For Victoria Walsh, high stress is part of what it means to be an entrepreneur. The owner of a recipe development and food styling business in Toronto loves her work and has a strict policy to never say no to a gig. That means piling on assignments, juggling family activities and even working through vacations.
“Meeting a huge number of deadlines is rewarding and makes me feel successful,” she says. “When things are slow, I become anxious and fret instead of enjoying the downtime – and it's not really about the money.”
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone: 6.4 million Canadians say they are significantly stressed out, according to Statistics Canada. That may not be overly surprising considering how jam-packed our lives have become. But here’s what is alarming: experts say that some people may actually be addicted to stress.
“The stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol give you energy in the short term, and people like that energized state,” says Dr. Gabor Maté, a Vancouver-based physician and author of When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress (Random House, 2004). “Otherwise there’s an emptiness in their lives.”
If you normally function at a high-octane level of stress, periods of calm may feel uncomfortable or even depressing – and that may lead you to seek out your next high-pressure fix. In a New York Times viral article entitled The Busy Trap, author Tim Kreider observes that the people who complain the most about being super-busy aren’t those who jam-pack their lives with self-imposed stressors. “They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence,” he writes.
In small doses, this “fight-or-flight” response can work to your advantage by giving you the drive you need to overcome challenges.To understand how stress can give you a feel-good high, let’s start with a 101 on the physical process: When you’re confronted with a threatening situation – whether it’s a looming deadline or rabid dog –your brain signals the adrenal glands to release hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, to help you either fight off the threat or flee the scene. Adrenaline increases your blood pressure, giving you the go-go energy you’d need to do battle or hightail it to safer ground. Cortisol increases glucose in your blood stream and helps your brain use energy efficiently. It also suppresses functions such as the immune system that might not be useful in a dangerous situation.
“Short-term stress can be a satisfying experience, if it’s alternated with rest,” Maté explains. “But if somebody is stressed all the time, the rest doesn’t feel normal because they don’t feel like they are proving their purpose.”
Chronic stress can mask emotional pain and self-doubt just like drugs and alcohol can – and the health risks may be similarly high. Overexposure to stress hormones can be extremely disruptive to almost all of your body’s processes. “There’s so much research that shows almost any illness can be triggered by stress, from arthritis and multiple sclerosis to heart disease and cancer,” Maté says.
While some people may thrive in high-pressure situations (perhaps you really do create your best work at 4 a.m. on deadline day), stress becomes an unhealthy addiction if it starts negatively impacting your life socially, physically or emotionally. When that happens, it may be time to seek help.
“The first step is recognizing that it’s a habit and not who you are as a person,” Maté says. The good news: habits can be broken. Therapeutic techniques such as mindfulness mediation and cognitive behavioural therapy can help you change the behaviour that keeps you trapped in a stress cyclone. “The problem isn’t your work; it’s how you relate to it,” Maté says. “You can be a committed entrepreneur without being addicted to stress.”