It's no secret that addiction comes in so many forms, whether that’s alcohol, weed, body image, technology, money, sex, or food. The list goes on, but I was totally shocked by the idea that I could be hooked on my own stressful thinking.
In a world where the media love to take us on a stress merry-go-round, this is probably happening more than we realise.
Personally, I’ve had my fair share of trauma, insecurities, and self-destructive behaviours to overcome. Thus, I’d been so focused and militant about overcoming the other issues, unaware that I was fuelling a whole new bad habit.
Don’t get me wrong, I was aware that I could be a Negative Nancy. But like many others, 2020/2021 threw me into a mental downward spiral that I struggled to grasp control of.
Despite waking up armed with a to-do list and ready to smash the day, a few hours later, I would find myself depleted of energy, unable to even look at the checklist, just wanting to lay in bed and watch Netflix. On other occasions, I would be launching my houseplant at the wall over something that happened years ago.
What on earth was happening?
I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Eventually, I came across a new idea when I listened to a podcast about stress. It mentioned that some people do in fact get addicted to stress.
In denial at first, I remember thinking, “Surely I can’t be doing that?”
Completely blindsided at first, I soon came to realise that those seemingly insignificant morning niggles and thoughts could gain momentum before I knew it.
Now, it is as clear as day. I had a stress addiction.
The bigger problem with this is that when stressful thinking becomes so automatic, our bodies crave and seek the chemical reaction from this.
How does this happen?
So let’s break this down scientifically, as this really helped me understand.
Thoughts actually tell your body what chemical to generate and thus what hormone to create. Cortisol is the hormone that is released by stress. So if you have a thought that sparks this chemical reaction then your body releases cortisol and floods your system with it.
Therefore if you’ve been chronically stressed, your body is so used to regularly getting that hit of cortisol.
Let’s be honest, the world is mad, so cortisol is rife in humanity right now. As well as the present, our past and upbringing can actually change our brain and start this addiction. For instance, exposure to stressful or tense situations when we are younger could do that.
Stress affects and limits the connection in the prefrontal cortex which affects things like your ability to forward plan and focus, as well as your memory. This can in turn cause more stress. It’s a non-stop brutal revolution.
After regular exposure to cortisol, your body can actually depend on this to function. So imagine an alcoholic who drinks every day, their body starts relying on it.
When your body is dependent, it will trick your brain into finding a way to get that fix.
Like an alcoholic will find themselves in a bar with a drink in hand before they can stop it, stressed cortisol junkies will be spiraling into a mental abyss before they can scramble their feet on the brakes.
For stress addicts, their minds will ensure they think about or find stressful situations so they can get their cortisol hit.
How did I notice and how can you?
This can show itself in so many ways.
Do you put yourself in sketchy situations, because it’s kind of fun… right?
Maybe, you keep stalking your ex on Instagram even though you know it will upset you?
Perhaps you find yourself being easily dragged into other people’s dramas being the go-to person for a dramatic friend.
Known to complain a lot? It's hard to focus on the good things when your brain is automatically finding the bad.
Looking back, I can see that I regularly attracted drama, oblivious as to why. Always surrounded by a coworker, dating someone, being around a friend, a situation, or a place that generated stress, letting it wash over me like a big warm soak in the tub. It would give me a little buzz even though it also filled me with distress and dissatisfaction.
Hastily throwing myself into toxic relationships and situations that I couldn’t walk away from. Oblivious back then, I now see, these were exactly what my cortisol-fanatic of a brain wanted. Constantly first in line for the emotional rollercoaster.
On reflection, I can see that I subconsciously liked the pain that the stress brought into my life - a guaranteed cortisol serving that I had come to rely on so heavily. An intense hit of stress that I sort of.. enjoyed? A weird feeling, like cold and hotness tingles. Followed with shame, guilt, sorrow, and exhaustion.
Perhaps, for you, it is more subtle because this is a role you’ve always played. For me, I think this stemmed from childhood.
Just like any addiction, recognition is the first step! Accepting I got a weird kick out of the chemical reaction, that comes from negative thinking and behaviour was a TRIP.
But, awareness is the first step.
Notice the feeling, explore where this started, and identify what is causing it now. Then try and minimize that however necessary.
