Scared Of Slowing Down? You Might Have A 'Doing Addiction'

Sometimes, keeping busy is the only way to keep ourselves calm. Here's why, and how to embrace the absence of 'doing.'

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 03, 2024

For many people, taking a break is a welcome chance to recharge and unwind. For others, the thought of slowing down can stir feelings of anxiety, fear and a sense of looming threat. This paradoxical response is especially prevalent among those grappling with "doing" addiction—a compulsive urge to stay busy to cope with underlying distress.

"Doing" addiction often traces back to difficult experiences in the past. For those affected, activities aren't just ways to pass time or achieve goals, but they are essential for managing emotional distress. Staying busy serves as a way to avoid facing painful emotions and memories directly.

Over time, this pattern becomes deeply ingrained, morphing into an addiction that offers a temporary escape from discomfort and a feeling of control in an uncertain world. Slowing down, then, feels threatening because it disengages the protective shield of constant activity, exposing individuals to the raw emotions they've been avoiding.

Several psychological factors contribute to the fear of slowing down among individuals struggling with "doing" addiction. Here are three key ones.

1. Avoidance Of Negative Emotions

Many of us use staying active as a way to protect ourselves from anxiety, sadness, anger and fear—emotions that often stem from past experiences where busy-ness was adopted as a coping strategy for emotional pain or trauma.

This constant activity acts like a protective shield, creating a psychological buffer zone that keeps these difficult feelings at bay. Whether it's through work, hobbies or socializing, staying busy helps people distract themselves from anxious thoughts, numb feelings of sadness and hide deeper fears like concerns about failure or rejection.

A 2021 research study by the School of Psychology at the University of Wollongong in Australia reiterates that people experiencing chronic feelings of emptiness—a sense of disconnection from oneself and others, often accompanied by a pervasive numbness—often turn to impulsive actions or adaptive behaviors to cope.

However, when they attempt to slow down, suppressed emotions suddenly come rushing to the surface. The stillness gives pent-up feelings a chance to emerge, potentially intensifying distress. This sudden rush of repressed emotions can be overwhelming, catching one off guard. Without usual distractions, one may feel unprepared to confront these emotions and lack alternative coping strategies. The unfamiliarity of facing these feelings can evoke fear, triggering worries about losing control or dredging up painful memories.

2. Loss Of Control

Constantly staying busy is often co-opted by individuals as a gateway to a sense of control and stability in their lives, especially when they've experienced chaos or trauma, as noted in an article by Newport Institute on toxic productivity as a response to past trauma.

This coping mechanism typically arises in environments where unpredictability feels overwhelming and unsafe. By filling their days with tasks and routines, people create a sense of order and stability that helps them manage anxiety and fears.

However, when the idea of slowing down is introduced, it disrupts this carefully crafted sense of control, leaving them feeling vulnerable and exposed to the uncertainties they worked so hard to avoid. Transitioning from constant activity to a slower pace often presents challenges, including navigating unfamiliar uncertainties, grappling with feelings of helplessness and feeling uneasy with unstructured time. This shift can worsen mental health issues, leading to burnout, impeding emotional growth and, ironically, heightening anxiety over time.

3. Self-Worth Tied To Productivity

When someone's sense of value hinges entirely on accomplishments, the notion of slowing down becomes unsettling, challenging their self-esteem and core identity. Cultural norms that celebrate relentless achievement, parental expectations centered on success and personal milestones attained through hard work all contribute to this perspective.

Encouraged to embrace a slower pace, they often grapple with deep-seated fears of falling short, concerns about others' judgment and an existential crisis about who they are beyond productivity. This unyielding pursuit of productivity can lead to burnout, exacerbate mental health issues like anxiety and depression, and result in physical health problems due to neglecting self-care and rest.

If you find yourself constantly staying busy to avoid uncomfortable emotions, there are engaging strategies to help you address and manage these feelings. Here are some creative tips that can make a big difference.

1. Mindfulness In Motion

Integrating mindfulness into your daily activities can help you stay fully present and connected to the moment. Here are some practical tips:

  • Mindful gardening. Spend time in the garden, focusing on the feel of the soil, the scents of the flowers and the colors around you. Research shows that observing nature can reduce stress, fear, anger and sadness, and also lower blood pressure, pulse rate and muscle tension.
  • Doodle your thoughts. Keep a small notebook handy for doodling whenever you feel stressed or overwhelmed. Let your pen freely express your thoughts and emotions through shapes and patterns. Doodling can be a meditative practice that helps you process feelings and maintain mindfulness throughout the day.

2. Sensory Retreats

Create sensory retreats at home to cultivate calm in comforting ways such as:

  • Aromatherapy escape. Research suggests that essential oils, such as lavender, have demonstrated efficacy in alleviating symptoms of depression and anxiety through various mechanisms. Customize your aromatherapy experience with scents that resonate with you—whether it is calming lavender or invigorating citrus—to find what brings you peace and comfort.
  • Sound baths. Discover the tranquil effects of sound meditation, such as Tibetan singing bowls or gentle chimes. Research suggests these practices can effectively reduce tension, anxiety and depression while enhancing spiritual well-being, especially for people new to meditation practice. Experiment with different sounds—singing bowls, gong vibrations or even carefully curated playlists—and find what resonates best with you.

3. Embodied Exploration

Engage your body and emotions through movement and awareness. Research demonstrates that activities like dancing and tai chi offer psychological benefits and enhance quality of life. Here's how:

  • Dance it out. Tune into music that speaks to your mood and let your body move freely. Dancing is a cathartic experience that allows you to express and release pent-up emotions while reconnecting with yourself. Whether you sway to soothing melodies or groove to upbeat rhythms, dancing offers a powerful outlet for self-expression.
  • Practice Tai Chi or Qigong. These ancient disciplines combine gentle movements with mindful breathing to promote inner balance and presence. By focusing on each movement and breath, you can deepen your connection between mind and body, fostering a sense of calm and awareness in the present moment.

Struggle to catch a moment of rest? Take the Anxiety Sensitivity Test to know if you need support.

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