Stress Addicts Anonymous (Part 1)

This series of posts was inspired by Dallas and Melissa’s very personal experience with stress addiction. From Melissa: “See, at my very core, I am a typical Type-A.  In fact, there were times I considered bumping herself up to a Type AA, because I believed Type A’s were actually kind of lazy. No offense. I’m a perfectionist, but also a procrastinator, and I do my best work when there’s a crisis. No crisis? No problem. I’ll just create one.” (Dallas has far fewer of these tendencies – thank goodness. Two of us in one house would make life unbearable.) So let’s explore the subject of the stress addict – who we are, what that means and how to know if your habits and patterns fit the bill.

Type A-And-Then-Some

According to Wikipedia, Type A individuals are described as ambitious, aggressive, business-like, controlling, highly competitive, impatient, time-conscious, and tightly-wound.  People with Type A personalities are often high-achieving “workaholics” who multi-task, push themselves with deadlines, and hate both delays and ambivalence.

That doesn’t exactly paint us in a flattering light, does it?  I promise, we’re generally more fun than Wikipedia would suggest.  The problem is that under the right conditions, Type A drive can morph and grow into something else entirely – an actual stress addiction. And we mean that in the most literal sense of the word. Ask yourself…

  • Are you always on tight deadlines, multi-tasking within an inch of your life or creating ridiculous schedules for yourself?
  • Are you a perfectionist in everything you do, even when it doesn’t really matter?
  • Are you an inattentive listener, checking email, paying bills or cleaning while on the phone?
  • Are you constantly worrying about “what if,” stuck in an endless loop of dreaming up worst case scenarios?
  • Do you rush everywhere, all the time, because there are other things elsewhere you should be doing?
  • Have you lost all sense of patience, losing your cool when faced with even a minor telephone hold, appointment delay or grocery store line?
  • Are you always saying, “Things will calm down soon,” but they never, ever do?
  • Does the idea of a restorative yoga class, meditation or sitting quietly for 15 minutes make you want to crawl out of your skin?

If you answered “yes” to one or more of those questions… you may be a stress junkie.  And if you don’t think “stress junkie” is a very real, very dangerous condition, think again.

Stress Distress

According to the leading authority on pretty much everything (Oprah, of course), stress addiction is a legitimate condition, with serious consequences. says, “Stress junkies are people who use their own physiological responses as a mood-altering device.  And just like heroin, stress hormones have side effects that can kill you. Pumped into the bloodstream at high levels for long periods of time, these chemicals contribute to ulcers and heart disease, weaken the immune system, and leave us vulnerable to everything from automobile accidents to depression.”

Oprah not doing it for you?  Fine.  Dr. Waino W. Suojanen, a professor of management at Georgia State University, agrees.  “Social scientists as well as biologists studying the chemistry of the brain tend to document what business experts have been saying for years… The Type A individual has perhaps become addicted to his own adrenaline, and unconsciously seeks ways to get those surges.”

Sound far-fetched?  Not if you consider the biochemistry of stress addiction.  As Dr. John Ratey (author of Spark) explains, we get a “fix” from the stress response, even if we create it ourselves.

Procrastinate Much?

One common trait of stress junkies is procrastination – putting off tasks until the deadline looms so close that you’re not really sure you can get it done on time.  Procrastination puts us in a “fight or flight” kind stress response, which leads to a hormonal rush of epinephrine (to focus the body), which in turn results in the release of endorphins.  (Which, of course, feel good.)  In addition, there are two neurotransmitters in our brains that help get us ready for this flight or fight response — norepinephrine, which arouses our attention, and dopamine, which then focuses our attention.

So, we procrastinate until we get that “rush” we’re looking for, at which point those neurotransmitters flood our system and to allow us to finally focus – which helps us meet those deadlines after all.  Success!  There’s just one problem with this strategy:  stress junkies will create stress where there is none to begin with. Which means for the stress junkie, there are no situations that are inherently free of stress, even if they have to create some themselves.

