Are you addicted to being busy?

There has been a common theme amongst some of my clients over recent months – one that I can relate fully into, ‘the need to keep busy’..

Is this you?

If so feeling the need to be busy all the time may be a trauma response and fear-based distraction from what you may be forced to feel or acknowledge if you slowed down.

At first thought, of course this could seem counterintuitive. After all, you could be coping with your anxiety or low mood by remaining in bed and not actually getting anything done, right? That’s true, but it can be just as unhealthy when you stay busy to avoid your feelings – keeping us more’ stuck and by creating more of a longer term problem.

As a society, we tend to value the idea of staying busy. We’re used to constantly pressing on towards our goals, and we view laziness as a character flaw – I know I have been guilty of this!

Of course it’s perfectly fine to be ambitious and to have a full life. It’s also okay to have healthy distractions to occupy yourself from time to time.

The problem arises when we intentionally (or most likely subconsciously) keep ourselves busy because we can’t stand the thought of just being present with our thoughts and feelings – those distressing sensations in our bodies and the constant chatter in our heads send us on a spiral of anxiety and or depression.

When people keep compulsively occupied, they leave no time to confront their internal experience.


This constant distraction leads to denying our emotions.

While this may be a quick fix to avoid dealing with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, it only makes them more intense over time. Like the beach ball analogy, the pressure continues to build as we try to keep the beach ball submerged under the water, we may not burst up in the moment, but it’s inevitable that we will eventually.

There is huge truth to the sentiment that the only way out is through!

When we experience a traumatic event, it activates the limbic system in the brain. This ‘fire alarm’ shuts down all nonessential systems (rest, digestion, sleep) and floods our bodies with stress hormones, like cortisol, so we can prepare for fight, flight, or freeze. Once the danger passes, our parasympathetic nervous system provides inner calm, otherwise known as our ‘rest and digest’ mode. At this point, normal cognitive function returns, and we can go back to our day with relatively few side effects, perhaps only feeling a little jittery for a while, or a bit on edge. But for people who live with complex trauma, this balance doesn’t quite return all the way. The limbic system stays engaged most of the time. It’s a coping mechanism to try and stay safe in the face of ongoing adversity. It’s an experience of constantly being in survival mode, or on edge. Over time, it becomes a ‘new normal’ for the brain and body.

In his book, ‘The Body Keeps the Score,‘ trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk, MD, describes how trauma literally becomes trapped in the body and the brain rewires itself. These lasting effects create symptoms of complex trauma.

This bodily state of your nervous system being on ‘high alert’ can affect your thoughts, actions, and relationships.

As humans we were designed to metabolise the significant emotional events and traumas that we experience – not push them away and not to deny them.

Whilst being always busy can be a subconscious response it can also be ingrained and reinforced by learnt behaviours from generations past and present. Strengthened by beliefs and actions of others – especially care givers – Mum you reading this? 

Dr Arielle Schwartz articulates the reason ‘why’ here:

‘The underlying pain associated with difficult life events is meant to be felt and, as a result, we recognise that even the most uncomfortable emotions are temporary. However, turning toward fear, shame, loss, loneliness, or helplessness emotions can feel threatening or even annihilating. So, we begin to avoid our pain. Each time we avoid our feelings we unconsciously reinforce the perception that we have successfully escaped a threat. We have survived another day.

Paradoxically, the idea that avoidance has “saved us” stimulates a reward response accompanied by the release of dopamine in the brain. Our urge to avoid our pain further reinforces the belief that those feelings are dangerous. Over time, fear and avoidance become wired into our sense of self, even if it is no longer beneficial for our survival.

Avoidance becomes part of our identity and, when left unchallenged, becomes one of the biggest barriers to our growth.’

As humans we were designed to metabolise the significant emotional events and traumas that we experience not push them away.

There are a whole host of ways in which to help you slow down and learn a new way of ‘being’ without the spiralling into anxiety or depression – here’s a few (Please remember you can’t alter a lifetime of trauma and it’s avoidance overnight) :

1. Learn and practice the art of Self-Compassion.

2. Understand what Trauma is and is not.

3. Map your own internal responses when you do pause and are present with your thoughts and feelings.

4. Reflect (if not too painful or triggering) on what is at the root of your avoidance? 

5. Find meaning and purpose in your life.

6. Practice Gratitude

7. Reconnect with your body safely.

8. Consider working with a therapist.