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, 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. In the gaps between work, when there is actual time for rest and leisure, the wild animal of my anxiety still scrabbles inside me. While there are no formal Twelve Step programs for workaholics, the key to recovery is not much different than in other forms of addiction.
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