Help! I Think I’m Addicted To Stress

Illustrated by Charlotte Leadley.
Stress is everywhere. It’s a daily state for many people, especially during the pandemic. In a study conducted by therapy service Self Space last month, 57% of people say that since COVID, they find themselves constantly overworking. Another study by The Stress Management Society and Huawei found that 65% of people felt more stressed since the restrictions began, while the Office for National Statistics noted that 21% of people experienced some form of depression in early 2021, up from 10% pre-pandemic. And though the COVID-19 Social Study by UCL found last month that stress in relation to the pandemic has decreased since last year, it is still affecting 35% of people.
The pandemic has exposed just how negative and debilitating stress can be. While I, along with many others, have enjoyed the slower pace of life, my health anxiety is still a weekly occurrence. When I’m very stressed, I don’t sleep well, I can’t concentrate, I’m irritable and I feel like every second of my day is a struggle. But, at the same time, I have realised I am driven by stress. After 16 months of this pandemic, normal, everyday stresses are welcome in my routine. Instead of health anxiety, job losses and money uncertainty, finding 'normal' stressors actually makes me more productive. In a fully-packed schedule, I find a way to make it work. One day recently, when I ticked off everything on my long list of appointments and meetings around town I felt powerful, productive and driven. All because of stress.
Is it possible that despite the myriad of negatives that stress brings my life, I’m addicted to it?
Stress is part of the human evolution. It brings out our ‘fight or flight’ response, which in turn increases adrenaline, heartbeat and alertness. This was particularly helpful to cavemen, to run away from situations like being trampled by a woolly mammoth. These days, most of us don’t face such dangers, but the response remains. 

We all know what stress feels like, but do you know what it does to you?The fight or flight response goes hand-in-hand with a powerful hormonecocktail; norepinephrine and epinephrine, highercortisol and adrenaline, heart palpitations, sweating. Your body is gettingready to run.

So is it possible to hack this bodily response and use it for good? Jodie Cariss, therapist and founder of Self Space tells me that there’s indeed ‘good stress’ and ‘bad stress’. “There's stress that’s beneficial and motivating, and stress that causes overwhelm and leads to burnout. Stress is a burst of energy that basically advises us on what to do.”

As Cariss explained, stress in small doses can motivate and help withour goals or tasks and can even boost memory. So in order to keep the ‘goodstress’ in our lives, she says, we need to keep up with all the things weforget to do when the scales point toward ‘bad stress’, like sleeping well and drinkingenough water. When we are overwhelmed and the stress stays around for weeks ormonths it can lead to fatigue and anxiety; “With bad stress, sometimeswe can't see the wood for the trees – its impact is so present in our lives wedon't notice it.”

Neil Shah is the founder of International Wellbeing Insights and ChiefDe-Stressing Officer of TheStress Management Society. I ask him about the effects of prolongedstress and he tells me that “if you are constantly in a state of stress, after a while,you start to accept that as your normal state. It's not healthy. It's notsustainable. But it's what you become used to.”While stress isn’t always negative, if it’sconstant it becomes a mental and physical issue.Chronic stress can deplete our energy, create memory issues, cause chestpain, acne, IBS, depression and other issues.


“We feel that it's normal to have stress and pressure, whereas actually, you're supposed to go into stress when you're being attacked by a tiger”

Neil Shah, Stress Management Society
Just like different stresses exists, so does the stress response differ from person to person. People experience stress in different ways; it all comes down to how we handle a stressful situation. As Shah explained to me, stress is internal and the cause of stress is the conscious or subconscious choice we make to an external circumstance. It has nothing to do with the circumstance or event itself.
Which is why some people, me included, love being busy. As Cariss told me, “being busy is addictive. This is influenced by the fact that when we complete tasks, our brain releases the pleasure hormone dopamine, which makes us feel good.” These feelings are connected to the idea that busy = success and not busy = failure, which then creates stress. We also make ourselves busy while trying to avoid ‘negative’ emotions, Cariss says. But when we go too far and glorify being ‘busy’ it can be dangerous, as that’s connected to stress, overwhelm and inevitably, burnout.

Given how stress can make us feel, is it possible to be addicted to it? Whilestress isn’t exactly addictive, Shah explains, we have become desensitised toit: “We feel that it's normal to have stress and pressure, whereas actually,you're supposed to go into stress when you're being attacked by a tiger”.That’s when stress becomes damaging.

If you, like me, feel like you’re addicted to stress, fret not (!) there are ways to combat it. But the first step is recognition; you have to understand that your stress levels have to decrease, for your physical and mental health.

The best way Shah recommended is exercise, as an antidote to the flightor fight response. You can channel your stress by movement, as that will leadto happy hormones (aka endorphins), followed closely by mindfulness.Normally we stress when we focus on the past or the future. Re-focusing ourattention to the present, the ‘now’ can relax our minds and help us reclaim ourpower. I recommend reading The Power of Nowfor more on this idea.

On the opposite end of mindfulness Cariss mentioned the Dutch concept of‘niksen’, which means doing nothing. “Give yourself permission to do nothing.Instead of zoning in, you're zoning out. Find a space in your house, preferablywith a window, let go of all distractions, and just be. Start with five minutes,then 10, and work your way up; after you get back to your activitiesrefreshed.” 

And most importantly, try and see if you can figure out when ‘badstress’ kicks in. Cariss says we should look out for issues with concentration,sleep and appetite, getting ill more often, headaches and irritability. Whenthis happens, it’s time to recalibrate.

Finding the balance is hard, but using stress productively is possible. By building on the techniques above, setting boundaries and learning to say ‘no’, you can start cutting yourself some slack and accepting that you are doing your best, no matter how stressed you are.

More from Mind

R29 Original Series