Overflowing inboxes and endless to-do lists prevent many of us from taking time to stop and smell the flowers. Given the choice, though, would we? Turns out some experts believe we can actually become addicted to stress.

Now I’m Worried — The Need-to-Know

Stress Addiction Photo by Marissa Angell

In 2011, Americans rated their personal stress levels an average of 5.2 out of 10. And 22 percent admitted to being under extreme stress on a regular basis. Gulp!

Stress can be physical, like what we subject our muscles to at the gym. And then there’s the kind that’s in our heads — that OMG I’m so overwhelmed right now feeling. While psychological stress has some definite downsides (chronic freak-outs may increase our risk for cancer and other diseases), take a moment to exhale.In moderate amounts, stress can boost our focus, energy, and even our powers of intuitionWhen does stress help or harm? The effects of stress controllability and subjective stress response on stroop performance. Henderson, R.K., Snyder, H.R., Gupta, T., et al. Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of Colorado at Boulder, Colorado. Frontiers In Psychology, 2012;3:179.Stress and diabetes mellitus. Surwit, R.S., Schneider, M.S., and Feinglos, M.N. Department of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina. Diabetes Care, 1992 Oct;15(10):1413-22..

Still, in some cases, stress does more than light a productivity-boosting fire under our butts. Both emotional and physical stress activate our central nervous system, causing a “natural high,” says Concordia University neuroscientist and addiction researcher Jim Pfaus. “By activating our arousal and attention systems,” Pfaus says, “stressors can also wake up the neural circuitry underlying wanting and craving — just like drugs do.”

This may be why, experts believe, some of us come to like stress a little too much.

Gimme, Gimme More? — The Answer/Debate

Type A and Type D personalities — or people prone to competitiveness, anxiety, and depression — may be most likely to get a high from stressful situations, says stress management specialist Debbie Mandel. Stress addicts, Mandel says, “may also be using endless to-do lists to avoid less-easy-to-itemize problems — feelings of inadequacy, family conflicts, or other unresolved personal issues.”

Some stress addicts have difficulty listening to others, concentrating, and even sleeping because they can’t put tomorrow’s agenda out of their minds, explains Mandel. Others tend to use exaggerated vocabulary — craaazy busy right now, workload’s insane!! And some begin to feel anxious at the mere thought of slowing down their schedule.

But psychologist and addiction researcher Stanton Peele cautions against labeling anyone a stress addict. “Only when that pursuit of stress has a significant negative impact on your life could it qualify as addiction,” he said, adding that many people are able to effectively manage — and in fact thrive under — high stress conditions. (Think: Olympic athletes or President Obama.)

The De-Stress Plan:

For budding stress addicts or for those who just, well, feel overwhelmed, here are some tips to dial down that anxiety.

  • Seek professional help if you’re verging on burnout. (Not only can hashing it out with a therapist take a load off your mind. Some studies suggest it also boosts physical fitness!)
  • Do something creative. Mandel recommends carving out a once-weekly time not to think about tomorrow’s agenda by painting, cooking, writing, dancing, or anything else that’ll take you off the clock temporarily.

Some of us may seek out stress a bit more excessively than others and struggle to just relax. It takes skill to handle hectic agendas and long lists of responsibilities — without losing sleep or feeling frazzled. So try these tips and try not to freak out!

Worried that you or someone you know seeks out stress a little too much? Think stress addiction is a myth? Tell us about it in the comments section below: