Yes, you can feel addicted to stress. Let’s look at what stress addiction is, signs to look out for, and how to cope.
With work, school, taking care of others and ourselves, and responsibilities that pile up, life can be full of stress. Feeling stressed out could even become a natural state of being for many of us.
But can you actually become addicted to stress?
Yes, you can.
What is a stress addiction? It can be defined as a recurring pattern of seeking out situations or behaving in ways that increase stress, even when you’re distressed, aware of the potential consequences, and want to stop.
“Stress addiction isn‘t a clinical diagnosis,“ says Michael J. McGrath, MD, a psychiatrist who’s board certified in addiction and the medical director of The Ohana Addiction Treatment Center located on the Big Island of Hawaii. But it’s still possible to become addicted to stress or stressful situations.
McGrath notes that anxious feelings affect several chemicals in the brain, including the stress hormone cortisol and the happy hormone dopamine.
“These chemicals are related to mood and can cause a person to feel happy, which explains why they might seek out stressful situations,“ he explains. “They may enjoy the feelings brought on by surges of dopamine and cortisol in the brain. This causes them to repeat the behaviors over and over again.“
A stress addiction could also stem from growing up in a household where stress levels were high at all times. As an adult, stress could be a “comfortable“ natural state for you to exist within — even if it’s uncomfortable.
“Stress produces cortisol, telling us we’re in fight, flight, or freeze [mode],” says Jessica Wright, LCSW, who practices in Illinois. “The more stress we’re used to growing up, the harder it is to have less stress as adults. It becomes a high that we crave. And when we’re not stressed, we might even get stressed about that!“
No matter where your addictive tendencies come from, there are ways to manage them.
Signs that you might be dependent on the feelings you get from stress, according to McGrath, include:
- engaging in behaviors that may be harmful or have unwanted consequences
- seeking out activities or putting yourself in situations that are stressful
- feeling bored unless you’re under stress
- enjoying drama and seeking it out
- continuing to put yourself in stressful situations despite experiencing physical symptoms or other issues related to the stress
Wright adds that you might also experience the following:
- saying “yes“ when you wish you’d said “no“
- lacking self-care and time spent keeping yourself well
- experiencing physical pains (e.g., back or neck pain)
- being unable to remember the last time you weren‘t stressed
Stress and addiction can share similar physical symptoms as well, such as:
- high blood pressure
- feeling mentally and physically fatigued
- insomnia or sleep challenges
- withdrawal symptoms
How do I know if I’m addicted to stress?
Wondering if you might be addicted to stress? McGrath suggests asking yourself these questions:
Can I stop the behavior?
If you feel like you can’t, McGrath says, this could mean you feel dependent on the feelings you get from stressful situations.
What happens when I stop?
Do you feel sad or anxious when you‘re not in a stressful situation? Assessing your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors when you think about stopping or trying to stop could help you determine this.
Wright also suggests reflecting on questions such as:
- How balanced is my life?
- Do I feel like I’ve lost time from constantly stressing?
- What beliefs do I have around stress? Productivity? Resting?
- Do I surround myself with people who are constantly stressed as well?
Is it possible to manage or overcome a stress addiction? “Yes, you can change these behaviors,” confirms McGrath.
Therapy can help you get to the root of your tendencies and how to overcome them. McGrath suggests trying psychotherapy, such as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Other ways to cope include:
A stress addiction could stem from experiences over long periods of time that could lead to feeling chronically stressed. This could result in a dependence on stress hormones or stressful situations.
If you find yourself wondering, “Am I addicted to anxiety or stress?“ you‘re not alone, and you can find relief.
Consider speaking with a mental health professional to learn coping skills and how to manage your stress. If you’re not sure where to start, you can check out our find help page.