Can stress be addictive?

If you're constantly stressed, understanding what is meant by 'healthy selfishness' can be useful, says Priory expert

Life can load up with stress, and feel like the norm to many. But becoming addicted to the stress of ‘doing it all’ can lead to burnout and ill-health.

Stress 'addiction' can be defined as always needing to feel on the go, never relaxing and never being aware of the potential consequences. Hormones such as cortisol and dopamine play their part, with cortisol being the ‘stress’ hormone. If you're used to living with stress, it can become a ‘place’ you feel more comfortable in, even if it's bad for you. But cortisol, which increases in the body as part of the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response, can be harmful at high levels.

The antidote could be a concept called ‘healthy selfishness’ which focuses on having firm boundaries that enable you to prioritise yourself, your health and your emotions first, before attending to others – investing in yourself so you focus on your own needs in a healthy way, rather than being selfless in an unhealthy way.

Debbie Longsdale, Priory Psychotherapist and Therapy Director (Private, Wellbeing and Digital), explains:

How would you describe 'healthy selfishness'? 

“The American psychologist, Scott Barry Kaufman, defines healthy selfishness as “having a healthy respect for your own health, growth, happiness, joy and freedom” and those things are important. It’s about not getting constantly lost in a thick undergrowth of tasks that end up overwhelming you. It’s working out how you function at your best. Once you are doing that, everything follows. If you get caught up in everyone else’s must-haves or must-dos, you are going to be overwhelmed and operating sub-par most of the time. Healthy selfishness is not about ‘me, me, me’ but ‘me prioritising myself so I can be better for you’. The ‘you’ could be your children, your partner or whoever is in your circle at Christmas. You need to carve out time for yourself, otherwise this time of year easily becomes one of fatigue, resentment, and overload – tipping into anxiety, stress and depression. We need to stop thinking we are somehow succeeding by being all things to all people. It’s impossible. By making the best of ourselves, we offer others the best we can give them.


“Kaufman talks about putting boundaries around yourself so people don’t take advantage and that by focusing on your own needs, you can help others too. For me, this is about bringing your best self to the table - and you simply can’t do that without boundaries. Learn to say ‘no’. All of us know our strengths, weaknesses and capacity levels. Do you need to say no to your daughter or son when they ask you again if you would just mind babysitting or child-minding this weekend? Say it. Do you want to have the time to go on that walk or read that newspaper on your own with a cup of tea, or see that play? Do it. Do you need to have a Sunday where you switch off your mobile? Do you want to read a book or watch a film undisturbed because that is when you find your equilibrium and calm your thoughts? Whatever they are, boundaries need to be in place. Many of us lose our boundaries, whether they are related to time, money or space, to significant personal detriment.

Ditch expectations

“We frequently need to abandon what society thinks we are ‘supposed’ to do, and ditch some of the learned traditions within families. It’s often expectations of maintaining these that cause huge distress or unhappiness: the 2-hour drive to relatives on Christmas Day, the massive meal round the table when we could have pre-ordered food and all the children just want to do is play. There’s always a new way to look at, or do, things. Shake it up and see what comes. COVID upended everything for all of us and taught us new ways of doing things – some good, some less so. But it’s a lesson for us all. There are always new ways of approaching a situation and doing things differently.

Stop suppressing emotions

"If we suppress thoughts and emotions, they have a tendency to come back with a vengeance; our bucket of stress builds up and overfills, hence the family Christmas arguments. Take time to process your thoughts alone and make peace with them, and then step back. Re-evaluate your time and priorities and make them clear. Say how you feel but not in the heat of the moment. Choose a calm time and articulate clearly what you are thinking and look for empathy. Clarify your expectations. You might be surprised that your partner and loved ones have similar emotions, or would like to express theirs, and you can work out a compromise. And stop the guilt. None of us should feel guilty if we are doing the best we can, in the best way we know how. Priory, which has seen a 55% increase in the numbers seeking help for stress or anxiety, has a free mental health app, My Possible Self, which I use for working through emotions like anxiety, anger, frustration and grief.

Make an ‘I need’ list

"You can keep it to yourself but an ‘I need’ list is as important as a gratitude list and the two can run together. Do you need more time to focus on your health and wealth? Do you want to see more of your friends in 2023 or travel more, including on your own? Do you see volunteering as a key to reminding yourself of what matters to you and in life? Do you want to reconsider who you are and where you are heading? Being selfish here can give you a far greater insight into your relationship with yourself, your partner, your children, your job and your retirement. It’s great to help others. It makes us feel useful and part of the communities that we work and live in. But try using a daily mantra such as ‘I deserve to be happy too’, or ‘I deserve to be important too’. There is a relevant ancient Chinese proverb here: ‘Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.’

Don’t depend on others for your happiness

"This is critical. Ultimately you have to be responsible for your own happiness. If you depend on others, you can’t ever be sure of whether you will be happy or not at any time of the day. Learning to enjoy time on your own is one of the most important lessons we can learn. You might find this time when you are wandering around a store, or in a coffee shop, or in your garden. It might be when you are listening to music or exercising or walking the dog. Find your sweet spot and relish it. It will do more for your physical and mental health than you can possibly imagine. Avoid the temptation to dwell excessively on past events, or try and predict the future. Breathing exercises, mindfulness and meditation can help with this. Focus on things that are within your immediate control. Keeping a routine and structure can help to boost your wellbeing. Accept that the future is uncertain and allow yourself to feel confident that you can cope with whatever comes up, or know how to get help. Notice when you are becoming preoccupied with negative thinking and on a downward spiral. Use simple techniques to reframe your thinking by recognising these thoughts, challenging them and replacing them with others. Some refer to this as ‘catch it, check it and change it’. And importantly, avoid social media feeds.”



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About Priory and MEDIAN

Priory is the UK’s leading independent provider of mental health services. We treat more than 70 conditions, including depression, anxiety, addictions, and eating disorders, as well as children’s mental health, across our nationwide network of sites. We also support autistic adults, people with a learning disability, as well as older people, as a leading provider of specialist residential care and supported living – helping as many people as possible to live their lives.

Priory is part of MEDIAN, one of Europe’s leading providers of high quality mental health and medical rehabilitative services. Overall there are 427 facilities in the MEDIAN Group, comprising 306 Priory facilities with 5,352 beds in the UK, and 121 facilities and 19,200 beds in Germany, caring for around 260,000 people, with 35,000 employees.

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