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Are you addicted to stress?

Does it feel like stress constantly follows you around? Stress is a normal, often healthy, part of being human – keeping us driven, alert and responsive.

And there are times when levels will naturally spike: the rush before a holiday, a relative falling ill, work being rocky.

But if stress seems to be a default setting rather than something that ebbs and flows, it’s worth considering what role you’re playing in that picture.

The idea of being addicted to stress might sound ridiculous at first, or very unhelpful if you’re feeling overwhelmed and powerless.

There are lots of layers to this though, and it actually makes a lot of sense when you break it down.

Wired for stress

First and foremost – recognising stress addiction is not about placing blame on yourself.

Therapist and Counselling Directory member John-Paul Davies says it’s useful to look at the way our brains are “set up to worry and go into survival state”.

Stress involves a chemical response – but as well as cortisol and adrenalin, “stress also releases dopamine and that is a reward chemical,” explains Davies.

Same as exercise, alcohol or sex

That’s the same chemical people get from exercise, alcohol or sex – so that’s where it gets really interesting.

So, while we may experience high-stress times as being unpleasant, our brains might be clocking up that chemical reward – and the urge to keep that going can be powerful.

Dealing with stressful stuff might be difficult and annoying, but could it be giving us a handy excuse not to deal with other stuff?

Stress as a distraction

We can be so good at avoiding hard things, often we don’t even realise we’re doing it.

As psychotherapist and spokesperson for UK Council for Psychotherapy Dr Dwight Turner notes, when life ground to a halt during lockdown, many of us confronted the reality of having to sit with ourselves without our usual distractions.

And boy can that be uncomfortable!

Stress can often be because we’re avoiding other things.

He explains: “That might tie into how we reach for something else to achieve stress or engage with a stressful life, to keep ourselves away from other things, say it’s a bereavement or whatever else,” says Turner.

“Stress can become addictive as a means of saving ourselves from having to be in a difficult feeling space.”

Juggling lots of plates is validating too

Stress is also often linked to things like working too hard, juggling lots of plates, or always being on hand to help with your family’s latest crisis.

All these things can be validating and helpful in terms of achieving certain outcomes and maintaining our sense of identity as successful, caring, productive people.

“Even though we’re overworked, working a full day and we’ve got a family at home or whatever it might be, there are certain identities that can come into play where we feel validated. We get a sense of who are in that respect,” says Turner.

So, what’s the problem?

None of the things mentioned above are inherently ‘bad’. It’s when the balance is tipped for too long that things can get problematic.

Being addicted to stress could keep us in a loop of spending too long in that ‘fight or flight’ chemical response, where it becomes chronic and starts impacting our physical and emotional health.

“If somebody is in that stress state all the time, they might be irritable, anxious, angry, impatient,” says Davies.

“If you are in that state for too long, the system also switches off, because it’s only meant to be momentary. Then you might experience feelings of hopelessness, helplessness.”

How to fix it

An overnight transformation probably isn’t realistic – or necessary – and that’s OK.

Rather than piling more pressure on yourself, it can be so helpful just being aware these are very normal human mechanisms, and changing patterns is hard.

  • Practising self-compassion
  • Meditation
  • Cooking, gardening, exercise
  • Getting out in nature
  • Talk to a friend or ask for help taking a few hours ‘off’

For those who struggle to relax, he suggests making it part of your daily to-do list – write it on there as a job to tick off – as this will please task-oriented brains.