April 2022

Why emotional numbing behaviours don’t relieve stress

7 min read

Pleasurable pastimes can come in many different forms — anything from eating and social media scrolling to watching Netflix, drinking alcohol, or shopping. When enjoyed in moderation, these things can all be healthy pleasures in life, but if used in excess, they can turn into poor coping mechanisms, also referred to as emotional numbing behaviours.

Reaching for an emotional numbing agent when stressed may be temporarily effective — it can change your focus and give you a break from a tense situation. However, this may not be an effective coping mechanism in the long term. Life comes with stress. We cannot avoid it, but we can improve our stress management skills, building resilience and self-compassion. All of these begin with an awareness of what stressful situations and stress relief are from a biological perspective.

A stressful situation can range from an important business call to an argument to driving through hectic traffic. It increases adrenaline, dopamine, and cortisol levels, which activate the fight-or-flight response (link). Parts of our body that need to be active respond to adrenaline by increasing blood flow in these regions (blood rushes into our legs, heart rate speeds up). Other parts that can spare energy respond by decreasing blood flow. These are parts involved in digestion, reproduction and other functions of the human body that can be considered luxuries for when things are going well. Blood flow increases in these regions again when our system enters the rest-and-digest mode, facilitated by physical and mental relaxation (link).

A short-term solution for a long-term problem

The stress response is the same regardless of whether we face a stressful situation or an exciting event. Dopamine is the precursor to adrenaline — this means that whenever dopamine is present, adrenaline is present too (link). Imagine you and your friend decide to go on a rollercoaster. Your friend is anxious but decides to join in anyway. As soon as the ride picks up speed, your friend screams with fear while you put your hands up in the air and enjoy every bit of the adrenaline rush. Dopamine and adrenaline are pumping through both your systems, and the only difference is that your brain, more specifically your prefrontal cortex, perceives this experience as enjoyable.

Our brain’s job is to keep us safe and expend as little energy as possible in doing so. Once it learns that an activity is readily available to us and provides a good feeling, it can have a tendency to reach for that activity whenever we feel stressed. Unfortunately, whether such poor coping mechanisms as alcohol misuse (link), emotional eating (link), or compulsive shopping (link) relieve stress on a molecular level may not factor into this. Often, activities that people may engage in to relax can increase dopamine levels, similarly to how stressful situations do.

Overeating — Could there be a mismatch in our nervous system?

Eating can increase dopamine at the time of ingestion and when the food reaches the stomach, with the latter being lower the more we crave that specific food (link). This may cause an increase in the quantity of food ingested. When discussing disordered eating, it is worth understanding the biology behind craving foods to further our healing and self-compassion.

Carbohydrates are fuel — our digestive system breaks them down into glucose which enters our blood and fuels our body (link). Nature taught our ancestors to look for fruits in order to obtain the necessary fuel for survival by making fruits taste sweet. Not only do our taste buds register sweetness, but also our stomachs (link). There are neurons in our gut that sense the presence of sugar in the food we ingest. These neurons trigger the release of dopamine, which makes us crave more of that food.

Highly nutritious food was scarce for our ancestors, and dangers were plenty. It makes sense that individuals who overindulged on sweet, ripe fruits had higher chances of survival. Putting on a layer of fat could have even made the difference between life and death. Today, delicious food is plentiful and readily available to a considerable proportion of the human population. The scale tipped in the opposite direction, and obesity is now a much more significant concern than starvation for many of us. This can become a much bigger problem when one considers the practice of adding sugar to most processed foods. It makes us unaware of how much sugar we’re eating in addition to making us crave more of that food.

Social Media — The “Magical Maybe”

The “Magical Maybe” refers to the moment in which we check our phone for notifications. When we find a notification, the brain secretes a little dopamine. Because actions that sometimes secrete dopamine and sometimes don’t have a tendency of leading to addictive behaviours (such as gambling or playing video games), we may find ourselves checking our phones again and again for notifications. The addictive power of “maybe” has been discussed by Dr Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, in his talk on dopamine (link). This can be true for scrolling on your social media platforms of choice, such as Instagram or YouTube.

Behavioural addictions such as scrolling on social media are now impacting a much higher number of people than substance addictions. With the advent of smartphones and the Internet, every moment can be an opportunity to be stimulated by a funny video on TikTok, a like on Instagram, a swipe on Tinder or online shopping. Yet trends of negative affect and stress have been rising for the past decade, as published by World Happiness Report (link). Dr Anna Lembke, MD, Chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic at Stanford University School of Medicine, emphasises the danger of the endlessness of social media. It is one of the most easily accessible and endless numbing agents that we can consume. Paired with the “magical maybe” baked in by the companies that created these platforms, it can result in high levels of dopamine for anyone who can click and scroll. It makes us happy while we use it and it plunges us into an uncomfortable state marked by dopamine deficit as soon as we stop.

Substance misuse — the power of dopamine

People drink alcohol for various reasons. Some drink for social reasons, but others drink to feel better emotionally. When this becomes a habit, it can drastically impact overall health, especially for women. Women have a harder time breaking down alcohol which results in higher blood ethanol concentrations, increasing the risk of alcoholic liver disease (link).

Smoking can increase dopamine levels at the time of smoking. Long term exposure to nicotine increases the number of structures present in your brain called receptors which can be activated by nicotine (link). Habitual smokers have billions more of these receptors than nonsmokers do. Their presence can increase nicotine cravings further.

How can we relieve stress?

The answer begins with awareness and intentional decisions. We can pick and choose which actions we want to reinforce and the habits we want to form. Breathwork (link), meditation (link), gratitude (link), gentle movement such as walking (link) and yoga (link) or even a simple nap (link) can help take your mind and body out of the fight or flight response and into the rest and digest mode. They do this on a molecular level that can feel deeply relaxing and recharging. While these relaxing activities may not be a habit now, they have the potential to become one if you engage in them repeatedly.

Studies show you can disrupt habits not only by replacing the action you would rather stop with a new one, but also by engaging in the new action after the old one (link). For example, if you wish to read more instead of binge watching Netflix, you have two options. Plan to read a few pages instead. If you find yourself starting the third episode or documentary in a row, pause and read a few pages. Doing this already starts to weaken the habit of watching too much Netflix. Slowly build the new practice to where you desire.

Once you end your relaxing practice of choice, ask yourself if you still want to engage in a numbing behaviour previously mentioned. Chances are that, even if you still do, you will enjoy it more and in a more limited amount. This is how you can disrupt a bad habit and reassure yourself that you can consciously handle stress while still enjoying the pleasures of life.

In addition to successfully switching back and forth to the rest-and-digest mode, disengaging from dopamine-inducing activities and substances can improve our perceived quality of life. We are always releasing dopamine at a baseline rate. It is the deviation from that baseline rather than bursts of dopamine that result in the feeling of pursuit and pleasure (link). Suppose our system is constantly stimulated to release dopamine. In that case, the levels of dopamine can go below baseline and then we can experience difficulty in achieving the same levels of motivation, fun and energy in our day-to-day life.

The importance of healthy coping mechanisms with stress is important for all of us, but maybe even more for someone going through their fertility journey. Small actions can make a big impact when it comes to switching from the tense state of fight-or-flight to a relaxed state of rest-and-digest. The former tends to prioritise blood flow to the muscles while the latter can help improve blood and nutrient flow to the reproductive organs. Mental and physical rest can feel recharging, which is crucial during the often psychologically taxing fertility journey. At Harper, we understand and we are here to support — backed by science.

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