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.)
Experiencing positive emotions (which we feel with practicing pleasure) also may decrease inflammation. Which is critical because as Storoni writes in Stress-Proof, “inflammation, stress and depression incite each other into a self-perpetuating cyclone.” That is, inflammation can trigger stress. And stress might increase inflammation. “The presence of inflammation or the body’s natural inclination toward it can determine whether or not a stressful experience will eventually lead to depression,” she writes. For instance, Storoni notes, the body’s propensity to produce inflammatory markers is linked to the severity of depression triggered by interpersonal stress. This 2017 study found that experiencing a range of positive emotions correlates with lower levels of inflammatory markers (IL-6, CRP).
Below are suggestions from Stress-Proof on incorporating pleasure into your days.
Create pleasure habits.
In Engage therapy, “the therapist helps the client choose rewarding activities, identify the steps needed to experience each one, and create action plans with clear steps as well as a backup contingency plan,” Storoni writes. It also involves creating new cues for new habits and removing old cues to forget and stop old habits.
Storoni suggests applying these principles to our own lives by identifying three things that bring you pleasure and adding them to your schedule for the week. This might include anything from practicing yoga to taking photography classes to writing to walking on the beach.
For instance, if writing is one of your pleasurable activities, you’d make a checklist with actions you’ll take this week to write, such as: buy a notebook and pen you actually like and organize your writing corner. To create new cues, set reminders on your phone when it’s time to write; and put up quotes from writers on the joys of writing. To remove old cues, keep your phone away from your desk so you don’t spend most of your time scrolling social media and checking email.
Capitalize on the “closure principle.”
Closure brings pleasure. “Completion triggers our reward system circuit. We are programmed to want to resolve an unstable or an unfinished situation as soon as possible,” Storoni writes. Which is why she suggests separating each task into tiny steps and treating ourselves to a small reward when we complete each step.
For instance, you might break down writing an article into: contacting sources; interviewing sources; outlining the article; writing a first draft; revising the first draft; and so on. After completing the step of outlining your article, you reward yourself with a 10-minute dance break or a 30-minute “House Hunters” episode.
Listen to predictive music.
“Our reward circuits buzz with pleasure when predictions we make from things we have observed turn out to be true,” Storoni writes. This is true for music. Because once we get the hang of a rhythm, and the beat that we expect to hear is the one we hear, we feel rewarded.
The key is to find music with a happy medium: If it’s too predictable, we get bored. It needs to be varied enough to sustain our attention. That is, we need music with the right number of syncopations, which Storoni notes is “when the inherent pattern of beats in a piece of music is momentarily interrupted by either a displaced or missing beat.” Examples include jazz and Indian tabla drum compositions.
We tend to downplay pleasure. We think it’s frivolous. We think we don’t have time for it. After all, we’re too busy doing serious things. And if we do make time for pleasurable activities, they’re usually the first to go when life gets hectic.
However, according to Storoni, “If you stop doing things that bring you pleasure, while living under chronic stress with a hyperactive emotional brain that keeps you immersed in negativity, your life will descend into a spiral of gloom. You must treat pleasure with the same importance with which you treat going to work or taking a shower, by allotting time for it every day. Never leave pleasure by the wayside or sacrifice it for ‘more important’ things.” Because, as it turns out, pleasure is one of those important things.