Procrastination is only one favorite strategy of the stress junkie – others include perfectionism, obsessing about obligations, and inventing catastrophic fantasies about What Could Go Wrong. The common factor in each of these scenarios is the stress junkie’s single-minded devotion to repeatedly creating stressful situations.

On paper, you might think, “That sounds awful.  Who would do that to themselves?”  But in reality, if you’re a stress junkie, you kind of dig it.  No, you really dig it – the buzz that comes from swimming in stress hormones morning, noon and night.  Until, of course, you stop.  Then, yeah, you feel pretty miserable.

Getting All The Things Done

The problem is, you are literally addicted to the stress response, which means it’s impossible for you to just slow down.  Plus, your behavior is easy to justify (rationalize).   I mean, it’s not like you’re addicted to something that makes you lay around on the couch all day eating Doritos and playing video games.  You’re working, or exercising, or running a household or taking care of your children.  And everyone from Gym Jones to Jack Welch to Oprah herself would say there is no such thing as working too hard, right?

Sure, you’re probably not eating enough.  Sure, you could probably stand to take five minutes to stretch once in a while.  Yes, you wake up in the middle of the night with unending lists running through your head.  No, you haven’t peed in seven hours, but I’m sure that’s fine too.  Because you are Getting All The Things Done.  And who can argue with that?

Your body, that’s who.  And it’s already starting to rebel in ways that seriously compromise your health and fitness.

Stay Tuned for Stress Addicts Anonymous, Part 2

Ready to continue? Read Part 2 of our series on stress addiction, where we cover the negative physiological effects that come with living with chronic stress, and more importantly, some steps you can take to rehabilitate your own stress addiction.


Sapolsky, Robert M.  Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Third Edition.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004.

Ratey, John J. Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008.

McEwen, Bruce. The End of Stress As We Know It. Washington DC: National Academic Press, 2002.

Wiley, T.S. and Formy, Bent. Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival.New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2002.

Beck, Martha. “Am I Really A Stress Junkie?Oprah, October 2002.

Lyons, Richard. “Stress Addiction: Life in the Fast Lane.” New York Times, July 26, 2983.

Goode, Erica.  “The Heavy Cost of Chronic Stress.” New York Times, 17 December 2002.

David, Marc.  The slow down diet: eating for pleasure, energy, and weight loss. Healing Arts Press, 2005.

Bryant, Charles W. “The Physical Effects of Chronic Stress.”  Discovery Health. 

Collingwood, J. (2007). The Physical Effects of Long-Term Stress. Psych Central, November 6, 2011.

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  1. says

    I can relate. I definitely have the potential go fall overboard into an all out stress-addicted-bender for weeks on end. This article nicely worded a condition that I’ve been aware of for some time.

    Currently, I would describe myself as a Focus junkie. (David Delp at would substitute Focus with Flow) I set goals and deadlines for myself – not so that I manifest a crisis in which to be productive – rather so that I have a finish line to focus on.

    I love that feeling. I love hitting that stride where I am laser focused on a goal, taking steps to accomplish it, and then considering what my next steps would be. This extends to a point where success or failure in this goal isn’t important!

    For now, I consider this to be a healthy ‘addiction’ – It has motivated me to accomplish more and because of it I’ve really loved the past few years of my life (and it keeps getting better!) I can, however, see how this could become a terrible addiction. Setting meaningless and stressful goals just to have something to work on, etc.

    Thanks for this article – you’ve really helped to bring more light to this condition!

  2. says

    Hello, everyone. My name is Badier and I am a stress junkie. I tend to procrastinate because I’m really good on a deadline, though I’ve found that has just made it more difficult to stay motivated and productive other times. While I’m still working on my condition, here are some things I’ve learned that help me address my addiction:

    – Regardless of how you perceive it, no one is perfect, and no one expects you to be perfect

    – Failure is a far more important tool for learning than success. Just ask any entrepreneur or inventor

    – You deserve greatness, and setting yourself up for stressful situations does not allow that to happen

    – When you are feeling absolutely overwhelmed, go for a walk. Putting yourself in nature gives your brain an immediate signal to focus on something else for a minute and you’ll naturally calm down

    – Humans are not well-suited for multi-tasking. Turn off the tv when you’re working, close the social networking tabs on your browser. Try to eliminate as many potential distractions as possible.

