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Read This to Find Out if You’re Addicted to Stress

Overloading stress can have some substantial consequences.

A women appears overwhelmed with squiggles surrounding her head. She wears a red sweater and is placed in front of a purplish-blue background.

This semester, I decided to take the maximum number of credits allowed by my university. Ever since I entered college, my schedule was a bit slower than in high school, and I somewhat missed the rush of packed deadlines and extracurriculars. Constantly having things to do makes me feel like myself. Life since quarantine felt like a lull, and overwhelming myself with coursework was a return to my achievement-focused mindset.

Recently, I described my fondness for academic rigor in a conversation. I stated how the constant deadlines saved me from the fate of too much free time, which I usually wasted. In response, my listening loved one sent me this song:

The lyrics describe a person “addicted to stress.” They use it to avoid empty time and feel the constant need for stressful stimuli in order to “get things done.” Was this accurate? Is stress addiction possible? I decided it was time to investigate.

Behind-The-Scenes of Stress

Merriam-Webster defines addiction as “a compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity having harmful physical, psychological, or social effects.” In other words, it is a drive to do an action repeatedly, despite the negative consequences. The term is typically associated with drug and alcohol abuse, but addiction can occur with other malicious habits.

Though the idea of stress addiction may appear detached from common conceptualizations of addiction, the prospective process of acquiring a stress dependency holds quite a few parallels to substance addictions. When a person is stressed, their body releases several neurotransmitters or chemical messengers. One such messenger is dopamine, which is a reinforcer for the activity at hand. It acts as a “reward” for our brains. The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that, originally, this reward system is meant to encourage healthy behaviors in us, such as eating and socializing. It motivates us to do what we need to survive.

Cartoon neurons are depicted on a blue background, with dots of light indicating the movement of chemical signals.

The Process Gone Wrong

This phenomenon is sometimes hijacked by harmful endeavors. Cocaine, alcohol, nicotine, and stress all contribute to the increased release of dopamine. The theory behind stress addiction suggests that when we engage in a stressful activity, even though it causes several negative reactions, the rush we experience could lead us to repeat the action over and over.

Environmental factors can further this cycle of stress-seeking. FHE Health states that some individuals “turn their stress levels into a competition” and feel that “we’re not doing life right if we aren’t stretching ourselves too thin.” A culture where we glorify workaholics can lead us to consider constant stress as the norm. To quote The Awareness Center, a counseling service provider, one could also simply live in a state of constant pressure, where “it’s hard to remember what it’s like to run without running full pelt through life.” Stress is comforting to some. It represents the way they have lived for months, years, or even decades. To change that may prove difficult, even terrifying. A stressful environment means consistency, even at the expense of one’s physical or mental health.

The Effects of Extreme Stress

Overloading stress can have some substantial consequences. According to The American Institute of Stress, the results of stress addiction can include…

  1. Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  2. Breakdown of muscle tissue
  3. Migraines
  4. Loss of brain cells
  5. Relationship problems
  6. Social isolation and loneliness

Social media trends reveal the outcome of the constant need for stressful situations. This mindset reminds me of those online who self-identify as “overachievers” or “burnt-out gifted kids.” These students may be motivated by academic validation or other external validation, pushing them to achieve more constantly. While this may or may not result from specifically pursuing a rush of stress, the consequences are quite similar. This often leads to a downhill spiral after years of rigorous scholarly and/or extracurricular overload.

Preventing or Healing From the Desire For Stressful Situations

Despite our work-driven world, it is possible to avoid or recover from the chase for stressful endeavors. CNBC suggests engaging in activities that release dopamine in healthy ways, such as exercise and meditation. Avoid triggers of excessive stress and look for signs that you are unnecessarily overworking yourself. Psych Central recommends therapy, deep breathing exercises, a regular self-care routine, setting boundaries to protect your wellness, and joining support groups.

This is not an exclusive list. If you are struggling with stress addiction and/or excessive stress, perhaps try to make time once a day for something you enjoy that does not directly contribute to your work or academics. This could fall under the “self-care” category. Remember that not everything you do needs to be “productive.” Sometimes, the most beneficial thing you can do is take a break.

TikToker and mindset coach @thepeterguse discuss this relearning process. While his account is aimed primarily at millennials, his advice on stress addiction and burnout can apply to all ages.

An Uncertain Basis

Stress addiction is not defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), but it acknowledges that behavioral addictions, such as sex addiction or exercise addiction, need further “peer-reviewed evidence to establish the diagnostic criteria.”

There is no diagnosis of stress addiction at the moment, and there is not much research on the matter. Without conclusive findings, it is hard to say whether we should classify it as an addiction. Perhaps addiction is not the right label. It is difficult to define a term with so little available reputable information.

Regardless, seeking unhealthy levels of stress is an issue we need to address. In a world where we’re constantly pressed to achieve more and more, taking a moment to relax can feel like failure. It is great to feel motivated! Staying busy is healthily enjoyable when combined with a balanced sleep schedule, a nutritious diet, and an enriching social life and hobbies. Just remember that taking a step back is not your downfall; it is a chance to soak in the life you have worked so hard for.

Written By

Erin recently graduated with a B.A. in English and a B.S. in psychology from the University of Florida. She looks forward to beginning her master's degree in Applied Psychology at Trinity College Dublin this fall.

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