Feeling stressed out lately? If so, we’re not surprised.
According to a 2015 American Psychological Association study, 24 percent of Americans experience extreme stress on a regular basis. A similar study in 2017 found that 63 percent of the U.S. worries about the future of the country, 62 percent about money, and 61 percent about work, and stress levels have been steadily increasing over the last decade.
Though stress isn’t always bad, more often than not, high stress levels wreak havoc on our well-being. And while most of us continually try to reduce our stress levels, sometimes it’s hard to walk back our workaholic, pressure-seeking nature. So hard in fact, stress may seem like an addiction. But is that possible, stress addiction?
Though it may not be designated as an official diagnosis, it’s clear to most experts that indeed, you can be addicted to stress.
What Is Stress?
In short, stress is part of our evolutionary fight-or-flight response that Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye defined as “the body’s nonspecific response to any demand, whether it is caused by or results in pleasant or unpleasant stimuli.”
Biologically, once the stress response is activated, our body pumps hormones such as “stress hormone” cortisol, adrenaline, and dopamine into our system to, as Rachel Nuwer writes in the Huffington Post, “summon our strength and turn off nonessential functions to funnel resources to muscles and the brain.” Central nervous system activity, including body temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate increase so we’re poised to take on the challenge at hand with hyper-focused attention.
When stress is caused by a negative event — anything from natural disasters, war zones, and abuse to financial trouble, health issues, excessive workloads, relationship difficulty, and many other situations — stress temporarily pumps activating hormones into our body to get through a tough spot. Once the threat has passed, the body returns to its normal functioning cadence.
At lower levels or in short bursts, stress is both normal and important for living a fulfilling life. For example, we may feel stress before a first date, during a job interview, or giving a musical performance. It can also push us to make changes in our lives and grow as people. Selye coined these types of positive pressures as “eustress,” adding that stress is “the spice of life.”
Stress and Addiction
Where we get into trouble is when the stress response becomes so habitual we seek more and more stress, such as overworking, and we become addicted to that heightened state. Because stress isn’t just a mental reaction but a physiological one, the “high” that stress causes can become addictive for some people.
“[Stress causes a] natural high,” Concordia University neuroscientist and addiction specialist Jim Pfaus explained to The Greatist. “By activating our arousal and attention systems, stressors can also wake up the neural circuitry underlying wanting and craving — just like drugs do.”
Once we become accustomed to a higher degree of stress, it may seem necessary to feel that way all the time. The brain will seek out more of the “feel good” chemicals in order to maintain the same stress level, which, just like addiction, requires even higher amounts of stress over time.
“After time, the brain develops a tolerance for stress, meaning you’ll need more of it to feel the same rush,” writes Lisa Evans for Fast Company. “You may take on more projects than you can actually handle or wait until the ultimate [last] minute to get something done because the adrenal system which fuels stress hormones is fatiguing, forcing you to work harder to get that same burst of cortisol and adrenaline that are released when the body is under pressure.”
While we all know people who have high amounts of stress in their life, experts such as psychologist and addiction researcher Stanton Peele warned in The Greatist to not use the term “stress addiction” indiscriminately. It only applies when stress has a serious adverse effect on someone’s life.
“Only when that pursuit of stress has a significant negative impact on your life could it qualify as addiction,” Peele said, while pointing out that some people thrive in high pressure situations, such as Olympic athletes. It takes more than just high stress levels to define an addiction.
How To Tell If You’re Addicted To Stress
How do you know if what you’re feeling crosses that line into addiction? Prolonged levels of high stress take a toll on both physical and mental health. If you’re experiencing any of the negative health consequences, that may be the first clue. According to U.S. statistics, 77 percent of people report physical problems caused by stress, while 73 percent report psychological effects.
Look for symptoms such as: fatigue, increased heart rate, high blood pressure, insomnia, a change in appetite, anxiety, irritability, depression, withdrawal, and a compromised immune system. Those with high levels of stress are also more prone to other addictions, such as drug or alcohol abuse.
In addition, blogger and former stress addict Diane Munoz recommends we look out for frequent complaints, as stress addicts tend to spend a lot of time focusing on just how busy and stressful their lives are. Stress addicts may also find they have no free time and ditch social interactions and fun hobbies in favor of seeking out stressful scenarios while relationships fall by the wayside. They don’t feel happy, but the answer always seems to be piling on more stress.
What You Can Do
If you’re struggling with a suspected stress addiction, it’s important to reverse the trend. Not only would a visit to the doctor to address any physical ailments be a good place to start, but some experts also suggest a stress addiction, like other addictions, indicates underlying causes that are usually best addressed by a mental health professional.
“A stress addict is looking to feel numb through distraction to avoid dealing with the source of unhappiness and loss of control,” says Debbie Mandel, author of Addicted To Stress, in a blog post. “It is easier to be incredibly busy than to face the painful layers of grief accumulated during the course of a lifetime.”
Addressing the more serious mental health and physical symptoms of stress may take time, but there are small ways you can start managing stress on a daily basis. Techniques like meditation, breathing exercises, journaling, working out, and guided imagery have all been shown to reduce stress levels.
It’s easier said than done, but stress doesn’t have to control your life. By taking the time to work through a stress addiction and learning to live in the present moment, we can improve our well-being and create a meaningful life. As John De Paola said, “Slow down and everything you are chasing will come around and catch you.”
April is “Stress Awareness Month,” where health professionals and advocates team up to provide solutions for the modern stress epidemic. This piece is part of our series on understanding and combating daily stressors.