You have probably heard that it is a bad idea to go grocery shopping when you are hungry, because, when you are hungry, your brain sends constant messages and psychological triggers for you to eat. In other words, when you are hungry, your brain tells you to hunt or gather. However, hunting and gathering are as simple as walking the aisles of a supermarket. Have you ever come home from a shopping trip with bags full of food you do not really need? Your hunger caused you to make decisions that were based in the emotional part of your brain instead of the rational part, and the results are right in your grocery bags. What you may not realize is that stress and tiredness have a very similar effect on your decision-making skills—just like you should not go shopping when you are hungry, you should not make big decisions when you are tired or stressed out.
Stress, Fatigue and the Craving for Comfort in the Brain
The prefrontal cortex of the brain is responsible for a wide range of critical emotional and physiological functions. It uses chemical signals and responses to manage the following processes:
- Waking and sleeping
- Appetite and eating
- Impulse control
- Forming and recalling memories
- Stress tolerance
- Forming habits
A variety of “feel good” substances (such as dopamine, adrenaline or endorphins) are released during or after certain behaviors to encourage people to repeat them. For instance, when you eat, have sex, exercise or accomplish a goal, you feel good, so the brain uses the resulting euphoria to motivate that behavior again. This process happens in the background of the brain, so it requires almost no conscious thought or awareness to behave this way. In short, hunger is a kind of discomfort, so the brain learns that eating food is the way to comfort this problem. Hence the term “comfort food,” as eating is a form of self-comfort.
Many people understand that fried food, foods with many carbohydrates and rich, fatty foods are unhealthy in great quantities. But, because these foods tend to trigger higher amounts of feel-good chemicals, millions of people eat these substances in great quantities. It is a compulsive behavior that provides short-term comfort, but the ultimate consequences are heart disease, diabetes, obesity and premature death. The rational part of the brain understands these risks, but it directs behavior weaker than the emotional part does, which is where hunger lives and is satisfied.
In turn, stress is like emotional hunger caused by unresolved problems, overwhelming responsibility or an inability to meet other people’s demands. It creates psychological noise that the brain instinctively wants to quiet. There are healthy ways to manage stress, including exercise, meditation, prayer, conversation and activities that force relaxation, such as fishing or quilting. However, unhealthy ways to medicate stress including the following list:
- Self-inflicted pain
- Thrill seeking
- Acquiring things (shopping or stealing)
Like hunger, stress demands to be comforted. The healthier ways of managing stress take much more time and effort than the unhealthy ones. Unfortunately, once the brain learns that those acts provide relief, it becomes difficult – or even impossible – to resist the compulsion to engage them. Thus, if you are stressed, then your brain will likely make whichever decision it wants will relieve that stress, even if that choice is dangerous or life threatening.
Fatigue greatly reduces the brain’s capacity to manage stress and tolerate discomfort. Tiredness functions like a hunger for sleep or another form of relief—when you are tired, your brain’s priority is to stop feeling tired. It will emotionally move you to do whatever it takes no longer to feel tired anymore. Sometimes this behavior means taking a nap, but other times it may mean taking a drug. When you are tired or malnourished, you will tolerate stress poorly, and your brain will seek comfort wherever it may be found. This need can lead to any of the following risky behaviors:
- Reckless sexual activity
- Unwise use of money
- Aggression toward others
- Substance abuse
- Poor eating choices
If you feel stressed or tired, then avoid making any major decisions. One major step in this direction is to make your decisions ahead of time, when you feel rested and at peace. Like making a shopping list and having a snack before heading to the grocery store, when you know you are heading into a potentially stressful situation, consider making the following decisions beforehand:
- When you will go home
- What you will eat
- With whom you will spend time
- Which substances you will or will not use
- When you will get the rest you need
- What you will do to relieve stress
When you make these decisions, share them with a trusted person to hold you accountable. Ask her and empower her to protect you from making self-destructive decisions because of stress or fatigue.
Many people become addicted to alcohol, drugs or compulsive behaviors after years of comforting their inner anxiety, stress or depression. Many people get hooked on drugs to medicate a sleeping disorder. Some people even use drugs to treat feelings of frustration, fear or despair regarding past mistakes. While these acts provide some measure of relief for a short amount of time, they ultimately cause even more pain and anxiety. If you would like information about healthier ways of managing stress and fatigue or to overcome a chemical or behavioral dependence, then please call our toll-free, 24 hour helpline now. Call now for instant, professional support.