    – This one helps with obsessing and “What If” scenarios. Go ahead and ask yourself “What If…” but then be sure to answer the question, and logically think through all the possibilities. Usually you will end up at a point where you can say “well, that wouldn’t be so bad” or “I can’t really do anything about that” and it’ll allow you to relax.

    – A big part of controlling stress is to not freak out over small things. Let those roll over you. It’s ok to get annoyed from time to time, but if things are out of your control, let them be (easier said than done, I know).

    I’d love it if anyone has suggestions on how to quiet the brain before sleeping, that’s the one I struggle with most!

  3. says

    Tim – I’m going to counter that there is no such thing as a “healthy addiction.” Either you’re comfortable and in control of your workflow and processes (which I’d say is quite healthy and positive), or you’re not – in which case, it’s not a healthy thing, even if you are quite productive and successful. As long as you continue the critical thinking you’ve obviously been doing, I think you can avoid letting a potentially positive set of habits devolve into something unhealthy and compulsive. It’s a fine line sometimes, but it sounds like you’re walking it well.

    Badier – you should repost this on Part 2, where we outline strategies for rehabbing your inner stress junkie. See if any of those tips give you an idea of calming your brain before sleep, and if you’re not finding inspiration, we’ll see what we can come up with to help.



  4. says

    I am one of those off the chart type AA…personalities. I have always demanded perfection. This is extremely distructive. I have battled with this my whole life, until recently. The key to stopping this behavior is to be present and observe your mind and compulsive actions.

  5. Mischa says

    Great article! My whole life I have been a worrier, racing thoughts, stressing myself out for no reason. Like I worry so much about healing my leaky gut. Talk about an oxymoron, yikes! I am realizing how much stress this puts on my adrenals and I have started taking adaptogens to help me calm down. For the first time in my life, I have periods of time where my brain is quiet and I just breathe. I never knew it could happen. I feel like I can let go and allow my gut to heal at its own pace and not obsess over everything I put in my mouth or every pill I take. One day at a time.

  6. says

    Mischa – Adaptogens are a good strategy, but we do recommend adding them into your regimen carefully and systematically. Some can have unintended psychological side effects when taken in combination. Dallas and I have both experienced unpleasant side effects from “healthy” adrenal support supplements, even when taken one at a time in conservative doses.

    For others interested in adrenal support, you may want to consider working with a naturopath or specialist before adding adaptogens into your daily protocol.


  7. Mary says

    Great post, as always, but I have one minor quibble: can we please stop listing “Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar and Survival” among other credible references? I read it eagerly last summer, having heard a lot about it in the paleo community, and was disappointed to find that it was the one of the sloppiest pieces of junk science I’d ever come across. Given the media’s tendency to misconstrue much of this line of reasoning, I think we have a real obligation to raise our standards for the evidence we use to support our claims.

  8. says


    You know, it’s funny… we went back and forth about whether to include that reference or not. The bottom line is that the science behind many of the concepts Lights Out talks about is solid – specifically, the cortisol + time perception phenomenon is the real deal. But I agree – some of their stuff is pretty out there. We take the good with the unbelievable, and leave it at that. Much of their message is simple, clear and direct, and backed by solid reference – and that’s the stuff we think resonates with folks.



  9. says

    Melissa – I thought of you when I found this quote…

    Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of nonessentials. -Lin Yutang, writer and translator (1895-1976)

  10. says


    I should put THAT on a t-shirt and wear it every day. I like to get All The Things done, and that includes the non-essentials, and the stuff that someone else should be doing. Thanks for the elegant reminder.