Are You A Stress Addict?

Take a moment and consider the following questions:

  • Do you find that you’re consistently in a state of crisis at work, with one fire to put out after another?
  • Do you regularly reject solutions that are offered for the problems you’re frustrated by without giving them a chance?
  • If one problem gets solved, do you celebrate the win? Or do you instantly find another problem to take it’s place?

Your inclination may be to answer these questions with a resounding “No,” but take a moment and really think about the last time something frustrated you at work. Look at your actions as an outside observer would. If you’re honest with yourself, chances are you might change your tune.

Here’s the thing: I see this all the time. With my corporate clients, my coaching clients, and even with my friends and loved ones. They love complaining about their jobs. They’ll talk about all the things going wrong, the people they don’t like, they decisions they can’t believe their boss made. And while a little bit of venting doesn’t hurt, they also ignore or discount potential solutions that are offered up on a silver platter to them, convinced that nothing will change their experience. They go on like this for years on end, saying they want things to be better, but rejecting possible solutions and opportunities when they’re presented.

There’s only one explanation that makes sense in these circumstances: They are addicted to the feeling stress at work provides them, if only on a deeply subconscious level.

Crazy, you say? Well, not really.

The science of stress at work

People get addicted to all sorts of things that aren’t good for them: Smoking, drinking, drugs, food. There are even studies to show that women who experience a long-term abusive relationship are likely to hop to another abusive relationship after that, and another after that. You don’t need to like something to form an addiction to it. You just need to experience it consistently over an extended period of time. Then, it becomes your “normal,” and an experience outside of that normal becomes uncomfortable.

We don’t often think of ourselves as being addicted to emotions, like stress. But think about it for a moment: When you feel emotionally stressed out (frustrated, angry, overwhelmed, burnt out), you not only feel that in your head. You also feel it in your body. You get tense, experience headaches, grind your teeth, your back may start to hurt. That means you’re having a physical reaction to an emotional experience.

Stress isn’t the only emotion this happens with – think about experiencing butterflies in your stomach when you’re in love, or being able to lift a heavier weight at the gym when you mentally psych yourself up. Consider the last time you had a nightmare and you woke up sweating and breathing heavy, as if you had just run a 5K even though you were laying peacefully in bed! Whatever we experience in our heads manifests itself in the body.

So, why does that happen? Here’s the short version: When you experience an emotion, you signal your brain to send out chemicals into the body so that you can physically feel that emotion. That’s why your body reacts the way it does – your brain is telling it to. Experience the emotion consistently enough over and extended period, and you get physically addicted to those chemicals. It’s like getting your fix.

What happens, then, when you take the stress away? Say you’ve got a few nice slow days at work where you’re able to focus on what you want to do, don’t have too many interactions with others, and things are just going smoothly. It’s peaceful. But now, your brain doesn’t have a reason to produce those stress chemicals you’ve become addicted to and then your body goes into physical withdrawal. It wants its fix! Then, it starts sending you subconscious signals that you’d better find something to be stressed out about. And so you find a problem (which are typically easy to find at work!) and work yourself up over it to give your body what it’s calling out for. You might even create a problem that wasn’t there before! That might sound crazy if you think of it in logical terms, but in that moment you’re not behaving logically – your actions are a response to your addiction to stress.

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Break your addiction to stress

Recognition of the problem is the first step towards the solution. When you break your addiction to stress at work, you’ll be more focused, more creative, and have much greater peace of mind. But you also need to do it for your own health – when stress persists over an extended period of time, it will eventually result in physical illness. Your body can only work with it for so long before you wear it out. The really scary thing is that it’s hard to predict what illness that could be – it might be burnout and physical exhaustion, it might be headaches, or it might be a heart attack. That’s the most important reason you need to take this problem seriously – it’s not to produce better work. It’s to make sure you don’t cause yourself long-term physical problems.

Breaking an addiction to stress at work is like breaking any other addiction – it’s hard. Your desire to change your circumstances as got to be greater and more powerful than the allure of the thing you’re addicted to. But if you’re committed to solving the problem, you can get there. Just take it one day at a time, and be constantly mindful of where you’re focusing your attention. Anytime you become aware of a problem or something you find frustrating, instead focus on the solution. Is it a solvable problem? Then there’s no need to worry about it – go solve it. And if it’s not a solvable problem, then worrying will do you no good!

This article was originally published on the Zen Workplace.

Karlyn Borysenko

Karlyn Borysenko is the Owner and Principal of Zen Workplace , a consultancy dedicated to fixing the “people problems” to help individuals achieve professional happiness and success, and organizations to drive productivity and results. She’s an MBA, is a dissertation away from completing her PhD in Organizational Psychology, and is a certified DiSC trainer. You can connect with Karlyn on Twitter at @KarlynMB.