Is Your Brain Chemically Dependent on Stress?

If you work better under tight deadlines and thrive on a time-crunch, stress can be stimulant—but it's still terrible for you.

If you’re the type that thrives under pressure, you may be addicted to stress.

Time and time again, we hear the warnings: stress is bad for our health. Yet for many of us, looming deadlines and an overloaded schedule seems not to paralyze us, but is a driving force that pushes us to achieve greater productivity. If you consider yourself one of those who thrive under pressure, you may be addicted to stress.

Heidi Hanna, author of Stressaholic: 5 Steps to Transform Your Relationship with Stress argues that multiple demands on our time and energy and have caused a neurochemical dependence on stress. For some of us, the exhilaration we feel when pushing against a deadline is similar to the rush an addict gets when they shoot up. "Stress is a drug," says Hanna. By activating the dopamine reward center in the brain that feeds us feel-good endorphins, stress can temporarily boost performance, explaining why some of us appear to get so much done when under the gun.

With our lifestyles becoming more and more hectic and technology encroaching into our personal lives reducing the separation between work and life, the day where Stressaholics Anonymous meetings are commonplace may not be far off. However, unlike other addictions where the stimulant is removed completely from the addict’s life, we cannot simply remove stress from our lives.

Nor should we. "Stress can be to our advantage", says Hanna. Executives and entrepreneurs often say the times when they experience the most personal and professional growth are when they’re pushed out of their comfort zone, situations in which stress levels are high and the brain is flooded with an endorphin rush. "We don’t want a world without stress, because we need that stimulation for growth," says Hanna.

So, what’s the all the fuss about reducing stress from our lives? While these productivity benefits of stress may have you thinking your time-crunched lifestyle is justified, Hanna says sustained over a long period of time, stress can not only debilitate our productivity but have serious health implications.

Just as an addict craves more to satisfy their addiction, your penchant to run against the clock and fill your days with multiple competing demands can quickly spiral out of control. After time, the brain develops a tolerance for stress, meaning you’ll need more of it to feel the same rush. You may take on more projects than you can actually handle or wait until the ultimate minute to get something done because the adrenal system which fuels stress hormones is fatiguing, forcing you to work harder to get that same burst of cortisol and adrenaline that are released when the body is under pressure.

Chronic stress also has important health implications, causing inflammation and making the body less resilient to illness. "Stress has been associated with 90% of medical visits," says Hanna. To boost our resilience and optimize the use of stress for peak performance without putting our health in jeopardy, Hanna argues we need to build frequent breaks into our daily schedules. "Stress is only beneficial if our bodies have the resilience to manage it," she says.

Short mini-meditations, getting eight hours of sleep regularly, incorporating bouts of physical activity into the day and maintaining social connections are all important for building the body’s internal resistance so we can maximize the benefits of stress. "Everything about the human system has some sort of beat, rhythm, or pulse," says Hanna. The body is built to manage these ups and downs. Just as an athlete wouldn’t work the same muscle groups day after day, allowing time in between for the muscles to tear down and build back up, the same concept applies to stress. Rests in between periods of high pressure allow inflammation to decrease, hormones to settle and us to maximize the performance benefits stress can bring.

So, next time you find yourself running against the clock on a stress high, remember to take a break, go for a walk, schedule some downtime into your calendar to read a good book, or meet up with a friend at a local coffee shop.

[Image: Flickr user Sean McGrath]

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  • gmiklashek950

    I am a retired Neuro-psychiatrist, Psychopharmacologist and Stress Management Consultant and am completing a book on the subject, "STRESS R US". Heidi Hanna is a lovely human being but her grasp of the Neurophysiology and Neuroendocrinology of the Stress Response, in all of its elaborations, is limited. The real health problem of Stress Addiction is not the dependence on the "high" elicited by Dopamine, Endorphins and Cortisol (a partial list), but the damage done to our Neurophysiology, Immune System, etc., by constantly elevated Glucocorticoid (Cortisol, etc.) tissue levels. The result and serious therapy is well described in James Wilson's very readable "Adrenal Fatigue". Thank you.

  • Robert Sciolino

    An article that applies to many workplaces (and I'm not mentioning one in particular) and will never be seen on the health bulletin board...I guarantee it.

    My anti-stress pill is my bicycle commute to and from work. I take it twice a day. It takes forty-five minutes to swallow and it doesn't go down that easy, but I am stress free and immune from this disorder. I look around and see so many people infected, overweight, depressed, pretending to be motivated by the pretense of every task at work being on the front burner...I just feel so badly for all of them.

    I at the peak of my physical fitness, I am focused and PROPERLY motivated. I also ensure....ENSURE... I get eight hours of sleep each night without compromise because that is always...ALWAYS...the first victim when one negotiates for more time in their work day. When I say "NO" to a stress deadline or a work task that interferes with my 24 hour body cycle, there are implied threats to my work position .

  • Matthew Frum

    Interesting article. I find meditation very helpful for reducing stress and agree with the "short mini-meditations" suggestion. Those help a lot. Check out the mini daily guided meditations that I post for free here:

  • Patricia Murdock

    what i read is so true, i quit doing drugs long a go, all kinds of drugs, also quit drinking,smoking.. and all i do is work, they call me a work a the challenge, and the pressure, the more the better, no down time me ever. dont know how to control is like being out of drugs, you must find some thing to do all the time..