“How are you?” my friend asked me on the phone.
“Busy,” I replied.
“What else is new?” he laughed. “Ever since we roomed together in college I’ve admired how disciplined and productive you are.”
Years later, I still think about that exchange. Although it was opposite of my friend’s intention, I realized then that I was too busy. Like so many people in our culture, I was relying on adrenaline to keep up. Since then I’ve been learning to stop rushing around doing “urgent” things, slow down, get in tune with my soul, and interact more with God and other people.
It’s all in the Adrenaline
Archibald Hart, author of The Hidden Link Between Adrenaline and Stress, believes that “adrenaline dependence” has become the greatest addiction problem in America today. We can become “hooked” on the energy, pleasure, and confidence that come when the body’s stress hormones – primarily adrenaline and cortisol – are released in emergencies. We see this problem in many pastors and ministry leaders that we work with.
God has designed our bodies wonderfully and it is a great gift that we have this instinctive, adrenal “fight or flight” response to danger that infuses us with vitality and well-being.
Adrenaline alerts us to grab our child’s hand at the curb when a car races by. It gives us confidence when we are giving a big presentation. It energizes us when we need to overcome a challenge or work through a stressful conflict. It cushions us when we get bad news. We need adrenaline to handle real life emergencies like these.
But it’s a problem for us when we live our lives in a continual state of urgency, viewing daily stresses as emergencies. Perhaps you relate to one or more of these common examples of being “keyed up” with adrenaline:
- Hurrying from one thing to the next, each more “imperative” than the last.
- Doing two or three things at once to save time.
- Jump starting ourselves with caffeine (an adrenaline stimulant) to get going in the morning, to stay alert in the afternoon, or to get psyched up before a meeting.
- Passing cars on the freeway.
- Counting people’s items in the “short order” grocery line.
- Thinking about what we else have to do when someone is talking to us.
- Working hard even into the late evening hours.
- Grinding our teeth at night as we worry about all that we didn’t get done!
Why Depend on Adrenaline?
Why do we depend on adrenaline? For help managing life. That’s the short answer.
Many business people rely on adrenaline to get through their 50-hour workweek.
Even parents may depend on it to deal with their children and get them from one activity to the next.
Students who go to classes and work all day and then study late into the night use it to stay alert while depriving themselves of sleep.
It seems like we have so much we have to do and our society is changing so fast — we feel we must get keyed up to keep up!
Besides, everyone else is doing it, aren’t they? Doesn’t everyone rely on coffee or other caffeinated drinks to stay in top form? Isn’t it normal to live in a hurry going from one pressure to the next? To feel that you have too much to do? Indeed, it seems that way.
The fast-paced, super-productive, determined life of those who rely on adrenaline is not only socially acceptable, it’s admired and rewarded in our society, perhaps especially so amongst pastors and ministry leaders. Certainly, this reinforcement of other people around us is another reason why we depend on adrenaline.
But I think the most important reason why so many people get hooked on adrenaline is simply because it feels good! And without it they don’t feel good.
Like people struggling with other types of compulsive behaviors, adrenaline addicts usually have an underlying depression (to some degree). Without adrenaline flowing they’d feel empty inside. They may feel inadequate or insignificant if they’re not achieving success. So they keep getting keyed up. They may feel a need to keep finding something new, challenging, or exciting to get themselves stimulated. (“How about bungie jumping?) They take on more responsibility and more pressure and they hurry to get more done. More! More! More!
Without realizing it, they keep calling up adrenaline to help them feel alive and important.
Are You Depending on Adrenaline?
As I illustrated at the start of this article, I am an adrenaline addict in recovery.
My name, “William,” (“Will I Am!”) actually means, “determined.” Sometimes it seems as if I have been programmed to be productive, hurried, and intense.
Fortunately, I’ve gotten help. I’m still in process and have to watch myself closely, but I’ve learned some things about replacing adrenaline dependence with Jesus who cares for my soul. And I’ve had the opportunity to help other “junkies” step off the treadmill of a hurried life and onto the path of a soul-full life. So if I’m hitting a nerve for you, keep reading.
The first step to recovery from any compulsion is admitting to your problem.
And the best way to spot it if you (or someone you’re concerned about) is an adrenaline depender is to understand what you’re like when you’re not running your life at a fast pace. When adrenaline addicts slow down they are not happy. So they try not to slow down!
