We live in a world where stress has become an all too common companion, often regarded as an inseparable part of life. For some, the state of constant tension, pressure, and overdrive has become so normalized that they may even feel ‘addicted’ to stress.
The concept of stress addiction might sound counterintuitive, but yes, it’s a thing. If you can’t relax and unwind, neglect self-care, feel anxious in calm environments, get easily irritated and thrive on doing things last-minute, your body might be addicted to stress hormones.
This article will help you understand why addiction to stress is a real thing. Additionally, I will share my own experience once I realised I was addicted to stress. (Spoiler alert: my therapist told me I was addicted to stress and it took me by surprise).
For a quick and more personal summary, you can watch the video below. If you want to read the article and go a bit more in depth – scroll on!
Stress addiction – what is it?
The term ‘stress addiction’ refers to the condition where an individual subconsciously seeks out stressors or responds excessively to everyday events due to a physiological dependence on stress hormones.
The body’s stress response is primarily regulated by two hormones: adrenaline, which gives you a burst of energy and focus, and cortisol, which helps restore homeostasis after a stressful event.
Repeated exposure to these stress hormones can lead to both structural and functional changes in the brain, which can alter an individual’s perception of and reaction to stress. Essentially, the body may become desensitized to chronic high levels of stress hormones, leading to a physiological ‘need’ for stress to feel ‘normal.’
Addicted to Adrenaline
The relationship between adrenaline, a key player in the body’s stress response, and the reward system of the brain contributes to stress addiction. The sudden rush of adrenaline during stressful situations activates the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response, enhancing focus and alertness.
This response can be perceived as stimulating, even thrilling, creating an unconscious craving for repeated experiences. Even if we may not consciously experience this a pleasurable and thrilling experience, it may feel this way to the body.
Cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone, is released in response to perceived threats or stressors. A research study found that chronic exposure to elevated cortisol levels might lead to neuroadaptive processes in the brain, similar to the mechanisms seen in substance dependence.
Over time, the body may need higher cortisol levels to function optimally, potentially driving an individual to seek out stressful situations.
We may find ourselves in calm and stress-free environment, but this type of calmness may actually not feel comfortable to us. We may then seek out a stressor – start an argument with a partner or family member, get lost in self-created stories in our head that stress us out, or leave an assignment for the last minute.
I’m addicted to stress
After working with a therapist for a few months, in one of our sessions she told me that she believed I was addicted to stress. She wanted to bring this to my attention because she didn’t think I was aware of it. However, the signs were there.
After delving into this topic deeper, I realised that she might be right. I don’t remember a single day passing by where I didn’t feel stressed or anxious. Mind you: even when being in a calm environment, at home, or by myself, I would still feel stressed and anxious.
I was a pro at stressing myself out. It’s almost like I didn’t feel comfortable when things were calm and good. I needed something to stress over – that was my normal state.
Together with my therapist we went over the main signs that pointed to my dependence for these stress hormones and figured out a plan on how I can begin breaking this stress addiction.
5 Signs you might be addicted to Stress
Mind you: I am not a therapist or doctor and this is not medical advice. However, I have studied psychology for 10 years and have my own experiences of being addicted to stress. The 5 signs outlined have been an eye opener for me and made me realize just how dependant on stress hormones I was.
Read below and see if any of these signs ring true to you.
Inability to Relax or Unwind
Individuals addicted to stress may feel restless or uneasy during downtime. They may perceive relaxation as unproductive or may have difficulty engaging in activities that are just for fun + relaxation. Reading, writing, doing art, simply sitting and listening to music.
This, in my perspective, is one of the key signs. If you can’t relax (practically ever), you may be addicted to stress.
I couldn’t relax even if you payed me. I would constantly work, do “productive hobbies” (exercising, reading personal development books, studying a new topics, etc). If I wasn’t doing something productive, I thought it was a complete waste of time.
Even if I was sitting on the couch and watching a movie, I still wasn’t fully relaxing and enjoying it. In the back of my mind I would be thinking ‘I could be spending this time more productively…‘
No wonder I always felt on-edge and on high alert. Even in calm and relaxing environments, I would mentally stress myself out. Then, my body would follow, flooding my system with cortisol and adrenaline. Finally, my body got what it wanted.
