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Is Work Stress a Trigger for You?

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The nature of many working environments is such that it can create tremendous amounts of stress. From encroaching deadlines, technology that isn’t working well, or disagreements with co-workers, it is common to feel strain while in your working environment. When you are in recovery, it is important to understand what and where your stress is resulting from. This is because stress is a common trigger for relapse. 

Understanding the impact of workplace stress on your life can improve your recovery process. During treatment, you will ideally learn new methods of coping from a trusted facility. These skills can help to improve self-awareness and manage stress as you return to your working environment. 

Workplace Stress

Stress in the workplace is becoming increasingly common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a fourth of employees view their job as the number one stressor in their lives. They also report that 40% of employees find their jobs to be very or extremely stressful. These numbers make it very clear: many individuals experience stress at or due to their place of work. Regardless of the specific stressor, it has a huge impact on your health. Physical and mental health is impacted by overall stress, especially chronic stress. When compared to acute stress, chronic stress is ongoing. It hurts both mental and physical health. 

Impact on Mental Health

Research has found that stress caused by a single incident or ongoing event is a common precursor for depression and anxiety. In an environment where you find yourself extremely or highly stressed, the results on mental health can be very negative for those in recovery. It is well known that addiction and mental health are highly connected. Thus, when work stressors decrease overall mental health, it is commonly a trigger to return to old substance use habits. 

Impact on Physical Health

Chronic stress also greatly influences physical health and can even change the structure of the brain itself. These changes in the brain impact how you function. As a result, chronic stress can cause issues in cognitive, emotional, and behavioral abilities. In your professional life, the ability to focus, think, and act is highly important. Thus, it can cause decreased physical functioning as well as decrease your ability to be productive and effective at work. 

Research has also found that it is linked to many physical health concerns, including the following: 

  • Decreases immune function
  • Increases overall inflammation (a prelude to many other diseases)
  • Cardiovascular dysfunction
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Autoimmune syndromes

Physical health is highly important in recovery. Addressing your stressors in your workplace and finding alternative methods of managing them can therefore help you to stay sober. 

Common Stressors in the Workplace

Workplace stress is a harmful response that can be felt mentally, physically, or both. There are many reasons why you may feel stressed in your workplace. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines workplace stress as a response by an employee when they do not have the skills or resources to be successful at the job they are hired to do. This is very different from feeling challenged at work. A good challenge creates a sense of enthusiasm to learn something new and succeed. Stressful challenges do not. However, more research is needed to better understand its intricacies. 

There are many reasons why this can occur, including the following: 

  1. It can be caused by a lack of necessary organization and management. This can vary depending on the situation. Some individuals may lack the skills needed to organize and self-manage their time. While others can feel the strain of an ineffective management system, poor working conditions, or lack of support from their boss or co-workers. 
  2. It can be the result of a mismatch of skills, like when an employee is asked to complete tasks that they do not have the skills or resources to do. If the employee does not have the skills and training is not available, it can create a huge amount of strain. Additionally, a company that does not provide the resources to complete a task is also a stressor. This may look like not having information available to complete a project or a lack of technology required for certain tasks.
  3. It can be indicative of a stressful environment. There are many reasons why the location of work could be stressful. These include stressful noises, discrimination, or pollutants. 

Understanding Triggers in Recovery 

The current concept of a trigger is that it is a stimulus that elicits a certain reaction or response. For example, a stop sign is a trigger to stop your car. However, triggers in addiction can be a bit more complex. In some circumstances, it is believed that certain situations can reactivate memories that create a craving for drugs or alcohol. This means that when you come into contact with triggers, it can increase the risk of relapse. This is considered an external trigger or something outside of yourself that creates a feeling of desire or craving. 

However, researchers are currently exploring the concept of an internal trigger to better understand how individuals experience different triggers. When you are around something that causes frustration or stress, there is an internal reaction to try to manage the situation. Learning not to deal with stressors and frustration changes your experience with a trigger. This means that a certain situation or environment that may cause memories to recall a craving can be impacted by how you manage it internally. Learning new skills in treatment and recovery can thus help to deal with triggers in your work environment to decrease your risk of relapse. 

Stress and Addiction

It is well known that stress plays a role in the risk of substance use, addiction, and relapse. Research has found that cumulative stress, as well as traumatic or large stressful events, predict a person’s likelihood of drug and alcohol use. A work environment that has consistent stressors indicates that you are more likely to relapse due to cumulative stress that is not managed or adjusted for. There are many reasons why this may be the case. 

