Between Boredom and Stress: The Middle Path to Successful Recovery
Over a century ago, research by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson demonstrated the important relationship between arousal and performance. For people in recovery, the ‘inverted U’ helps explain why being optimally motivated in recovery from addiction requires taking on challenges in life that are not too easy nor too difficult:
Not Enough Challenge = Boredom
Working our way from left to right, when recovery is too comfortable then boredom can result. Boredom in recovery usually occurs when the addict does not change his or her lifestyle after completing treatment or gets complacent. We all know the feeling when a daily routine becomes so predictable that it can performed blindfolded.
As the challenge or level of difficulty rises, however, we find something remarkable: we perform better. The world of sports provides many examples of people rising to the challenge of their fans, coaches, and teammates. The star athletes are those that rise to the occasion (such as the playoffs) when the pressure to perform is at it’s peak. It is also no accident that these athletes are the highest paid in their respective sports.
For people in recovery, what is peak performance? It is finding and engaging in activities that best reflect their abilities at the time. Researchers have found that when we find our peak performance we are also at our most motivated.
Peak Performance Depends on the Person
For some addicts in recovery, just showing up to play hockey with a group of strangers may be challenging enough to get them out of their comfort zone. After a while, however, strangers become friends which then requires a new challenge such as setting a personal goal of scoring a goal during the game. This is just one example. Other examples could be looking for work, getting in shape, finding a girlfriend or boyfriend, etc. Each of us have to find a project that is appealing and, at the same time, pulls us out of our comfort zone.
Too Much Challenge = Stress
Continuing on, we can also see that too much challenge or difficult can lead to stress. Stress is difficult for all of us and addicts are particularly vulnerable as it can lead to relapse. So what causes stress for addicts?
Stress Creator #1: Unrealistic Expectations
One source of stress, particularly for those who have just recently come out of treatment, is trying to solve every problem in your life within the first week after returning home. It is important to remember that these problems have developed over many years and they might take a year or two (or more) to resolve them. For example, say you are a chronic smoker and 35 pounds overweight. Are you going to go to the gym and bench press 500 pounds on your first try? Probably not, but it is remarkable how many people expect to get results this fast and, in the process, put unnecessary stress on themselves.
Stress Creator #2: The ‘Lone Ranger’ Effect
Another way that people in recovery can create too much stress on themselves is by being a ‘Lone Ranger’ and not reaching out to others for support. All of us accomplish more when we work as part of a team. Back to the weight room example, a lone ranger would go to the weight room to get in shape and not introduce him or herself to others, not ask for someone to spot them while bench pressing (and, thus, not lifting as much weight as they might otherwise do), etc.
It’s interesting to note that addicts have their own way of dealing with low and high levels of arousal; they use or drink. Thus, it is important to understand the Yerkes-Dodson Law and the importance of maintaining a middle path between boredom and stress.