Dr. Leyla Gulcur, Ph.D.
Pleasure as an Antidote to Stress
Updated: Sep 22, 2019
There is so much stress going around. Maybe you’re living in a crowded city with snarled traffic or sardine-packed subways. Maybe you’re worried about making enough money, or losing your job. Maybe you have to juggle the demands of a relationship or family.
You’re not alone. Nearly everyone experiences stress at some time. In fact, 49% of Americans report experiencing a major stressful event in the past year.
While some amount of stress is healthy, excessive stress produces negative changes in the body, increasing our risk for a wide range of illnesses including asthma, obesity, lowered immunity, heart attacks, gastrointestinal problems and depression and anxiety.
Clearly, stress is antithetical to pleasure and happiness. But the good news is that this means that pleasure is an antidote to stress. This is backed by studies showing that pleasure has a cascade of positive health benefits: it lowers our stress hormones, blood pressure and heart rate, strengthens our immune system, and releases feel-good chemicals that combat anxiety and depression. And the best news is that pleasure feels good, by creating changes both in our brains and our bodies!
The first step in stimulating our pleasure circuits is to feed our sensual side, by engaging in activities that stimulate and nourish our senses. A lot of times, we are so rushed in going from one meeting to another, or getting a task done, that we neglect to literally stop to smell the roses. Yet our senses – touch, sight, taste, smell and hearing — crave nourishment. So today, we will focus on the first step to jumpstarting our pleasure circuits, backed by scientific evidence showing that engaging the pleasure pathways is good for your health:
1. Reach out and touch someone. Hug a friend, or cuddle with your partner. Studies show that touch releases the “feel good” love hormone oxytocin, which plays a major role in bonding, empathy and trust, and reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
2. Hang with animals. Or, get a dog or cat. Pet owners have been shown to be less stressed out—most likely thanks to having a buddy to cuddle with (see #1 above).
3. Get a massage. A hospital study found that after just one massage session, participants experienced a significant reduction in cortisol and an increase in immune function and infection fighting white blood cells. Massage also improves mood, and eases depression and anxiety.
4. Kiss or make love. Research suggests kissing also releases chemicals that reduce cortisol. And (surprise, surprise), studies have shown that sex can also decrease cortisol and lower blood pressure.
5. Taste something good. Stress messes with your sense of taste. Find a food or drink you like. My personal favorite is dark chocolate and kumquats. Put in a bowl and sit on your favorite couch. Engage your senses. Put a morsel in your mouth. Roll it around. Savor the texture and taste of each bite. Find your tension draining away.
6. Give your nostrils a thrill. Studies suggest aromatherapy can be a good way to relieve stress and enhance health. Certain aromas (like lavender) have been shown to reduce blood pressure and stress levels.
7. Take a dance break. Anytime. Anywhere. Go into your office bathroom stall, put on your headphones and favorite song and dance your stress away. Research shows that music and movement can help relieve stress, triggering biochemical stress reducers and lowering your heart rate. Embody ecstatic movement to enliven yourself.
8. Laugh or smile. Laughter can reduce the physical effects of stress on the body, and make your immune system stronger. Moreover, engaging the “smile muscles” can change your mood – even if you weren’t feeling great to begin with.
The evidence is clear: the simple act of nourishing our senses is an immediate gateway into more pleasure and good health into our lives in an easy way.
And, the best thing about pleasure is that it is self-reinforcing; the more pleasure we feel, the more we will do the things that bring us pleasure.
I challenge you to a 30-day pleasure diet – pick any of these activities that you feel drawn to, and do them daily for 30 days – see how you feel at the end!