  1. It causes alterations in the brain. These changes impact your ability to function, focus, and think. Thus they alter your ability to manage stressors.
  2. High emotional stress is associated with a loss of control of impulses. This means that while you can still function, it is more challenging to inhibit behaviors that are not appropriate for the situation and to delay gratification. 
  3. Many individuals have maladaptive coping mechanisms for managing stressors, including substance use.

Stress will impact each individual differently. You will have different aspects of your work and working environment that you find more stressful than others. However, the result internally is commonly the same and can be felt emotionally or physically. Learning to recognize your triggers and how to cope with stressors is vital in your recovery. 

Discovering Your Triggers

Work stress can be triggering for many individuals, causing specific cravings. Understanding your specific triggers is vital for you to know what it is that is impacting you and learn how to manage it in a different way to help you maintain your sobriety. Most adults spend 40-45 hours a week in their work environments. For working professionals, this can sometimes be even more. Due to the large amount of time spent at work, identifying what causes stress and triggers cravings can be even more important. 

Increasing Self-Awareness

Awareness is the ability to take notes or notice what is happening. Self-awareness is a skill that is commonly taught in treatment since it improves recovery. If you can notice what you are experiencing and what is causing certain feelings, you are more likely to be able to intervene sooner. Thus, you are more likely to make adjustments in order to not relapse. 

There are many methods to improve self-awareness, but it is most important to find a tool that works for you. Below are multiple options for you to try: 

  • Sharing your experiences with a mental health professional 
  • Speaking with friends or family
  • Journaling 
  • Taking time out of your day for self-reflection
  • Pausing for a few moments each hour to check in with yourself
  • Meditation
  • Quiet time 

The goal of these activities is to help you notice your own experience. 

Connecting the Dots to Learn Your Stress Triggers

As you improve your awareness of your experience, you will have more information about how you feel or experience different events. The next step is to connect what people or situations are causing these feelings and how they connect to your recovery process. For example, let’s say you notice that you feel cravings at the end of each week. Understanding where these cravings are coming from helps you to find new coping strategies. They may be the result of a weekly staff meeting, the cumulative stress of the week, or anticipation for the weekend. 

Each individual in recovery has their own story. Your needs differ from other working professionals and addressing your specific triggers and stressors will lead to your success in recovery. It is not always easy to connect what is triggering certain reactions for you. Getting support or help from a mental health professional, peer group, or family is often helpful. Others may be able to help you by discussing the issue at hand, providing suggestions, or simply listening as you work through the issue. 

Learning New Coping Strategies for Stress

In recovery, you have to learn how to function without drugs or alcohol. There is an enormous amount of depth in this. From managing holiday parties to coping with work stressors, your life will look quite different in sobriety. New coping strategies are a big part of this. Drugs and alcohol are common maladaptive coping strategies to manage stress. Often called self-medicating, they are used to decrease symptoms such as depression, anxiety, or fatigue, which are a result of stressful situations. However, there are many other ways to deal with the tension that comes from work. 

Managing stress internally is a skill. Integrating activities that help you to feel calm and decrease anxiety and tension is one option. Common destressing activities include the following: 

  • Meditation
  • Exercise
  • Walking
  • Being in a quiet place
  • Dance
  • Qi gong
  • Breathwork
  • Socializing 
  • Games 

Another option is to address the source of your stress directly. Speaking with your boss or supervisor is one option that can help you to make changes to your schedule or projects to decrease your stress levels. If you do not have the support you need at work, potentially speak with your human resources (HR) department. Your ability to make changes in your work and work environment may be limited. However, once you have identities that are causing a feeling of tension in your environment, you are more likely to be able to address them head-on. 

Getting Help

Learning what is triggering to you specifically is a challenge. At Pacific Sands Recovery Center, we work with each client to help them identify their needs in recovery. Working with a trusted treatment center and mental health care professionals is a key aspect of a successful recovery. Living a sober life requires new skills and many changes internally and externally in your life. A support team can give you the resources to continue to make these changes in your professional and personal life. 

Work is an extremely common cause of stress and seems to be continually growing. For those in recovery, the stressors at work can be triggering and increase your risk of relapse. Learning to notice, understand, and make adjustments to decrease stress can therefore improve your recovery outcomes. However, this is challenging to do alone. At Pacific Sands Recovery Center, we work with working professionals and provide individualized treatment plans. We help clients to build new coping strategies to be able to return to their professional lives and successful recovery from addiction. Call us today at (949) 426-7962 to speak with a staff member and learn more about how we can help you. 


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