School of Business notes that the average employee in the United States gets the equivalent of four weeks of time off per year, while the average European worker gets twice that amount. Even when on vacation, Americans often take work with them in the form of smartphones and laptop computers.
Chronic stress disrupts the balance between our jobs and personal lives. We worry about work when we’re with our spouses or children, and we compulsively check our voicemail or email when we’re supposedly on vacation. With such an emphasis on staying busy and keeping in touch with the workplace, is it any wonder that work-related stress has become a major public health problem?
In an effort to deal with the physical and psychological symptoms of stress, many workers attempt to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol – a mistake that can spiral into the trap of addiction.
What Is Stress?
In its most basic form, our response to stress is a survival mechanism. When we’re faced with danger, either real or imaginary, our systems get ready for self-defense (the fight response) or escape (the flight response). Whether we choose to fight or flee as a way to save ourselves, our bodies release powerful hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.
These stress chemicals produce changes like these:
- Accelerated heart rate
- High blood pressure
- Faster breathing
- Rapid eye movement
- Heightened senses
- Increased physical strength
- Increased alertness
At the same time, the activities that our systems perform when we’re at rest, like food digestion, slow down or stop. Chronic stress can cause problems with digestion, metabolism, sleep, fertility and immunity. People who are tense and anxious all the time tend to get sick more often, have trouble conceiving children, and suffer from stomach ulcers or heartburn.
Stress isn’t always a negative phenomenon. You’ve probably experienced the positive, self-affirming form of stress when you took on a difficult project at work and completed it successfully. On the other hand, you’ve probably experienced the negative, destructive form of stress when you felt that you were pressured to finish a project in an unrealistic timeframe without adequate resources. Unfortunately, many of us experience the negative form of stress more often than the positive.
Good stress, sometimes known as “eustress,” can enhance self-esteem and increase motivation. Negative stress, on the other hand, can make us feel exhausted, depressed and drained of energy. How can you tell when the pressure you feel at work is becoming unhealthy?
Here are a few red flags of destructive stress:
- You spend more time working yet you feel like you’re accomplishing less.
- You dread going to work most days of the week.
- Your partner, spouse or children have complained about your work habits.
- Your job makes you feel helpless, angry and out of control.
- You rarely have time for physical exercise or hobbies.
- You find that you can’t relax after work without having a drink or using drugs.
If you need to have a drink, smoke a joint or take a pill to get through your day, you’ve reached a level of work-related stress that’s potentially dangerous. Substance abuse at work can lead to injuries, legal problems, loss of employment and even death. At this point, stress management and rehab aren’t optional luxuries — they’re a matter of survival.
Health Risks of Stress
We all know the psychological consequences of stress: irritability, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating. But the repercussions of stress affect every system in the body, contributing to chronic pain and disease.
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Sleep deprivation
- Migraine headaches
- Stomach ulcers
- Muscle strain
- Back problems
- Mood disorders
- Anxiety disorders
Work-related stress has also been linked to an increased risk of substance abuse. Smoking, drinking and using drugs are common coping mechanisms among workers who are under constant pressure. But these forms of self-medication only add to the damage you can do to your body and mind. In addition, substance abuse creates a tremendous strain on personal relationships, breaking up marriages, families and friendships.
Stress management is a central part of an effective addiction treatment program for people struggling with the effects of high-pressure jobs. In order to recover from self-defeating behaviors, you must replace those behaviors with positive, sober activities that nourish your body and spirit. If you or someone close to you is battling addiction and job stress, a professional rehab program can offer the help you need to rebuild a healthy, balanced life.
The Trap of Self-Medication
Just as compulsive work is a common practice in the US, so is the use of drugs and alcohol to manage work-related stress. We meet our coworkers for happy hour to hash over a hard day at the office or share prescription tranquilizers to help each other get through a rough project. But casual substance abuse can quickly devolve into chemical dependency and addiction. The same substances that we once relied on to help us relax, sleep or recharge our energy can turn against us, destroying our physical and emotional health.
There’s a common misconception that most alcoholics and drug addicts are jobless and homeless. According to the National Business Group on Health, this stereotype is untrue; in 2007, over half (60 percent) of the American adults who had substance abuse problems were employed at the time they were drinking or using. While some of these workers turned to substance abuse for personal reasons, many others used drugs or alcohol to cope with the pressures of their jobs. But substance abuse ultimately makes occupational stress worse and vice versa. The use of drugs and alcohol can lead to poor job performance, absenteeism, disciplinary action and ultimately unemployment.
While that first drink or hit of marijuana might seem deeply relaxing after a rough day, alcohol and drugs can actually interfere with your ability to handle stress in healthy ways. The University of Maryland Medical Center points out that alcohol has a harmful effect on the brain receptors that help us reduce stress. Central nervous system stimulants like cocaine, methamphetamine or amphetamines may initially provide a rush of energy and euphoria, but they ultimately interfere with the brain’s natural production of chemicals that create a sense of contentment and well-being. The result is a self-perpetuating cycle of stress and addiction, in which occupational pressures and substance abuse actually fuel each other.
Finding a Work-Life Balance
In recovery, the addict or alcoholic must learn how to find a balance between life and work. This process isn’t easy, especially for workaholics who may be equally hooked on job stress and drugs. Stress provides a rush of adrenaline that can be just as addictive as the rush of taking narcotics. How can you recognize the need to reach out for help for yourself or someone else?
- Problems at work, such as the threat of suspension or termination
- Problems at home, including verbal arguments, physical altercations or threats of divorce
- Financial difficulties, such as the lack of money to pay for basic living expenses
- Health problems, including insomnia, heartburn, headaches or muscle pain that have no clear medical cause
- Emotional problems, such as low self-worth, despair, hopelessness or a feeling that life is unmanageable
Denial is an obstacle to recovery for many addicted employees. If you’re still employed and you have a roof over your head, you might wonder why you need to stop drinking or using. The fact is that the combination of work-related stress and addiction is a time bomb that can explode at any time.
- Improve your mental function and job performance
- Help you regain your physical health
- Help you have healthy, fulfilling relationships
- Allow you to enjoy your leisure time as much as your work time
- Restore your sense of self-worth
- Renew your sense of hope for the future
Stress management is a core component of a comprehensive addiction treatment program. Through individual counseling, group therapy sessions, creative therapies and holistic treatment modalities, you can learn positive forms of stress reduction that will boost your health, soothe your mind and heal the damage caused by addictive behavior.
Changing your response to a stressful job requires changing your beliefs about stress reduction.
Research published by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism suggests that alcoholics drink in response to stressful situations because they believe that drinking will relieve their anxiety or frustration — not because alcohol is really an effective antidote to the stressors of life. As you explore and practice stress reduction techniques like meditation, exercise therapy, yoga and massage, you will teach yourself to find inner peace in these healing activities.
The treatment program at The Oaks at La Paloma offers innovative therapeutic strategies for restoring work-life balance. In our comfortable, informal surroundings, you’ll find the support you need to escape the double trap of occupational stress and addiction. Our compassionate therapists specialize in helping people like you find hope and health in a life without drugs or alcohol. Call our toll-free number to learn how you and your loved ones can benefit from our approach to recovery.