The dangers of chronic stress are widely stated, with researchers tying stress to everything from poor nutrition and sleep habits to heart disease and high blood pressure. Many people take steps to reduce stressors in their lives, including cutting down on their work hours, rethinking some of their interpersonal relationships and staying consistent with daily routines.
Virtually no one enjoys feeling stressed, so the idea that it could be addictive seems counterintuitive. We usually associate addictions with pleasurable activities and substances, and stress is neither of those things. To understand the idea of stress as an addiction, it’s helpful to know how stress affects the body.
What Is Stress?
The body has a variety of systems in place to protect it from danger, from physical characteristics such as skin and immune systems to signals in the brain such as fear, pain, and anxiety. Similarly, stress is a state meant to protect the body from threats from predators.
While most people will never be stalked by a lion, this doesn’t mean that modern life is free from stressors. Financial obligations, the mental load from school or work, caring for young or elderly family members, and even navigating rush hour traffic every day can all take a toll on the body. None of these things are direct threats to the individual’s life, but the body treats these as life-threatening perils and responds accordingly. As a result, the individual may always feel as if they’re at their breaking point.
Understanding the Stress Response
When a person comes across something that their brain perceives as a threat to their safety and well-being, it sets off a series of nerve and hormonal signals. Among the hormones the body releases are adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline provides an energy burst and raises the heart rate and blood pressure. Cortisol, which is commonly thought of as the stress hormone, increases the amount of sugar in the bloodstream and boosts the brain’s ability to convert that sugar to energy. Cortisol also curbs the body’s efforts to maintain nonessential responses and processes that could slow the individual’s fight-or-flight response. This may include the body’s immune responses, digestion and the reproductive system.
The Impact of Chronic Stress
The body’s response to stress usually only lasts as long as the stressor is present. Once the danger passes, hormone levels taper off and the body’s functions return to normal. When the stress response system stays activated for a long period of time, the individual is more vulnerable to health risks such as:
- Cardiovascular conditions
- Memory problems
- Weight gain
- Sleep disturbances
- Muscle tension
- Digestive problems
How Can Stress Be Addictive?
While we may think of stress as something unpleasant, the truth is that a lot of people thrive on it. Chronic stress gives us a boost of energy and makes us driven to succeed. Some people even turn their stress levels into a competition and are eager to explain the extent of their overcommitments, heavy workloads, and household responsibilities. We can start to get the idea that we’re not doing life right if we aren’t stretching ourselves too thin.
This is where the addictive element resides. For someone who’s accustomed to tight schedules, moving from one activity to the next without downtime and feeling like there are never enough hours in the day, the idea of life with fewer stressors can seem empty and unsatisfying. Even when someone recognizes the effect stress has on their eating and sleeping habits, relationships, and physical and mental health, coming down from stress feels uncomfortable. It’s easier to simply remain amped up and always on the move rather than experiencing the detox process of winding down.
In addition to adrenaline and cortisol, the body releases dopamine when it’s under stress. This chemical is like a reward for the brain, reinforcing certain behaviors. In other words, although someone feels the unpleasantness of stress, the reward they get from stress-inducing behaviors and patterns prevents them from making changes.
In many cases, individuals use stress to avoid the source of their unhappiness. Staying very busy is easier than confronting issues such as trauma or grief.
This is similar to the way substance addictions work. Even as the individual sees the negative impact excessive drugs or alcohol may have on their health and relationships, they’re still driven to continue using the substance because it’s worth the reward the brain provides. Someone who’s addicted to stress hormones may be aware of how their stress is impacting them, but they may be unwilling to lighten their load.
Recognizing the Signs of Stress Addiction
While someone with a substance addiction can live a sober life without using recreational drugs or alcohol, it’s unrealistic and unhealthy to try to completely eliminate all stressors. This can make it hard for someone to determine whether their chronic stress is a byproduct of modern life or if they’re actively taking on more than they can reasonably handle because of stress addiction.
The primary sign that someone may be addicted to stress is that they spend a lot of time thinking about their stress and how busy their lives are. They may be the ones who turn stress into a competition or who worry that they’re not doing life “right” if they’re not constantly on the move.
Someone who’s addicted to stress may also find that they have no free time to pursue hobbies or spend unstructured time with friends and family. They continue to seek out additional stressors to take on even as their unhappiness grows and their relationships fall by the wayside.
Other signs that someone’s addicted to stress may include:
- Unwillingness to take a vacation or thinking about work or caregiving responsibilities while on vacation
- Feeling as though they thrive on tight deadlines
- Difficulty with downtime
- Constantly worrying about what obligations they’re overlooking
- Feeling unsettled when disconnected from their phone or computer
- Feeling as though a full workday isn’t enough to accomplish necessary tasks
- Lacking time for hobbies or relationships
- Showing impatience when people are talking
Someone with a stress addiction is generally aware that they’re taking on too much. However, the idea of backing off their commitments makes them uneasy. They may feel that their stress is what gives their life meaning and purpose, and they have a hard time with the thought of finding satisfaction with a more laid-back lifestyle.
Dangers of Stress Addiction
Chronic stress and stress addictions have a serious impact on the individual’s physical and mental health. Even when someone seeks out stress, they may have difficulty coping with it and may self-medicate with alcohol or recreational drugs. They’re likely to experience symptoms such as fatigue, high blood pressure, difficulty sleeping, depression, social withdrawal, irritability, appetite changes, and a compromised immune system.
One of the biggest dangers for those addicted to stress is that they’re often reluctant to get help. For them, stress is a coping mechanism that lets them avoid difficult emotions, memories, or circumstances. For example, someone who’s had a significant loss may bury themselves in work to distract themselves from grief. Someone who experienced trauma as a child may have it ingrained in their minds that home isn’t a happy or safe place to be, so they keep themselves moving from one obligation to another to avoid downtime.
As is the case with most addictions, stress addiction often has a root cause that needs to be addressed before meaningful progress can be made. Talking with a mental health care professional is the first step in addressing the stress addiction and its underlying cause and finding a happier, more balanced life.