Have you ever felt like you’re trapped in a cycle of making bad choices? I used to believe my decisions were conscious, but I found myself wondering why I consistently procrastinated before important events or milestones, or ended up dating the wrong people. It turns out some of these behaviors were tied to addiction – not to substances, but to the rush of chemicals in my brain.
It’s like an “adrenaline rush,” but it’s constant and it comes with cortisol, norepinephrine, and other hormones that, when released in large amounts and for extended periods of time, can become toxic for your body. So, I want to explore how stress can make you feel comfortable with a false belief that we are more productive, leaving us living with chronic stress.
Definition of Stress
First of all, let’s define stress: Stress is a natural response to perceived threats or challenges. It is the body’s way of preparing to face a situation, whether physical or emotional. While stress can be a motivator, pushing us to achieve our goals, prolonged and chronic stress can have detrimental effects on both our physical and mental health.
And here’s how I became addicted to stress. Some years ago, I got some opportunities that required a lot of work and commitment but gave me a position of power. I was working on a very important project, and my team members were people I admired. In order to be at their level, I would work from 15 to 18 hours a day. I thought I was bringing great results and would reward myself on weekends with alcohol and parties. I felt important, alive, and I would do whatever it took to stay living with that intensity. Of course, nothing is forever, and I ended up in a strong depression with panic attacks and the desire to hibernate for years.
Why didn’t I notice the signs earlier? Busyness prevented me from recognizing my body’s need for rest, proper nutrition, and sleep. Anxiety fueled a cycle where I worked more to silence negative thoughts, exacerbating my stress. This pattern had repeated in various high-pressure situations, from exams to social events.
After several episodes of stress throughout my life, I had to accept I needed to make a change. So, I sought information to be able to identify the symptoms early the next time I’m under stress. Here’s how it works: Your body starts seeking activities that “light up your brain.” Let’s say you race up in your car; this sends your brain the message: attention here, there’s some danger in this activity. Your brain immediately releases adrenaline, also known as epinephrine and cortisol among other “stress hormones.” Feeling the immediate effects of stress hormones, you put your body in a fight-or-flight response, helping you respond to immediate threats. And this feels awesome, like you have superpowers.
Stress effects in the body
Among the immediate effects of cortisol in the body, we have selective hearing and tunnel vision to focus your attention on the important stuff, increased blood flow to your heart and muscles, and this blood contains sugar that your own body released. We know how sugar transforms into energy so you can run faster than ever, dilated pupils, and butterflies in the stomach. All these feelings heighten your overall abilities.
Some of the body’s functions are suppressed while others are heightened so you can be at your best. The blood flows only to the heart and lungs; digestion is slowed, meanwhile your respiration maximizes, giving your muscles more oxygen so they can gain strength and turn you into that superhuman we all want to be. Also, you can still feel pain, but since your body is so focused on the “exciting or stressful situation,” you get distracted and you don’t experience the pain so much.
This is when we get hooked because it’s something you seek. You direct all your attention to finding ways to feel the same rush again. Over time, tolerance builds, requiring greater doses of stress-inducing activities. By the time you realize, you’re intoxicated by cortisol.
Cortisol intoxication affects physical, psychological, and behavioral levels, leading to various health issues. Prolonged exposure negatively impacts memory, concentration, decision-making, and exacerbates anxiety. Stress eventually takes a toll, leading to sickness or, in my case, severe depression.
Recognizing signs of chronic stress is crucial. Seek support and try to break free from stress addiction through mindfulness, time management, and realistic goal-setting. I know it’s not easy, but in my case, I discovered I love making lists in a notebook in order to be more organized. I love the feeling of crossing out the tasks when I finish them!
As you become more self-conscious about your body under stress and learn how to break the cycle, you’ll experience an increased sense of control and empowerment.
Note: The Free Your Mind Mental Health Society is an independent youth-led organization. The contents of this blog are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. In the event of a medical emergency, please call your doctor or 911 or other local emergency numbers immediately.