Mainlining Stress

Kait Leonard

After my doctor told me to cut my stress level or prepare to face life-threatening health problems, I wasn’t shocked or confused. I felt shame. I couldn’t speak but my mind screamed, “You can’t take away my stress!” Finally, I admitted this crazy idea out loud.

“Yeah, baby!” my gray-haired doctor blurted. “Stress is a high! Who wants to kick that addiction?” Had we both lost our minds? As it turns out, stress addiction is a thing, and becoming aware of it might save you.

Some people question applying the term “addiction” to behaviors like shopping, online gaming, and stress-seeking. Dr. Timothy Fong, Co-Director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program, defined addiction in a 2008 interview for National Public Radio as “continued, recurrent engagement of either drugs or behavior despite causing adverse or negative consequences in a person’s life.” It’s easy to see how stress can damage a person’s life, but it takes a deeper understanding to recognize what causes people to crave it.

Stress challenges the body’s homeostasis. In other words, it knocks us off balance. Why is that addictive? During stressful situations, the hormones, adrenaline and dopamine, among others, course through our bodies. This creates a chemically induced state so desirable we will do whatever it takes to reproduce it.

First, adrenaline prepares us to either face battle or escape. Everyone has heard the term “adrenaline rush,” a perfect name for the sensation we experience when that hormone races into the system. We get a high. What else produces that feeling? Amphetamines, which have a similar chemical structure. Next, both adrenaline and its pharmaceutical siblings cause the release of dopamine, an important step on the path to addiction.

Known as the feel-good hormone, dopamine follows pleasurable experiences like eating tasty food and having great sex. It also floods the system in response to heroin and methamphetamines.

“It’s possible for us to get addicted to whatever gives us that dopamine surge,” explains Duane Law, L.Ac. It “literally rewires the brain to repeat whatever behavior gave us the dopamine surge in the first place,” and we get programmed to chase the high, no matter what caused it.

While stress produces sensations similar to the most addictive drugs, in some ways it may be even more insidious. Unlike the stigma that often accompanies substance abuse, stress addicts tend to celebrate their craving and often receive social accolades for it. Most of us have overheard, or even engaged in a stress competition. It goes something like this: “I’m exhausted! I only got four hours of sleep last night. I was up working.”

“Are you kidding? I can’t remember the last time I got four hours of sleep. That sounds like vacation to me.”

We applaud overachievers in our productivity-driven society. This misplaced admiration, coupled with the hormone high, propels the addict to seek the experiences that keep the rush going. Bring on another project! Yes, I can attend that evening meeting! If no seemingly acceptable life complication is available, stress-seeking can come in the form of less desirable behaviors.

The drama kings and queens of the world get their fix through creating problems for themselves, as well as for those around them. Though pleasurable for the addict, a breaking point will inevitably be reached.

Medical experts link a list of serious health conditions to ongoing stress. Among possible outcomes are heart disease, high blood pressure, sexual dysfunction, autoimmune issues, depression, memory impairment, and even schizophrenia. If a nutrition label listed these warnings, how many of us would eat that food?

In a world that worships success, kicking this addiction can be daunting, and it’s best done with professional guidance. Unfortunately, many healthcare practitioners lack the experience to recognize true stress addiction. More traditional practitioners might send the patient home with a prescription for Xanax or offer the sage advice to make time to relax. That’s like offering a junkie heroin to help kick Oxycontin and advising him to work on his willpower.

My own diagnosis came from an M.D. who practices integrative medicine. If you suspect you have a problem, consider searching for integrative health specialists, naturopaths, acupuncturists, or therapists who list stress or addiction as a major area of practice. There are also 12-step groups in most areas that welcome people with lifestyle or behavior addictions.

With help, the jonesing for stress can be tamed, though perhaps not totally overcome. As is true for all dependencies, the addict may continue to experience cravings when triggering events occur. By recognizing the problem, committing to a sound treatment program, and taking it one day at a time, it is possible to retrain the brain to appreciate the joy of a quiet moment.


Kait Leonard

Kait Leonard, Ph.D., holds graduate degrees in literature and psychology. She shares her home with five parrots and her American bulldog, Seeger. Her writing interests include psychology, holistic wellness for both people and animals, and whatever human interest topics cross her path.

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