Workaholism helps me keep anxiety at bay. Now I’m trying to break the addiction

Some of us work too hard because it gives us a rush.
Some of us work too hard because it gives us a rush.
Image: AP Photo/Koji Sasahara
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Americans have a long history of loving workaholics. We revere entrepreneurs who put in 80-hour weeks and artists who toil into the wee hours. Indeed, for much of my life, I interpreted being overworked as a badge of honor. Now, in my 40s, I’m trying to unlearn that lesson.

In my 20s, there was no greater compliment than the people who asked me, “How do you do it all?” Indeed, how did I hold my full-time job, produce a volunteer radio show, host a weekly literary salon, attend a graduate writing program, and write fiction in the wee hours, all while still being a wife and friend? Simply put: work was my drug. Or more accurately put, work was my attempt at self-medication.

Working that hard kept the furious, roiling anxiety at bay that I’ve struggled with my whole life, the result of facing daily uncertainty and lack of safety growing up in an alcoholic home. Its percussive beat behind my breastbone was only ever quieted by one thing: working more. And more. And more. A cycle that repeated over and over. Anxiety, then work, then relief, repeat.

Psychiatrist Gail Saltz, host of the Power of Different podcast, and an associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital, compares this kind of compulsive workaholism and resulting negative feedback loop to an addictive process—though of course there is no substance involved.

“First you feel obsessional about your work, that you must do it and it’s only relieved by doing. That ‘I have to’ feeling is the compulsion part of it,” Saltz says. After the relief of working more, however, comes a reinforcing behavioral feedback loop. Your underlying anxiety will once again emerge, followed by the compulsion to work.It locks into place the likelihood that you will again have that anxious feeling,” she says. Saltz notes that this kind of thinking is often a symptom of the mental health disorder obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which workaholism mirrors in many ways.

Saltz’s thoughts are supported by a new Norwegian study of 16,426 working adults, which found that workaholics were more likely to have a range of psychiatric symptoms than non-workaholics. The authors define workaholism as “being overly concerned about work, driven by an uncontrollable work motivation, and to investing so much time and effort to work that it impairs other important life areas.” Of the identified workaholics assessed in the study:

  • 7% met ADHD criteria (12.7% among non-workaholics)
  • 6% met OCD criteria (8.7% among non-workaholics)
  • 8% met anxiety criteria (11.9% among non-workaholics)
  • 9% met depression criteria (2.6% among non-workaholics).

Workaholics are more likely to lean toward anxiety-related disorders, such as OCD and ADHD, than depression, write the study authors. The tricky part is distinguishing which comes first: the psychiatric symptoms or the workaholism.

More research is necessary to determine why people with mental health issues are more likely to become workaholics. But Saltz hypothesizes that the two issues are “entangled.” “OCD [and other psychiatric disorders] often start in childhood and there’s often a genetic predisposition to it,” she says. “Addictions run in families.” Perhaps a compulsion to work is genetic, too.

For me, anxiety and depression are the seesaw on which I balance. Work is the method that provides temporary respite from the two—though in truth, it doesn’t actually relieve the underlying anxiety. There’s a definite rush that fills me when my work plate teeters too high, comparable to the buzz of a couple glasses of wine. I can feel the reward center of my brain pinging with delight.

While there are no formal Twelve Step programs for workaholics, the key to recovery is not much different from other forms of addiction. First, a person must be honest with themselves in assessing whether they are simply working hard or working compulsively. In the latter case, work is a way of avoiding other negative emotions, and often leads to physical or mental burnout.

Saltz acknowledges, however, that it can be hard for workaholics to achieve enough emotional distance to admit the issue. In that case, it may take “an outside, objective third party” such as a mental health professional to aid in changing behaviors.

Workaholism, she says, much like OCD, can also be treated with “exposure therapy,” in which a person is exposed to things they don’t want to do, thus becoming desensitized to the things they fear or avoid. For a workaholic, that might mean forcing a hard stop time at 6pm, saying no to new assignments, or never working weekends.

My own efforts to combat workaholism have been slow and steady. After writing three books in two years, along with daily articles and nightly edits, my health took hit after hit, culminating in a bout of scarlet fever—yes, people still get that!

At that point, it was clear: I simply could not continue to work at a breakneck pace without repercussions.

Under my husband and best friend’s vigilant eye, I began to employ work breaks including prolonged interruptions like going out for a yoga class. More importantly, I’ve learned to pay more attention to my body for cues that I’m taking on too much. New work—too much work, in particular—still gives me a shot of adrenaline, the feeling of all my petty human problems melting away in the rush of dopamine in my brain. I am learning to stop rewarding it.

In the gaps between work, when there is actual time for rest and leisure, the wild animal of my anxiety still scrabbles inside me. But I’m exposing that, too, to the light of day. I now attend a weekly support group that helps me break controlling behaviors, let go of things, and take better care of myself. I journal regularly to remember that I am responsible for my life and schedule, and to process anxiety that creeps in unexpectedly. And when I feel the impulse to begin a furious pitch session for new work, or just do one more hour, I’m learning to close my laptop and do the most basic work of all, instead: take deep breaths.