A Simple, Pleasurable Way to Build Your Resilience to Chronic Stress
Chronic stress is living day to day with persistent unpredictability or hostility. You might experience chronic stress while working in a toxic environment where you’re constantly worried that you’ll lose your job. You might experience it while caring for a loved one with a chronic illness. You might experience it while working the night shift in a demanding, fast-paced job. You might experience it while attending a highly competitive, cutthroat graduate program or while dealing with a divorce.
Author and medical doctor Mithu Storoni, M.D., Ph.D, shared this analogy with me: Acute stress is an elastic band that springs back. Chronic stress is an elastic band that’s been “stretched for too long, too frequently, or too intensely; it loses its resilience and does not snap back to its original shape.” And sometimes when we’re in the throes of stress, when we’re in the thick of it, we fear that we won’t either.
But many approaches and techniques can help—one of which involves pleasure. Pure pleasure.
In our society, we tend to dismiss pleasure. We think engaging in pleasurable activities is selfish and unproductive. We think that doing something solely because it’s fun is a luxury we don’t have the time or money for. We think that work must feel hard—really hard—in order to be “work.” Expecting it to be anything else is unrealistic and idealistic.
But pleasure is actually powerful.
Adding pleasure to your life may help to strengthen your resilience to chronic stress, according to Storoni, in her comprehensive, research-packed book Stress-Proof: The Scientific Solution to Protect Your Brain and Body—and Be More Resilient Every Day.
In order to be happy, we need both pleasure (the ups in life) and a little pain (the downs), Storoni said. “In chronic stress, the ‘downs’ increase and we focus on these. But the ‘ups’ decrease too, and simply preventing the ‘downs’ won’t work completely unless we also increase the ‘ups,’” she said.
Chronic stress can spark anhedonia, a loss of pleasure in activities previously enjoyed (and a symptom of clinical depression). A new type of therapy called “Engage” actually uses “reward exposure” to help patients with depression engage in meaningful, rewarding, pleasurable activities. (More on that below.)