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Busy-holism... Stress Addiction? (originally written Oct 15, 2022)

I’ve long learned that I’m a busy-holic. It’s like a workaholic, but rather than focussed on career or actual work-related hours it’s focussed on keeping the day full of things that feel “productive” and “helpful” and make me feel good. Even really good things, like going for coffee with a friend in crisis, fall into that category because the only real defining criteria is that I had to fill up my day with more “good things” so that I could avoid painful emotions that were running so deep I didn’t realise they were there. Recently a friend of mine, PhD candidate Brendan Kwiatkowski of ReMasculate, described this emotion-avoiding defense mechanism as a “stress addiction,” and that resonated with me.

If you’ve read some of my past pieces that talk about developmental trauma might have a sense of what I have been running from. Too deep for words. Visceral and terrifying with a very literal existential terror. Interestingly, I often find myself acting out (for others’ benefit) the the types of support I unconsciously craved. Some psychologists have described this phenomena as “trying to rescue my inner child” by vicariously enjoying the relief others experience when I would “rescue” them.

Since identifying all of this, I’ve begun to intentionally slow down, physically feel my emotions, and start being my own “rescuer” rather than trying to feed off the satisfaction of others. It’s taken years of self-discipline and practice, but actually I’m starting to make visible progress. When my inner child wants to curl up in the bottom of a closet and cry (something I used to do when I was 8 years old), I let myself. In fact, I’ve emptied out the small closet in my home office and put a chunky pillow and hanging lamp in there so that I have the option. My inner child has needed validating, not pushing aside.

So what happens when someone with a stress addiction finally learns how to slow life down and enjoy a normal pace? She doesn’t know what stress looks like.

Learning to slow down initially seemed easy. The first thing I noticed was that I had breathing space and even though life felt like it was too slow (and maybe a little boring,) it was still somehow still very anxiety-inducing. Eventually the slow became familiar and I adapted. The second thing I noticed was that I would reflexively book more coffee-times with distressed friends when my own life started to get busier. Hubby was the one who pointed that pattern out (thanks sweetie!) and was a real eye-opener. While I am still drawn to that reflexive reaction, it’s become a behaviour to watch for and one of the first signs of ignoring my inner child.

Then came the tough part — my newfound awareness that I can’t actually tell what “stressed” feels like. Anxiety? Yes, I know that one. In the past, that’s what I called “stressed.” But now that life has become full again and I’m not anxious about it, I have a lot of my support people asking me “are you stressed?” I don’t know! I don’t feel stressed. I feel tired. Very tired. Constantly. My brain is tired of being awake and alert and aware. Despite having physical energy, I frequently want to sleep at 7pm because my brain is tired but my body won’t sleep longer than 8 hours and always wakes up refreshed... so “extra sleep” isn’t the answer. I was describing this strange pervasive exhaustion to hubby the other night and his response was, “Of course your brain is tired! This whole situation with work is stressful!”

Well, now I guess I know. Anxiety and worry feel very different than stress. I don’t have any anxiety or worry. I’m not getting sick. I’m just stressed. And apparently stress looks like having a very full brain and juggling a lot of things for a long time (even when you’re very skilled at juggling) and being very tired.

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