Abstract, diptych image of a woman in red and blue light

During the U.S. election I doom-scrolled so hard that at one point, I reached out of the shower to pick up my phone.

Yes, I’m embarrassed to admit this.

It’s just that the memes were so on point and the drama so spectacular and frankly, so stress-inducing, that I couldn’t look away. What if I missed something good? Something world-changing? Something vital?

Twitter became my first impulse in the morning and the last thing I saw at night.

I needed the whole of the internet inside my brain. I couldn’t miss a thing.

But reader, I wasn’t addicted to the information—I was addicted to the stress.

Stress and dopamine go hand-in-hand

Did you know that stress releases dopamine?

A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2004 found ‘significant dopamine release’ in healthy people who were facing an ‘aversive stressful task.’

This makes sense when you consider that dopamine isn’t a reward signal. It’s more like a green light that says yes, go forward, approach. More please!

As with any addiction, your body becomes habituated to the chemical response of stress, and over time, will require more of it.

This can very quickly spiral into the unhealthy levels of stress that impair logical thinking and even lead to physical issues.

Are you addicted to stress?

Awareness of the problem is key. Here are three indicators that you might be addicted to stress:

1. You’re scrolling compulsively.

Like me, you find yourself endlessly refreshing the feed, and even hopping from one feed to another, looking for another hit. You get stuck in endless loops on your phone, switching from app to app and unable to put it down, even though you have things to do.

2. Your to-do list is endless, and it’s all important.

We all have a lot to do—but if you’re a stress addict, you’re not using discernment when defining your daily tasks. Rather than prioritizing what really needs doing on a given day, you pile on project-sized items that could each take days to complete. You feel that you should be able to get all these things done, if you’re simply organized enough, and it’s hard for you to give anything up. You’re disappointed in yourself when things rolls over to the next day.

3. You need to respond to every message ASAP.

Alllll the notifications are enabled on all of your devices. When a new email or Slack message comes in, you know it. You can’t ignore it. Unread indicators are like an uncomfortable itch you just need to scratch. If you don’t respond right away, you’ll let people down. You’ll look like a slacker. You’ll feel irresponsible. Just like the to-do list, every communication feels important and even urgent.

Find your tell

Plainly, the world we’re living in is conducive to stress. To fight your addiction will be a long swim upstream. But it’s doable. There is a better way.

Start by identifying your ‘tell’: one key indicator that signals to you you’re in a stress loop. You might witness yourself engaging in one of the behaviors I’ve listed. Often, there’s a physical component.

When you’re stuck, do you tense up? Are your shoulders hunched up to your ears? Is your breathing constricted? Can you feel tightness in your chest?

Just notice this. Each time you do, take a deep, diaphragmatic breath to soften and reset.

Over time, you can build better behaviors. But always, your ability to course-correct lies in your ability to notice when you’ve strayed off track.