If it is a job, find a new job. If it is a person, distance yourself from them. If it is your commute, try and find a new way to get where you need to go
Saying that, if you find yourself constantly experiencing life as a series of highs and lows and you really don’t know why, I do recommend online therapy too. Not only can a trained psychologist help you unravel this, but you may have an undiagnosed personality, developmental disorder, or low self-esteem that you need support with.
What is the best way to move forward?
Like I said, get the stress down.
Now, I know it isn't always easy to just change our immediate situations, but it is so important not to immerse yourself in stressful environments for any longer than necessary. Otherwise, before long, you will be picking an argument or finding problems for a hit of that good shit cortisol. You can literally become chemically reliant on the pain. And as a result, you will find it harder to relax.
Unfortunately, being a human can come with stress. A part of the human experience does involve challenges, grief, anxiety, and despair. Accept that life isn’t all rainbows and butterflies and we will be faced with situations that push us to our limits and beyond. But we can do things to reduce stress as soon as we can.
So here are the things that help me manage stress and stop chasing the drama. You don’t necessarily need to do all of these. Choose 1 to start with a build from there.
They are repeated all over the internet for a reason, they actually work, and here’s why:
Eat well - I know junk food might feel like it’s helping or binge eating might fill the void temporarily but it’s not helping you. Forget the fad diets, and eat as close to natural whole foods as possible, as much as you can. Food is medicine and it will help you heal if you use it correctly!
Movement - Moving your body releases feel-good chemicals and dampens cortisol. If the gym is not your thing, go for a walk each day, dance, clean, or find an exercise video to do on Youtube from home. I recommend Emi Wong… she saved my shit during covid.
Yoga, meditation, or breathing exercises - Yoga counts as movement, and even a couple of minutes of meditation or breathing exercises each day, radically reverses the effects of cortisol. Even doing these for a couple of minutes, once or twice a week helps change your mental energy.
Get outdoors - For me, this is a big one. I get it, when you feel poop, staying indoors and isolating yourself seems like the initial best solution. But it is actually not helping you. Get some fresh air and sunshine, nature saved me from myself when my mental health was at its worst!
Water - so many people are dehydrated and they don’t even realise this is causing so many of their problems. Humans are made of 70%water, so it makes sense that we should be topping that up with a fresh supply as often as possible. Down a glass of water when you wake up each day and build from there.
Writing - Another leader for me. Journal your thoughts. It is amazing how much taking a pen to paper can help you empty your mind, and therefore slow down the thoughts that are instead likely to whirl around your head each day.
Learn - Acquiring a new skill will get your brain moving in the right way and actually build up cognitive reserve that gets depleted by cortisol. Think of something you've always wanted to do and find a way to learn it. We live in a world where the ability to learn is literally possible with the click of a few buttons!
Ok, I’ll be honest, it’s not going to be easy, it takes practice. Despite writing this article, I still have to battle with myself to make healthy choices when I feel flunky!
Ultimately, it is really down to you. There is no magic potion quick fix for this. Make the decision to stop self destructing and take hold of your life. No one is going to come and save you from this so get to work and commit to changing.
And actually, it’s not necessary (or possible) to eradicate stress and cortisol from your life entirely. Cortisol plays a role in maintaining several bodily functions and keeping you safe from danger. Not only that, stress can be fantastic for motivation, building resilience, and confidence. However positive types of stress called eustress, are short-term stressors where you push your body to do things it may not instinctively want to do. For example, cold therapy, traveling out of your comfort zone, and learning a new challenging skill. These may make you feel temporarily uneasy, but these stressors are beneficial to your well-being. Implement these into your life in a balanced way.
If this article does resonate with you, know that it is possible to change. In the meantime, please be kind and compassionate to yourself!
The world we live in is a stress incubator. The news, the media. and politics understand this concept and human psychology on a crazy level. They use stress to keep you glued to the latest news storm and fuel culture wars. So many people are caught in this whirlwind and they don’t even see it. So my advice, avoid that shitshow as much as possible.
This will not be fixed overnight but small changes each way will ween you off unconscious cortisol chasing!
You got this!
About the Creator
Writing helps me dump the art that lives amongst the party of my mind.
Writing helps me share the lessons I've learned from being a human.
Writing helps me try and make sense of life which I am finding to be an endless adventure!