Ignoring or Neglecting Self-Care
People addicted to stress often prioritize their responsibilities over their wellbeing. They might ignore signs of physical exhaustion, skip meals, or compromise sleep, thereby neglecting their self-care routines.
Additionally, stress may result in under-eating or over-eating, binge eating, staying up till very late or doom scrolling.
Stress, in small amounts, can be healthy. Think about high intensity exercise or the mental stress of working on complex problem. However, if you have been abandoning taking care of yourself physically, mentally and emotionally – it is harmful and it will add up.
Saying that you don’t have time take care of yourself is like saying you don’t have time to stop for gas because you’re too busy driving. Eventually it will catch up with you.
Feeling Anxious in Calm Environments
In the absence of stressors, individuals addicted to stress may experience a sense of discomfort or unease in calm environments. They have become so accustomed to the heightened arousal and constant engagement that stress provides that they find it challenging to adapt to situations lacking stimulation.
The absence of stress may evoke feelings of restlessness, as their minds and bodies have become conditioned to operating in a high-stress mode.
Calm environments may be perceived as boring or unfulfilling (that was me 🙋♀️). They may struggle to find meaning or purpose in moments of tranquility, as they have come to associate stress with a sense of importance or achievement.
The absence of external pressures and the need to constantly meet deadlines and overcome challenges can leave them feeling unsettled or disconnected.
Additionally, the quietness and stillness of calm environments can amplify the internal dialogue and self-reflection for individuals addicted to stress. In these moments of silence, they may become more aware of their thoughts and emotions, which can be uncomfortable or overwhelming for them (that was also me 🙋♀️).
This heightened self-awareness may lead to feelings of anxiety or restlessness, as they are accustomed to diverting their attention away from their internal state through the busyness of stress.
getting easily irritated
Becoming easily irritated can be a significant indicator of being addicted to stress or experiencing chronic stress. When you are constantly immersed in a high-stress environment or trapped in a cycle of chronic stress, your nervous system remains in a state of heightened arousal.
This prolonged activation can make you more susceptible to irritability and agitation. Even the smallest inconveniences or disruptions in your routine may trigger an exaggerated reaction, as your stress-addicted mind and body struggle to cope with additional stimuli.
The accumulation of stress hormones and the persistent strain on your mental and emotional well-being can diminish your tolerance for everyday frustrations, making you more prone to outbursts or negative emotional responses.
Heightened irritability should serve as a warning sign that you are caught in a pattern of stress addiction, prompting you to seek support and adopt healthier stress management strategies.
It is essential to retrain your nervous system and establish effective coping mechanisms to restore balance and well-being.
thriving on last-minute deadlines
You may exhibit a tendency to procrastinate and thrive on the adrenaline rush that comes with last-minute deadlines. This pattern involves intentionally delaying the start of tasks, as you are drawn to the mounting pressure and the imminent deadline.
As the deadline approaches, you experience a surge of adrenaline and a heightened sense of urgency, which paradoxically enhances your performance and focus. The temporary burst of productivity and the subsequent relief upon completing the task become a reinforcing cycle that solidifies your addiction to stress.
The satisfaction derived from overcoming the odds and accomplishing the task under intense pressure serves as a reward, further fueling your inclination to repeat this pattern in the future.
Consequently, you find yourself caught in a self-perpetuating cycle of procrastination, heightened stress, and last-minute triumph, which deepens your addiction to stress.
In short, yes, your body may be addicted to stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Additionally, your nervous system may be highly disregulated, due to the constant fight-or-flight reactions.
Chronic stress can be very harmful to your overall health therefore it is important that you begin to regulate your nervous system and stress levels. Trust me, I know it is anything but easy, but if you want to lead a long and healthy life – it’s essential.
Whether it’s meditation, breath work, mindfulness exercises, working with a therapist, a journaling practice or other tools – you can break your stress addiction.
You may enjoy this journaling exercise to help you understand yourself and your patterns better.