Stress is a daily occurrence in all of our lives, and often comes in waves. Take college finals week, for example. A week where students all over the country lock themselves in the library, their dorm room, or favorite coffee shop to go over every topic learned throughout the semester in hopes of walking away with the grade they want. It’s an all out sprint to the finish line, full of caffeine and sleepless nights. But suddenly, it all comes to a screeching halt. You take your last final, and the floodgates immediately close. For me, the relief of finishing my finals soon turned into a peculiar itch I had never experienced before. Within one weekend of being home with no responsibilities, I began to feel antsy. I craved the hustle and bustle of having a full schedule from dawn to dusk. This led me to wonder, can a person actually be addicted to stress itself?
To put it simply, the answer to this question is in fact, yes. Humans can become addicted to stress just the same as they can become addicted to drugs or alcohol. So how does this process work? How do we go from avoiding stress like the plague to welcoming it like an old friend?
When our bodies become psychologically stressed, we release a variety of hormones and neurotransmitters, including the chemical dopamine. You may know it as “the happy hormone.” Dopamine gets released in all kinds of exciting situations, such as hitting that 100th “like” on your Instagram post, receiving a long-awaited package from Amazon, or caving after a long week and treating yourself to a milkshake from Chick-fil-A. The reward center in our brains is activated, and we experience a surge in energy that can even make it easier to focus. This is why some people claim they “work better under pressure” and prefer to do so. As much as I hate to admit it, I myself have always felt that I am more productive when I push assignments closer to their deadline (shoutout to my fellow procrastinators).
In fact, one study performed by the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University, placed college students under this exact type of stress by requiring them to solve as many difficult math problems as they could during a set period of time. After periodic measurements of hormones in their saliva, as well as PET scans, the researchers discovered that students experienced a spike in dopamine levels while completing the stressful math task. Sounds like a typical day in Calculus for some of us, right? However, when we are put under this kind of pressure, we are rewarded with a feeling of euphoria and increased motivation. Because of this, we are more likely to crave the feeling again and again, which can lead to a literal stress addiction.
Does this mean you’re in trouble if your life resembles Anne Hathaway’s in The Devil Wear Prada, agenda bursting at the seams every week? Not necessarily. Dr. Heidi Hanna, Executive Director of The American Institute of Stress, states that manageable, everyday stress can actually be good for us, and that “we don’t want a world without stress, because we need that stimulation for growth.” It is when this stress becomes addictive in a negative way that the danger arises.
When chronic, unmanaged stress becomes an addiction, it leads to a plethora of health issues. Constant high stress levels not only cause dopamine to be released in the body, but also the hormone cortisol from the adrenal glands, which can cause deficiencies in learning and memory, lower immune function, increased weight gain, heightened blood pressure, as well as mental illnesses down the road. Hanna points out that “stress is only beneficial if our bodies have the resilience to manage it.” So if you feel like you may be going down the path to becoming a stress addict (and not in the go-getter, Leslie Knope kind of way), it is important for you as an individual to know your own limits, take a deep breath, and dial things back a bit before your stress becomes too much to handle.
Savanah Jackle is an undergraduate student studying Biological Engineering with an emphasis in biomedical engineering at the University of Georgia. In addition to her studies, Savanah loves working with elementary school children to teach them about STEM concepts. With her education and training, she would like to go into either medical machine design or the prosthetics industry, and also continue her work in encouraging young women to pursue careers in engineering. If she’s not hanging out in Driftmier Engineering Center, you can find Savanah hiking outside or trying hopelessly to keep up with her crazy beagle, Olive. And no, that’s not a typo. She really spells her name with one “n.” You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with her on Twitter. More from Savanah Jackle.