Seven Signs of Stress Addiction

Stress can be addictive. It's evident in people who don't know how to rest and always need to be busy and feel the rush of adrenaline. Find out what it means to be addicted to stress.
Seven Signs of Stress Addiction
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 12 June, 2023

When talking about addictions, we tend to immediately visualize dependence on certain substances or compulsive behaviors that involve shopping, sex, or social media. However, we can also be addicted to stress. These individuals need to have continuously high levels of adrenaline and cortisol.

For example, people who can’t disconnect from work or have a life outside their job are addicted to stress. Although this characteristic doesn’t define any clinical condition described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), it’s an increasingly frequent psychological phenomenon. You can learn about stress addiction in this article.

Often, perfectionists become addicted to the kind of stress they can’t escape from.

Addiction to stress

Stress is a natural mechanism in the brain. It allows us to initiate behaviors for facing challenges, solving problems, and dealing with specific threats. In fact, it’s thanks to this psychophysiological response that we’ve survived as a species. However, stress stops being healthy and beneficial the moment it becomes habitual.

A study published in Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology claims that, when the stress response is excessive or prolonged, there’s a risk of suffering from a wide variety of clinical disorders. This isn’t healthy. Moreover, in recent years, in the field of psychological consultation, individuals addicted to stress have started to appear.

Stress addiction defines someone who exhibits a constant pattern of getting involved in activities that generate an overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system. Suddenly, their brains become habituated to a persistent and elevated release of adrenaline, epinephrine, and cortisol, thus reinforcing their neural reward systems.

An article published in Advances in Psychosomatic Medicine indicates that this is how addictions are consolidated: through the ‘high’ caused either by external substances or by hormones and neurotransmitters due to certain behavior.


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Signs of being addicted to stress

Stress addiction is unhealthy and leads to self-destructive and extremely dangerous behaviors. These individuals have the desire and need to push their minds and bodies to the limit. In fact, if they don’t reach a state where their cortisol levels are at their peak, they don’t feel good. Here are the characteristics of someone addicted to stress.

1. Low tolerance for inactivity

One outstanding characteristic of people with this profile is their inability to rest. They assume that the simple fact of doing nothing, enjoying leisure time, and relaxing is synonymous with incompetence and low productivity. Their minds are so used to multitasking, worrying, and persistent activity that they can’t tolerate something as necessary as inactivity.

2. Extreme perfectionism

For a stress addict, it’s not enough for them to carry out their tasks well, they have to achieve excellence. The problem is that they never achieve the impossible objectives that they set for themselves. This obsession with achieving such high standards of production and efficiency leads them to frustration and the constant feeling of failure. These are really self-destructive situations.

3. High competitiveness

People who are addicted to stress usually see themselves as highly competitive. This trait in itself can bring great achievement. But, it sometimes makes them fall prey to states of high anxiety. There’s always something or someone with whom to challenge themselves. There’s always a new goal on the horizon for them to demonstrate their own worth and skills.

Almost without realizing it, their adrenaline and cortisol levels are constantly activating them, driving them to climb new heights, and show others what they’re capable of achieving. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t healthy to maintain this lifestyle for a long time.

4. Work addiction

No doubt you’ve heard the term workaholic to define people who are addicted to work. In fact, they live to work because that’s how they build their self-image and understand their existence. Addiction to stress frequently occurs in individuals who need to be in the work environment all the time, thus neglecting the rest of their lives.

5. Risk behaviors

Risk behaviors translate into actions that provide, just for a moment, high doses of adrenaline to the body. Behaviors such as driving fast, taking drugs, or drinking alcohol are other activities linked to stress addiction. They provide neurochemical ‘highs’ that give fleeting senses of well-being.

6. Panic attacks

Chronic unregulated stress that dominates the individual often occurs alongside other clinical conditions such as panic attacks. The brain and the body are trapped in a state of high tension and emotional containment. These are states of great psychophysical exhaustion.

7. High-impact somatic symptoms

When they can’t manage and regulate their stress adequately, they end up somatizing. Therefore, persistent stress ends up manifesting itself in a wide spectrum of physical symptoms and health problems. For example:

  • Dizziness.
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia.
  • Exhaustion.
  • Muscle pain.
  • Tachycardia.
  • Digestive upsets.
  • Weakened immune system.

Stress addiction directly affects the individual’s physical and mental health. Furthermore, it’s common for these patients to also fall prey to other types of addiction as well.

The consequences of addiction to stress

Occasional and time-limited stress is useful and beneficial. But, when this response becomes chronic to the point of becoming an addictive mechanism, the consequences are worrying. Although the scientific community believes that it’s problematic to consider stress as an addictive substance, it does accept the appearance of this behavior has risks.

Research published in EXCLI Journal claims that the effects of these situations range from simple alterations in homeostasis to life-threatening symptoms. So, let’s find out what can happen to a stress addict.

Health problems

An addiction to stress maintained over months and years has harmful consequences and can cause alterations such as:

  • Headaches.
  • Insomnia.
  • Hypertension.
  • Muscle pains.
  • Memory problems.
  • Heart problems.
  • Premature aging.
  • Changes in eating patterns.
  • Digestive and intestinal alterations.
  • Risk of cerebrovascular infarcts.
  • Weakening of the immune system.

Psychological problems

Stress addiction is key to the development of many mental health problems. As indicated in The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences , chronic stress supports the neurobiological bases of depression.

The continued release of corticotropin and cortisol has a serious effect on the brain, thus increasing this risk. But, it isn’t the only one. The following can also appear:

  • Social isolation.
  • Greater impulsiveness.
  • Panic disorders.
  • Anxiety disorders.
  • Risk of addictive behaviors.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  • Unhappy interpersonal relationships.

People who are workaholics, have impostor syndrome, or are more competitive are at higher risk of developing stress addiction.


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How to overcome an addiction to stress

An individual addicted to stress has a greater need to participate in activities to prove their competence to themselves Also, to improve their self-image. This draws up a series of easy-to-recognize profiles. They tend to be workaholics, highly competitive, or sufferers of imposter syndrome.

Maybe you even identify yourself here. Do you sometimes feel the need to work 24/7 to prove yourself?  Do you feel like resting and doing nothing is almost a mortal sin and something you simply can’t afford because you believe that doing nothing means being weak and incompetent?

If this sounds like you, it’s time to start the recovery process. Firstly, you must talk about what’s happening with those close to you. Indeed, social support is key and will allow you to become aware that you need to change. Also, take note of the following recommendations:

  • Improve your self-concept and self-esteem.
  • Learn techniques to regulate stress.
  • Practice sports or activities that force you to become active.
  • Find new hobbies beyond work.
  • Introduce breathing, relaxation, and meditation techniques into your routine.
  • Reformulate your schedules. You must establish work, leisure, and rest time.
  • Practice self-care. You need to feel pleasure again. So, start taking care of yourself and dedicate time to yourself.
  • Look for support groups. There are people who’ve gone through the same thing as you and can help you.
  • Promote good life habits. Take care of your diet and stop smoking or carrying out any other harmful behaviors.
  • Remove yourself from environments and people that increase your need to always be busy. If necessary, change jobs.
  • Learn to rest. To do this, you must reformulate your thoughts and beliefs, in order to understand that resting doesn’t mean wasting time, it means good health.

Therapy to help stress addiction

Last but not least, don’t hesitate to seek specialized help. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is often used to overcome addiction to stress. It’ll help you develop healthier mental patterns and engage in satisfying behaviors.

Finally, don’t hesitate to promote the changes that you need. Take the necessary time to rest and take care of yourself. Your body and mind will thank you.

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The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.