Why Being Overly Booked and Busy Can Be a Trauma Response

An employee is overwhelmed from work that he’s doing due to a trauma response

If you overwork yourself or feel the need to constantly be busy, it may be a trauma response

Key takeaways:

  • Edward Khantzian developed the self-medication model of addiction and the idea that addiction comes from the “inability to tolerate one’s feelings.”

  • Substance abuse isn’t the only kind of addiction that people use to avoid their feelings; many trauma survivors use work as a tool to avoid their trauma.

  • Becoming a “workaholic” can stem from a combination of factors, including being conditioned to be a people pleaser, wanting to avoid your feelings, and engaging in controlling behaviors to overcompensate for not having control over your trauma.

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one where people are likely to use being busy to avoid dealing with their trauma.

  • Even if you don’t have trauma, if you’re always wired and, on the go, it’s likely your nervous system is in a state of hyperarousal and could benefit from calming activities like yin or restorative yoga, breathwork, guided meditation, and therapy.

Many studies have documented the link between trauma and addictions. Edward Khantzian, M.D. developed the self-medication model of addiction, hypothesizing that addiction comes from an “inability to tolerate one’s feelings.”

Substance abuse isn’t the only addictive behavior people use as a coping skill to avoid dealing with their feelings. Many things can become addictions, from overeating to overworking. Those that overwork typically earn the nickname “workaholic.”

Recent studies on both survivors of intimate partner violence and survivors of childhood sexual abuse showed that both populations had a predisposition to PTSD that can lead to overworking themselves. There are many reasons trauma survivors try to keep themselves booked and busy. The reasons usually stem from a combination of factors, including being conditioned to people please, wanting to avoid dealing with your feelings, and engaging in controlling behaviors to overcompensate for not having control over your trauma.

We look at how overworking and the need to keep yourself busy can be a trauma response. Let’s discuss.

A few questions to ask yourself

If you’re the type of person that’s always on the run, it may be time to do some self-reflection. Here are a few questions to ask yourself.

  • Do you have unresolved trauma?

  • How do you generally cope with your feelings and emotions?

  • How are you feeling these days in general?

  • Do you get uncomfortable or anxious if you aren’t responsible for any tasks or have unstructured time?

  • If you find yourself with unstructured time unexpectedly, do you immediately try to fill it with distractions, such as scrolling through social media?

  • Do you feel like you keep yourself busy to avoid things?

  • Is your busyness purposeful – are you working towards something, like a degree or saving for a down payment on a home?

If you find yourself feeling anxious, exhausted, or showing signs of chronic and persistent sadness (depression), consider that you are staying busy to avoid dealing with something.

High-functioning PTSD

PTSD is a disordered response to trauma. One manifestation of it is overworking and the need for constant busyness.

PTSD is often thought of as something soldiers get during war but anyone who has experienced any kind of trauma can develop it. PTSD is less about what type of trauma you experienced, and more about how your body responds to it –your body sends signals to your nervous system that puts it into a constant state of hypervigilance and dysregulation. People experiencing high-functioning PTSD are able to live and work but may not be aware they’re going through it.

Here are some of the signs you may be experiencing PTSD:

  • Intrusive memories. These memories are generally recurrent and distressing. They may involve flashbacks, dreams, or nightmares about the event. You can also have severe physical or emotional reactions if something triggers you or reminds you of the traumatic event.

  • Because being triggered is so distressing, people with PTSD engage in avoidant behaviors and try to avoid thinking or talking about their trauma. They usually avoid places, activities, people, or things that can cause them to remember the event. This avoidant behavior can include keeping themselves extremely busy and distracted with many tasks, aka becoming a workaholic.

  • Negative changes in mood and thinking, including feeling hopeless for the future, having a negative worldview, or negative thoughts about yourself or others.

  • Memory problems, including blocking out or being unable to remember parts of the traumatic event.

  • People experiencing PTSD may feel disconnected and detached from family and friends, and as a result, find it difficult to maintain close relationships.

  • They may lose interest in activities they once enjoyed and find it difficult to experience joy or happiness.

  • They may feel emotionally “numb” or be unable to identify how they feel.

  • People living with PTSD will also experience physical and emotional reactions called arousal symptoms. They may startle easily or be hypervigilant. They may experience difficulty sleeping or concentrating or display irritable or aggressive behavior.

  • They may have feelings of shame and guilt.

If you have any of these symptoms, you should speak to a professional as soon as possible, so you can get the right help and start working towards feeling better.

Ways to calm your nervous system

If you constantly have to be on the go, even if you don’t have unresolved trauma, it’s very likely that your nervous system is in a state of hyperarousal and could still benefit from learning how to relax and calm down. Everyone needs downtime and rest.

Here are some techniques to try that can help soothe your nervous system:

  • Yin yoga: Yin yoga is a cooling yoga in which postures are held longer to allow the stretches to reach deeper. This allows your nervous system to calm down more versus taking a traditional yoga class that has standing postures.

  • Restorative yoga: In restorative yoga, props are used to support you, such as blocks, blankets, cushions, and bolsters. (What a concept – allowing yourself to be supported!)