When people who go through their typical day all keyed up relax — say on weekends, in the evening before bed, or on vacation — they experience withdrawal symptoms like these:
- A compulsion to get busy, be more productive, or be stimulated with noise or activity
- Emptiness, boredom, and depressed mood
- Feelings of guilt about being idle
- Irritability or loss of temper
- Worrying about work that needs to be done
- Fidgetiness or restlessness (e.g., pacing, finger or foot tapping, fast gum chewing)
- Utter exhaustion
You can take our Adrenaline Test to see where you’re at with depending on adrenaline.
The Price of a Hurried Life
Living under the pressure of urgency or being keyed up is costly.
In addition to experiencing the periodic unpleasant withdrawal symptoms described above, people who live with adrenaline surging through their bodies regularly suffer from things like anxiety, rapid heartbeats, headaches, backaches, gastric distress, and sleep problems. And they dramatically increase their risk of stress-related illnesses ranging from viruses and ulcers to heart disease and cancer.
I think that the most serious consequence of an adrenaline-driven lifestyle (one with eternal significance) is that it crowds out God. You become a “human-doing” instead of a human being. Life is lacking in the things that are most enjoyable and meaningful: loving relationships, delightful experiences, creative expression, passionate pursuits, and spirituality. God may seem distant and unconcerned or even like he’s driving you to work harder.
More Sleep, Less Adrenaline
Recently I read an excerpt from Rest: Experiencing God’s Peace in a Restless World, a book by Siang-Yang Tan, Ph.D. The article on Crosswalk.com caught my attention because the title was “Go to Bed.”
Go to Bed? I thought. Like most workaholics and adrenaline junkies I’m used to thinking things like, “Sleep Less, Accomplish More” or “How to Get More Done in Less Time,” but not “Go to Bed!”
Dr. Tan is right though. A recent poll by the National Sleep Foundation (Yes, such an organization does exist!) found that 63% of Americans sleep less than eight hours a night during the week, with 35% sleeping less than seven hours.
Tan cited a study, which showed that when people were given the opportunity to sleep as much as they wanted they slept an average of 8 ½ hours, and they reported feeling happier and more energetic. I believe this is because sleep is one of the vital ways that we need to rejuvenate our bodies and minds from the stresses and adrenaline surges of the day.
You see, you can’t live without some adrenaline. It’s appropriate and good for you to draw on adrenaline in times of true emergency or in order to tackle a very important challenge.
The critical issue is that you come down from times of stimulation and intensity. You need a recovery period so that you can rest and recuperate your body and mind. This means times of relaxation during your day, as well as regular vacations to really “get away.”
Let me share an example. One of the ways I like to unwind from the stresses of a typical day is to go in the Jacuzzi with my wife Kristi. It’s so refreshing to sit in the spa, feel the heat and pulsating bubbles, enjoy the flowers in our garden, and talk. It seems I can feel the adrenaline drain from my body! Not only does this help me to de-stress, but also it helps me to get ready for a good night’s sleep. That is so much more restful than catching up on all my e-mail!
If you’re having trouble relaxing and getting to sleep or you’re not waking up feeling refreshed then consider Dr. Tan’s advice (I’ve added some of my own thoughts too) on how to sleep well. This advice also applies to getting free from adrenaline dependence!
- Allow yourself enough sleep each night, ideally 8 hours (or more!)
- Avoid adrenaline stimulating activities in the evening (e.g., pressure, busyness, excitement, noise)
- Turn off your TV, computer, and smart phone earlier in the evening
- Turn down the lights in the evening to trigger production of melatonin, a hormone for sleep
- Stay away from caffeine, spicy foods, and sweets in the evening
- Take some time in the evening to relax, do nothing, or enjoy something that is soothing
- Go to bed and get up at the same time each day
- Unclutter your mind before going to bed by verbalizing your thoughts and feelings to a friend, to God in prayer, or to yourself by journaling
- Use relaxation techniques like slow, deep breathing and meditation on Scripture
- Exercise regularly
- If you awake in the night try to stay in bed and relax
- Avoid long-term use of sleeping pills
Rest in God’s Care
Rest is so important that it’s part of the 4th commandment to remember the Sabbath. The Sabbath connects rest with worship (Exodus 34:21). Sabbath is Praying and Playing.
Even many Christians ignore this commandment (except that they may go to church) by rationalizing that Jesus undid it. That’s not true! Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it! (Matthew 5:17) He removed the legalism that the religious leaders added to the Sabbath so that people could do things like feed themselves and their animals and care for those in need without the imposition of silly restrictions.
And Jesus taught that he was Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8) and that the Sabbath was made for man’s benefit, not the reverse (Mark 2:27).
