Stress & Strain

Addiction often employs stress as an excuse to use a substance or to just1fy other addictive behavior. You may think you cannot stop your addiction until ou can somehow reduce the amount of stress in your life.

Stress Is Natural

The psychological term stress comes from the physical disciplines, like physics and metallurgy. In recent years, stress has had a bad rap from the press and the general public. There are stress-management seminars and self-help books that are aimed at reducing stress. You can take tests in newspapers and magazines to tell you when your stress level is dangerously high.


Perhaps it is unfortunate that the corresponding metallurgical term strain was not also adopted in the model borrowed by psychology. Stress is the force that is applied to a metal from outside, to compress or bend or break it. Strain is the force within the metal that resists that compressing or bending or breaking. Metallurgists know that the strain often takes a higher toll on the metal than the stress, and the science of designing structural components has a lot to do with spreading out the strain so the part can withstand as much stress as possible. This is why, on a bracket or other structural support, you will see a bend, rather than a sharp 90-degree connection. Without that gradual bend, the strain would concentrate there, and the bracket would be much less strong.

Why is it that some people seem to flourish under a level of stress that would totally wipe out someone else? In most cases, it is strain — our response to the stress in our lives — that is more dangerous than the level of stress.

In fact, you function best in a certain range of stress (or, more accurately, strain). If it is too low, you get bored and perform well below your capabilities. As it increases, you perform better and better up to a point. Then you get saturated with it, and as stress continues to increase, you actually perform less, until finally you are paralyzed and unable to function at all.

For an example of stress and performance, imagine a college or pro football coach. The best coaches intuitively know just how much stress each of their players can take, and getting them “up” for the game means putting more pressure on this one, and trying to get that one to relax, depending on their ability to> tolerate stress.

Decreasing Stress

If you are suffering from too much stress, you can either lower stress, decrease the strain associated with that stress, or both. To reduce stress, you may want to think of renegotiating contracts. Most of your contracts are not written down. You have one or more formal or informal contracts with almost everyone in your life, from your relatives to your acquaintances. It is the arrangement by which you expect what you will do for that person, and what they will do for you.

If a relationship has a contract in which you supply 90 percent of the effort and the other person supplies 10 percent, you will probably be very frustrated and experience a lot of stress. Unless that person is an infant, you ought to consider renegotiating the contract to one that is more equitable.

Another technique for reducing stress is to ask for help. Often there are others willing to help, but out of stubbornness, false pride, or low self-esteem, you may be unwilling to admit that you need help. You might not get it, but at least you should ask. Then think whether you really need this grief, and consider changing the contract.

Decreasing Strain

The other thing you can do is to reduce the strain — to improve your response to the stress in your life. For many addicts, part of the problem is recognizing perfectionism and realizing that your work doesn’t need to be of quite that high a quality, that others might be able to help if you’d just tolerate their inability to do it as well as you can, and lower the unrealistic expectations you may have of yourself.

A valuable tool for changing your response to stress is to use Steps Six and Seven on your perfectionism and your attitudes. You can shift from self-pity to gratitude, develop assertiveness so people don’t walk all over you, and get on with your life.

Increasing Stress as Needed

Especially in early recovery, try to avoid contracting yourself for activities and obligations that will add stress to your life for a long time. Instead, if you are bored and need something to do, get involved in things you can easily pull back from if you start to get overwhelmed. If you get active in an organization, including your Twelve-Step group, volunteer for things that have a short duration, so you can assess your stress levels as you go. If someone asks you to do something, be selective and conservative, and give them fair warning you will accept it only on the condition that if it becomes too much for you, you can bail out. Then stick to that contract!

Serenity Prayer

A great tool for dealing with stress and strain is the Serenity Prayer.

God grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

— Reinhold Niebuhr

Stress & strain, see also: Acceptance, Crisis, Dual diagnosis, Emotional aspects, Energy levels, Excitement, Family, Fear, Feelings, Grief, Hunger & appetite, Obsession, Panic attacks, Premenstrual syndrome, Pregnancy, Relaxation, Serenity, Sleep, Tranquilizers, Visualizations, Withdrawal.

Updated 7 Sep 2015

Creative Commons License
Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson

is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.