Addicted to Success?


Recently I wrote an article about how trauma can cause some to harbor fears of success that keep them from achieving what they want and are capable of. On the other end of the spectrum lies those who need the adrenaline rush or have become "addicted" to the stimulation that comes with the stress of trying to excessively achieve high goals.

In the words of Patrick Lencioni in his wonderful essay "The Painful Reality of Adrenaline Addiction"1, "Executives with adrenaline addiction are the ones always pecking away at their Blackberries during meetings, talking on their cell phones during every five-minute break from those meetings, and checking e-mail late at night. They go from meeting to meeting to meeting with no time in between for reflection or thought. Always overwhelmed, adrenaline junkies seem to have a constant need for urgency, even panic, to get them through the day. They cannot grasp the race driver's motto: you have to slow down to go fast. Instead, they keep their foot on the pedal at full throttle, convinced that any deceleration is lost opportunity."

You probably know someone like this in your own life. Perhaps you even are that person. You can acknowledge that your schedule is chaotic and that your attempts to do many things at once often result in stress and an unhealthy lack of balance in your life; you claim to want more "down time," but you are not willing to let go of the momentum that feels comfortable to you at this point. Does this sound familiar?

There are many reasons one may be constantly unsatisfied with their achievements and always strive to accomplish more. However, as a psychologist specializing in treating clients with a history of trauma, I have found that those sorts of behaviors can be rooted in unconscious biochemical systems of the brain, and that these patients are subconsciously compelled to seek out adrenaline producing activities. Although it seems counterintuitive that one who has undergone a traumatic event would subconsciously recreate similar sorts of sensations, there are several theories for why this might be true.

Some trauma experts speculate that a person who has experienced a fight/flight/freeze response (for instance, during a traumatic event) may have gotten stuck in that reactive physiological response without ever actually "moving through it." At the time the trauma occurred, the person's nervous system became highly activated, but the "activation energy" was stored in the body rather than dispersed. That person then became stuck in a loop of constantly seeking out the feeling of an adrenaline rush as a way to re-visit the activation energy and, ideally, complete the traumatic event.

Another reason for this sort of adrenaline-seeking behavior could be that a person is "stuck." The purpose of adrenaline is to prepare someone for a potential trauma event-an automatic self-protective response-in order to ensure safety. Adrenaline serves to keep that person alert and ready. For those who seek out adrenaline-inducing circumstances, it's possible that their body does not realize that the danger is over, and therefore keeps wanting to produce more adrenaline. It is like having a full gas tank in order to be ready for a long journey; our body wants to have an "adrenaline reserve." Unfortunately, the tank never gets full, so we have to keep producing more and more adrenaline. This physiological stress response may impact our behavior.

Additionally, adrenaline has a stimulating effect on the body not unlike cocaine or other "upper" drugs. During a traumatic experience, endorphins are released in the body. Endorphins are "endogenous morphine" and are thus highly effective painkillers-numbing physical pain and emotional pain too. And of course, morphine is a highly addictive drug. Considering this, it's not shocking that adrenaline could be addictive as well. Dr. Robert Scaer, a neurologist looking at trauma, notes that the "reward from endorphins in arousal may well contribute to the peculiar tendency for trauma reenactment in PTSD."

We've all experienced an adrenaline rush at one point or another. It's the feeling you get when you realize that you are in danger-perhaps you almost got hit by a car, or narrowly escaped falling from a height. Symptoms of adrenaline rush include an increased heart rate, a surge of strength and energy, heavier/faster breathing, enhanced senses (especially vision and hearing), and a numb feeling in the body.

When adrenaline rush is coupled with the experience of habitually succeeding or excelling while operating in a stress-filled way, it becomes apparent how one might seek to constantly perpetuate that sort of behavior.

Adrenaline addiction can be very difficult to conquer. As Lencioni says, "Unlike other addicts whose behaviors are socially frowned-upon, adrenaline addicts are often praised for their frantic activity, even promoted for it during their careers."1

It is important to work with your nervous system so that it can go back to its balanced function. This can be done with any Somatic Experiencing Practitioner who is trained to work with trauma. Additionally, there are great adrenaline addiction resources that offer 12-step programs to help conquer the addiction to adrenaline-fueled success.


  1. Patrick Lencioni, president of The Table Group, "The Painful Reality of Adrenaline Addiction",

First published on Psychology Today.