As the writer of Hebrews wrote, “There remains, then, a Sabbath rest for the people of God… Therefore make every effort to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:9,11). Today we need this Sabbath rest more than ever!
Was Getting Rest a Problem in Jesus’ Day?
In the first century it seems that rest was more a part of people’s lives, certainly that of Jesus and the apostles. No business or work was done on the Sabbath.
Worship and meditation on Scripture were regularly part of most people’s lives. Without electricity, their activity and work were more in sync with sunlight, leaving the evenings for relaxing and nighttime for sleeping more hours (as recently as 1850 people slept 9 ½ hours per night!). Instead of speeding down roads and freeways they walked most places they went. Families and communities were more connected. Meals were lingered over. Information was limited, as it was passed on mostly through word of mouth.
And yet, even 2,000 years ago people needed to be urged to, “Make every effort to enter [God’s] rest” (Hebrews 4:11).
We need to “work” at caring for our souls. This includes practicing healthy lifestyle habits like remembering the Sabbath, getting enough sleep, exercising, relaxing in the evenings, enjoying restful meals with family and friends, and limiting the barrage of information the intrudes in our space each day – all things that were more naturally a part of life even just 100 years ago.
Unhurried Soul Rest
The goal, not only for people with “hurry sickness”, but for everyone is to live with our souls at rest in God as we do all that we do. You can learn The Secret of Jesus’ Easy Yoke. In Matthew 11:28-30 the Lord invites us:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Relying on God’s mercy and grace to us through Jesus is opposite of the adrenaline-driven life. We learn to stop trying to control our lives and make things work out. We work at not letting other people or things control our lives too. Instead, we go to God (and His ambassadors in the Body of Christ as Paul teaches in 2 Corinthians 5:20). He gives us love and blessings and we receive. He gives us dreams and directions and we follow.
As Paul wrote, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). To have our being in God is a matter of growing our faith by putting our trust in God and practicing Spiritual Disciplines to get ourselves in the position to rest in God and respond to Him.
Now is the Time to Be Still
What is the key to overcoming adrenaline dependence and relying God? Loving the Lord who loved us first. (Matthew 22:37, 1 John 4:19) When I still my soul and open myself up to God I sense His presence and peace which is far more wonderful than adrenaline!
- I see His beauty in the flowers.
- I hear His song in the birds.
- I experience His comfort in a friend.
- I read the Bible as His words to me.
- I feel the honor of doing His work in caring for those in need.
It begins with cultivating a quietness inside my soul, which doesn’t come naturally for workaholics and adrenaline addicts! I have learned, as the verse from Hebrews above implores us, I have to “make every effort to enter God’s rest.” I have to hurry up and be still. Yes, God is inviting us, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
Why the hurry to be unhurried? Because the only moment to experience God’s favor is right now (2 Corinthians 6:2) and it so quickly passes by in a blur of worries, pressures, and busyness. Resting in God’s care right now is life’s one vital emergency with eternal consequences and it’s the only one that doesn’t rely on adrenaline! If there is anything in life to be in a “hurry” about then that’s it!
You Can’t Hurry the Soul
Dr. John Ortberg, in his article “Taking Care of Busyness” (Leadership Magazine, Fall 1998) wrote about a conversation he had with his mentor Dallas Willard that changed the course of his life and ministry:
Not long after moving to Chicago, I called a wise friend to ask for some spiritual direction. I described the pace of life in my current ministry.
The church where I serve tends to move at a fast clip. I also told him about our rhythms of family life: we are in the van-driving, soccer-league, piano-lesson, school-orientation-night years.
I told him about the present condition of my heart, as best I could discern it. What did I need to do, I asked him, to be spiritually healthy?
“You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life,” he said at last.
Another long pause.
“Okay, I’ve written that one down,” I told him, a little impatiently. “That’s a good one. Now what else is there?” I had many things to do, and this was a long-distance call, so I was anxious to cram as many units of spiritual wisdom into the least amount of time possible.
Another long pause.
“There is nothing else,” he said. “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”
Ruthlessly Eliminate Hurry. Imagine following Dallas Willard’s advice. What would your life look like if you were unhurried?
You’d accomplish less. You’d feel less important. You might miss the buzz adrenaline gives. You might even have to work through some symptoms of depression associated with adrenaline withdrawal.
But you’d have opportunity to develop a more soul-full life! You could invest more time and energy in your relationships with God, others, and yourself. You could focus on becoming the person God has created you to be, enjoying His blessings, and sharing His love with others.
Come to Jesus. Learn to Be Still as the Lake at Dawn. The peace of the Lord will come flooding into your soul.