Stress: A Prized Addiction?
In a 2014 survey conducted by National Public Radio and the Harvard School of Public Health, 63 percent of participants reported feeling stressed out on a regular basis. The problem was especially acute for 26 percent of survey respondents, who said they’d experienced a “great deal” of stress within the last month.
These highly frazzled individuals blamed their plight on the following sources of stress and anxiety:
- Too many overall responsibilities (54 percent)
- Financial problems (53 percent)
- Work troubles (53 percent)
- Health problems (38 percent)
- Health troubles in family members (37 percent)
- Personal conflicts with family members (32 percent)
- Being unhappy with the way they looked (28 percent)
This all sounds terrible and undesirable. But for a certain subset of stress experiencer, the opposite appears to be the case. Powerful hormones like adrenaline and cortisol circulate through the brain and the body during stressful episodes, and the longer this continues, the more dependent on their arousing effects a person can become. This is what drives stress addiction, where people come to depend on their biological reactions to stress to give them a lift, give them excitement and get them through the day.
So-called adrenaline junkies rely on constant exterior stimulation to keep their energy up and their emotions positive. They may also use the busy minds and constant motion associated with stressful experiences to cover their fears, insecurities and feelings of worthlessness. Too busy to think or feel what they desperately want to avoid, the stress addict learns to escape from her psychological demons by creating endless material-world dramas. People suffering from stress addiction are legitimately overwhelmed, but they secretly like it that way, unable as they are to stand the dangerous meanderings of their free and unoccupied minds.
The Biochemistry and Psychology of Stress Addiction
But what makes stress addiction so unique is that Americans have come to accept it as a natural way of life. People tend to wear their busy schedules and frazzled nerves as a badge of honor, as something to brag about and be proud of. Workaholism is an outgrowth of stress addiction, and yet few people see this as a serious condition — if they see it as a condition at all.
Stress addiction and the hard-charging lifestyle it fosters are far from benign, however. Constant biochemical exposure to stress hormones takes a real toll on the human body over time. Eventually it can cause a wide variety of side effects, including high blood pressure, heart disease, digestive troubles, panic attacks, fainting spells, insomnia, hair loss, skin problems and chronic headaches. Stress addicts are short-tempered, impatient, have trouble paying attention and don’t perform anywhere near as well in the workplace as they think they do, all of which is caused by their inability to slow down. Obviously none of this is desirable and none of it brings happiness or real improvements in productivity, and yet millions of Americans probably can’t imagine living any other way.
And to top it all off, the normalization of stress addiction allows people to be more easily exploited. Unscrupulous bosses and managers learn quickly who will respond to ardent pleas, guilt trips or vague promises of future promotions. While most employers probably don’t try to take advantage of their workaholic employees, some certainly do, especially in large corporations where a dog-eat-dog mentality too often prevails. Self-centered family members and friends may try to exploit stress addicts in much the same way, knowing these individuals frequently have a hard time saying “no” because they are so anxious to gain approval.
We May Love Stress, but it Doesn’t Love Us Back
Stress addiction isn’t exactly a disease, but it isn’t a minor condition that benefits us more than it hurts us, either. If we blithely accept stress addiction or even praise those under its spell for their character, diligence and dedication, we are making a collective decision to accept illness and poor health as a fact of life.
And that’s unacceptable. America’s love affair with stress is stressing out our health care system even as it slowly wrecks lives and denies sufferers the chance to experience the joys of stability and balance. If stress addiction is prized and praised, it’s only because we don’t realize how destructive it actually is, and the sooner we learn the truth, the sooner we’ll be ready to realign our priorities.
Therapy, meditation, exercise, camping trips, hiking adventures, relaxing music, reading for pleasure and reduced work schedules are just some of the actions that can make an immediate impact in the lives of stress addicts, as well as those who have too much stress and don’t find it the least bit satisfying or enjoyable. Worry and anxiety should be occasional and not chronic, and when they begin to take over a person’s life, it means it’s time for a change.