I’m a recovering addict. Until I saw the light, I was a workaholic, burning the candle at both ends and sometimes in the middle too. I loved my job, but unknown to me, I was falling prey to a dangerous dependency: adrenaline.
As an elementary school principal, long hours came with the territory. I thought nothing of putting in 10-hours in school, then doing more when I got home each evening. Most of my weekend time was spent working too — a heavy teaching commitment, in addition to my leadership role, demanded many hours of my time. I loved seeing my pupils thrive, but I didn’t realize the toll it was taking on my health.
Eventually, I suffered burnout. So in 2011, I decided to leave education and take my life in a different direction. I thought I’d be happy and relaxed, but instead I fell into depression and anxiety. If I’d known then what I know now, it would have come as no surprise. I was experiencing the classic symptoms of adrenaline addiction and withdrawal.
Adrenaline is a powerful hormone which kicks our bodies into action when we sense danger or we’re preparing for a challenging experience. It’s that buzz you get when you’re about to ski down a black run or bungee off a high bridge. Of course, we need this boost in genuinely dangerous situations, so we can react quickly to save ourselves. But left unchecked, it can have serious consequences.
With an adrenaline rush, heart rate accelerates and our blood flow increases. There are changes to other metabolic processes such as our digestion. And because ‘feel-good’ endorphins are released at the same time, we feel full of energy and empowered to tackle anything.
We commonly think of adrenaline junkies as those hardy souls who love extreme sports, become ultra-marathon runners, or climb sheer mountain faces without the aid of ropes. But adrenaline dependency can affect people in all walk of life. High achievers in the workplace are often just as addicted to adrenaline as extreme sport enthusiasts — we just don’t recognize that the symptoms are more subtle.
Of course, adrenaline be helpful when we’ve a deadline looming, but over time our bodies get too used to this beguiling feeling. Like any other drug, we need ever-increasing amounts of it to produce the desired boost. And eventually, this has a negative impact on our health, leading to symptoms such as poor sleep patterns, panic attacks, headaches, heart disease, digestive problems, and more.
So what happens when we stop? Like any other addiction, we suffer from withdrawal. Science has shown that rock climbers often suffer classic withdrawal symptoms, similar to those experienced when withdrawing form substance abuse. These can include anger, mood swings, lethargy and depression. It’s no surprise that I crashed and burned when I stopped working flat out — in fact, it was almost inevitable.
And like any other addiction, breaking the dependency can take a long time, perhaps even a lifetime. To have the best chance of success, it’s critical to embrace a lifestyle that curbs our need for a constant ‘high’, and ensures we switch off regularly.
Establishing habits such as exercising regularly (helping ‘burn off’ our pent-up energy), meditating, switching off from our devices, and learning to appreciate living in the present moment, are all ways we can learn to live at a sustainable level.
It’s not about trying to achieve the holy grail of a good work / life balance. It’s about changing the way we live every aspect of our lives.
‘Thrive Global is based on the truth that work and life, well-being and productivity, are not on opposite sides — so they don’t need to be balanced. They’re on the same side, and rise in tandem. Increase one and you increase the other.’ Arianna Huffington
So I’m trying to practice what I preach. I’m devoting time to my mental health and wellbeing. I try to exercise regularly, practice mindful meditation, nurture my spirituality, and uncouple from my devices mid-evening. Some days I still catch myself striving to over-achieve or setting unnecessary personal deadlines. But I’ve begun the journey.
How about you? Do you recognize the symptoms of adrenaline addiction? What strategies do you use to live a balanced life?
Originally published at medium.com