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  • Linnette Johnson

Can You Be Addicted to Stress?

Yes, it is 100% possible to be addicted to stress. I am and still am. It's why I am a work in progress because I am still trying to figure out a balance to my need to always be on the go. The need to be constantly on the "go" hits harder when I feel depressed and/or anxious, or bored. I can also end up engaging in self-destructive behavior ranging from causing arguments with friends and family for no logical reason or making myself extra busy to exhaustion. At one point, drinking helped to soothe the anxiety and boredom, which I continue to try not to relapse into again.


Here's what I know and what it could look like, as stress can affect those in recovery and/or mental health. Sometimes, the need to control and not stop can override what we genuinely need.


If you seem stressed out and are constantly looking for more to add to your plate instead of managing the stress you already have, you might be addicted to STRESS!


It seems silly to be addicted to something that can make you feel overwhelmed and downright miserable, but this is often linked to being overworked, being a perfectionist, and having the thought that the more you try to accomplish, the better off you will be.


Keep reading to learn more about stress, how it can be an addiction, and what you can do about it.


Why does stress become addictive?

Stress addiction isn‘t a clinical diagnosis, but there are several chemicals in the brain, including the stress hormone cortisol and the happy hormone dopamine, that will create the need for someone to seek out situations or behaviors that increase stress, even when you’re distressed, aware of the potential consequences, and want to stop.


Sounds like an addiction... right?


When these chemicals, which are related to mood, such as feeling happy, and joy through surges of dopamine and cortisol within the brain, it causes the person to repeat the behaviors repeatedly. Stress becomes the person's "drug."


So, a stress addiction could also stem from numerous reasons, but one huge one is growing up in a household where stress levels were always high. As an adult, stress could be a “comfortable“ natural state for you to exist within — even if it’s uncomfortable and harming your body and mind.


What Being Addicted to Stress Looks Like


It can often be hard to determine if you are addicted to stress, especially if you are used to being in a stressed state often. It is challenging for people with chronic stress to determine when your stress is a problem and when it is something you might be seeking.


Here are some common signs that you might be addicted to stress:


Never having any free time – If you feel like you never have free time, you might be addicted to stress. Even people who are incredibly busy most of the time and have a busy schedule still have at least a little free time. If you have absolutely any free time seven days a week, it is more likely that you are seeking more things out to fill your schedule.


Constantly packing your schedule – Similarly, you might always be looking for more to fill your schedule. Maybe you notice that when you have a day off over the weekend, you almost look for more to do. You offer to help others, add more tasks to the task you are already working on, and try to learn something new.


There is nothing wrong with working hard and getting ahead, but there is something wrong with feeling like you have to. This is a big sign that you could be addicted to the stress and overwhelm that a busy life brings you.


Being bored when you have nothing to do – For those rare occasions when you have nothing to do and no plans, are you bored? Do you struggle with what to do with your time? Do you feel uneasy when you have free time? This could be another sign of being addicted to stress.


Feeling more accomplished when you are busier – You might be someone who feels more accomplished the more active you are. That lack of sleep and 80-hour work weeks, and never having time for friends and family means you are working harder than them, dreaming big, and being more accomplished. This Is not a healthy attitude to have. As a human being, you need rest, both for your mind and your body.


Being Used to the Feeling of Overwhelming – This is a sign that doesn’t seem like a problem but can be one of the worst. If you spend so much of your time stressed out and overwhelmed, you might not even realize the stress anymore. You get used to it and become accustomed to that feeling of unease. You are adapted to the mental and physical signs of stress. This is likely from your addiction as not only are you continuing to add more to your schedule, but you aren’t doing anything about the stress you are already living with.


You have problems with anxiety.

The need to always be busy can also be rooted in anxiety and the need to maintain control over everything within reach. The more control is exerted over all aspects of life, including food, the less likely anxiety will be at the forefront of trouble.


How to Get a Handle on Your Stress Addiction


So does any of this sound like you? If it does, now is an excellent time to handle the addiction of being stressed. You first need to come to terms with the fact that you are dealing with chronic stress and might be seeking it out. You must understand that everyone needs a break, and stress is expected but not expected daily.


The following steps include working to reduce your stress in simple ways. This can be as small as saying no to one thing this week, having at least a few hours a week of free time, working up to a day, and then an entire weekend off without doing anything. Other options to help cope include:

  • eating foods to support your body (click here for more on nutrition and stress)

  • getting daily movement

  • deep breathing exercises

  • meditation or mindfulness practice

  • a regular self-care routine

  • setting boundaries that promote a more well-balanced life

  • joining support groups

  • Mental Health professionals like therapists or counselors

No matter what you do or where you start- make small, steady, sustainable changes. You will notice the difference reasonably quickly because symptoms like high blood pressure, feeling mentally and physically fatigued, insomnia or sleep challenges, and withdrawal symptoms will lessen, if not go away, once you work on lessening the need for stress at all times.


References


Hannibal KE, Bishop MD. Chronic stress, cortisol dysfunction, and pain: a psychoneuroendocrine rationale for stress management in pain rehabilitation. Phys Ther. 2014 Dec;94(12):1816-25. doi: 10.2522/ptj.20130597. Epub 2014 Jul 17. PMID: 25035267; PMCID: PMC4263906


Hildebrandt T, Greif R. Stress and addiction. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2013 Sep;38(9):1923-7. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2013.06.017. Epub 2013 Jul 9. PMID: 23849597; PMCID: PMC3773022.


Kumar A, Rinwa P, Kaur G, Machawal L. Stress: Neurobiology, consequences and management. J Pharm Bioallied Sci. 2013 Apr;5(2):91-7. doi: 10.4103/0975-7406.111818. PMID: 23833514; PMCID: PMC3697199.


Koob GF, Schulkin J. Addiction and stress: An allostatic view. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2019 Nov;106:245-262. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2018.09.008. Epub 2018 Sep 15. PMID: 30227143.


Mariotti A. The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain-body communication. Future Sci OA. 2015 Nov 1;1(3):FSO23. doi: 10.4155/fso.15.21. PMID: 28031896; PMCID: PMC5137920.


Sinha R. Chronic stress, drug use, and vulnerability to addiction. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2008 Oct;1141:105-30. doi: 10.1196/annals.1441.030. PMID: 18991954; PMCID: PMC2732004.


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