When Kevin lost his job at a tech startup during a round of mass layoffs two months ago, he suddenly felt way less stressed. He had spent countless hours as a customer service agent for a health app that rarely worked, fielding angry call after angry call. Now that he was unemployed, the stress disappeared, which, for him, was a problem. He desperately missed the high of the anxiety he experienced from work. “I thought I was depressed, but I think I was just relaxed for the first time and didn’t like it,” the 29-year-old tells me. “All that stress sucked, but it honestly kept me going.”
Though anxiety isn’t addictive in the same way that drugs or alcohol are, the charge that people experience from stress can be habit-forming. Since our sympathetic nervous systems, or fight-or-flight responses, are primed to help us fend off dangers, a lot of us have figured out how to hack the feeling of nervous energy to get “that extra push we need to meet a deadline or complete a project,” psychotherapist Dana Colthart explains. She adds that the more anxiety we have, the more habit-forming it becomes because “our neural pathways create repetitive connections with each other — meaning the more we’re anxious and stressed, the stronger those pathways will be.”
And that experience of a “high” from stress is very real. When you’re anxious, your brain is flooded with chemicals like cortisol, adrenaline and dopamine, which can — to an extent — make us feel actually high. Clinical social worker Keresse Thompson, who has broached the subject on her podcast Diary of an Empath, compares it to the feeling of winning something or gambling. “You may be a little stressed, but you overall feel rewarded and you feel good,” she explains. “This may cause you to seek out those same feelings, therefore repeating the pattern over and over again.”
If that wasn’t enough to get you hooked, the fight-or-flight response of stress also results in the release of epinephrine, norepinephrine and adrenocorticotropic hormone, which essentially makes you feel energized. On top of that, therapist Talia Bombola says that if you grew up in a chaotic household, normalcy as an adult can feel boring. “Chronic or high stress is your homeostasis if you will, and thus, you may seek it out in adulthood, despite the negative long-term effects of high cortisol,” she tells me.
Certainly, keeping your body in a consistent state of high stress can lead to severe burnout as well as a variety of mental and physical health problems. So, even though anxiety and stress addictions aren’t diagnosable conditions, experts agree that the long-term effects are still concerning.
To break free of the pattern, it’s best to find healthier strategies to get energy and cope with anxiety. One of the most obvious ways is through working out, but most people can’t go for a jog every time they feel anxious. Using mindfulness practices, however, can help you learn to identify when your breathing changes or your thoughts are no longer in the present moment so you can figure out how to take a step back in real time. Plus, you can always reach out to a friend or a therapist to conduct a “reality test” — i.e., get a second opinion on whether or not your brain is playing tricks on you.
For Kevin, a combination of exercise, better sleep habits and talking to friends who have had similar experiences helped him normalize his relationship with stress and boost his energy in more sustainable ways. But it’s still a rather precarious situation. “I wish I could say I won’t go back to the way I was before once I start working again,” he says. “But if I’m going to be stressed either way, it makes sense to use it.”