You Might Be Choosing Your Anxiety, Because You Might Be Addicted to It

I hung out with some friends on Friday night, and we discussed the fact that a person can be addicted to anxiety. More correctly, they can become addicted to the adrenaline released during a bout of anxiety. I decided to do a little reading about this today.

When we feel anxious, our adrenal glands release adrenaline into the bloodstream. The adrenaline then cycles through the body, activating the fight or flight response.

In the human fight or flight response in prehistoric times, fight was manifested in aggressive, combative behaviour and flight was manifested by fleeing potentially threatening situations, such as being confronted by a predator. In current times, these responses persist, but fight and flight responses have assumed a wider range of behaviours. For example, the fight response may be manifested in angry, argumentative behaviour, and the flight response may be manifested through social withdrawal, substance abuse, and even television viewing. -H. S. Friedman
This leads to many physical symptoms: heart rate increases, digestion slows or stops, blood vessels dilate, and much more. We tend to think more clearly when this happens, which is one reason for becoming addicted to this adrenaline rush. With our body in this state, we'd be able to deal best with real threats to our lives, but in the vast majority of cases when the fight or flight response is activated, it's completely unnecessary. We aren't fighting for survival. We aren't running from a predator. We aren't protecting our young from hunters. We are usually just freaking out for no easily-discernible reason.

The continual activation of the fight or flight response through the release of adrenaline can be hard on the body over time, leading to adrenal malfunction, high blood pressure, risk of stroke, and a myriad of other conditions. In the short term, it can cause digestive problems, heartburn, gas, headaches, heart palpitations, insomnia, other sleep disturbances, mood swings, aggression or even social isolation, and so on.

Adrenaline is one of the most addictive drugs on the planet. Like people addicted to illegal substances, adrenaline addicts crave their next "high" and become agitated, panicked, or scared if they don't get it. Some will unconsciously create anxiety-producing events in their lives to get their fix OR they will overemphasize problems in their lives, turning them into full blown catastrophes in order to feel that rush of adrenaline once again. For major adrenaline junkies, this can be a daily occurrence.

Adrenaline is often released during exercise (usually in high to very high intensity workouts), too, just like in bouts of anxiety, but it's quite a bit different. The adrenaline is useful during heavy exercise to carry the body through to the end of the workout. Most importantly, the energy is going somewhere!

During bouts of psychological anxiety, on the other hand, the energy makes the vessels dilate, the heart beat too fast and sometimes skip beats, and all manner of other physical manifestations, but this energy is not released through physical movement. It's simply left to wreak havoc on the body.

Here are some ways to overcome anxiety (or adrenaline) addiction, adapted from a list by Dr. Judith Orloff:
  1. Reduce caffeine, sugar, and other stimulants. These things fuel adrenaline, taking bouts of anxiety to the next level.
  2. Avoid people who reinforce your anxiety, whom Orloff calls "emotional vampires".
  3. Stay away from disturbing newscasts or films, the Internet, or other stressful or stimulating activities, especially right before bed.
  4. Set healthy, reasonable personal limits and boundaries, and allow yourself to say NO to stress-inducing people and situations.
  5. Do not do anything when gripped by anxiety, whether it's having a conversation, sending an email, posting on Facebook, or making an important life decision. Breathe deeply and calm down before doing these things.
  6. Practice relaxation techniques and/or meditation on a daily basis. Work it into your routine.
  7. Focus on solutions to problems, instead of focusing on how terrible everything is. 
If you aren't able to break your adrenaline addiction, find a good therapist who is not quick to throw pills at you for anxiety issues. There are some medical conditions that create or exacerbate anxiety, so it's also a good idea to see a doctor if anxiety persists.