Our secret addiction

Jude Tiersma Watson Image Jude Tiersma Watson | Mar 5, 2008

You might have an addiction—an addiction so secret that even you don’t realize your dependence.

Even if you have sidestepped this addiction, other youth leaders you know have likely tripped and fallen.

You may be steering clear of internet pornography, drugs, and alcohol. You may even tell yourself that your love for Café Mochas in the morning is more about the taste than the caffeine, and that your Wii obsession is just an attempt at remaining “culturally relevant” so you can understand kids better.

For you, it’s not those external substances that are your first love; it’s a substance produced by your own body. Ironically, you might be addicted to adrenalin. Adrenalin addiction, while rarely discussed, is perhaps one of the more pervasive addictions for leaders and youth leaders today. And though it may sound like we’re exaggerating, it is an actual clinical reality.

Two decades of research

Over last two decades, the research and writings of Fuller Seminary professor Dr. Archibald Hart have helped thousands of leaders wrestle with their adrenalin addiction until they break through toward some answers. In his groundbreaking book, Adrenalin and Stress, Hart writes,

The lives of most of us are hectic and fast-paced. We are driven by a need to succeed, and our hectic lives leave little room for relaxation. It’s as if we are trapped on a runaway train and don’t know where the brakes are—or the engines of our bodies have been jammed at full throttle. [Archibald D. Hart, The Hidden Link Between Adrenalin and Stress: The Exciting New Breakthrough that Helps You Overcome Stress Damage (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1995), 3.]

In Hart’s 2007 book, Thrilled to Death, he suggests that today’s stress levels are creating even more significant problems than when he first developed his adrenalin addiction theory twenty years ago. Hart warns,

Unless we, as a society, learn to slow down, examine our values, and change our hectic lifestyles, we will continue to suffer from cardiovascular disease, immune deficiencies, depression, and a host of other illnesses. Further, we will pass these traits and poor coping skills to our children. [Archibald D. Hart, Thrilled to Death: How the Endless Pursuit of Pleasure is Leaving us Numb (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 62.]

As youth leaders, we tend to pass these poor coping skills not just to our biological children, but to the kids in our youth groups too.

The biological causes behind adrenalin addiction

The human body is designed with an important three-fold system that protects us from stress.

  1. The alarm system sounds a warning when our bodies are being pushed beyond their limits.
  2. The activating system prepares us for action in response to the alarm, usually by a “fight or flight” response that leads us to either confront what threatens us or to run from it.
  3. The recovery system provides us with the healing, revitalization and recuperation that we need following the stress of the previous two systems. [Archibald D. Hart, Adrenalin and Stress, 49.]

Unfortunately, today’s stress levels in youth ministry tend to wreak havoc upon all three of our systems. According to Hart, we tend to ignore or only superficially respond to the bells sounded by our alarm system. So for example, in the midst of the stress of planning for our upcoming short-term missions trip, we become plagued with headaches or fatigue. Instead of addressing the underlying causes of this pain, we decide to either push through it or use medication to temporarily eliminate the symptoms.

As our alarm system triggers our activating system, our body releases adrenalin that makes us temporarily physically stronger and mentally sharper. [As Dr. Hart makes clear, the heightened adrenalin we experience in the face of a particular emergency or even an exciting event (i.e., a thrilling football game) is not bad in and of itself. It becomes problematic when we face perpetual stress and thus our body perpetually produces adrenalin.] While that is a normal biological response, the problem for many of us is that we live in that activated state far too long. Using the short-term missions example from the previous paragraph, the physical, mental and emotional push we made to get through the planning events never lets up; we start to rely on that same adrenalin to get through the upcoming parent meeting, the staff training Saturday, and the budget presentation for our church board.

Eventually, we slide into the third recovery system during which our adrenalin levels are lowered. This can often lead us to feel “low” or depressed, which is something most of us don’t like to feel. As a result, we are tempted to exit the recovery system as quickly as possible through another adrenalin-raising experience, which in youth ministry terms might mean that after our short-term missions experience is over, we add more activities to our program or say “yes” to more nights out and days away. [Archibald D. Hart, Adrenalin and Stress, 52-53.] Thus the cycle becomes ongoing and the addiction becomes more entrenched.

The holistic consequences of adrenalin addiction

Youth leaders who are stuck in the alarm/activating systems without spending enough time recovering might experience the following physiological consequences:

  • An increase in the production of blood cholesterol
  • A narrowing of the capillaries and other blood vessels that can shut down the blood supply to the heart muscle
  • An increase in the depositing of plaque on the walls of the arteries
  • An increase of stomach acidic activity, which can give rise to ulcers
  • Greater susceptibility to tension and/or migraine headaches
  • A decrease in the immune system’s ability to fight infections [Archibald D. Hart, Adrenalin and Stress, 21, 59-62.]

Perhaps surprising to many of us, the effects of stress and adrenalin stretch far beyond our physiology. Psychologically we are prone to become irritable, depressed, frustrated, and very anxious. Spiritually we may have a diminished desire for intimacy with God and even confuse our adrenalin arousal for true spirituality, thinking that the “highs” we have as we serve kids and families are a substitute for solitude and silence. [Archibald D. Hart, Adrenalin and Stress, 38-40.]

An ancient escape for our current reality

Dr. Hart recommends a number of paths toward freedom from our adrenalin addiction, including monitoring our adrenalin arousal, conscious physical relaxation, sleep, and changing our Type-A thinking patterns (and even in rare cases, medical treatment). In addition to all of these, perhaps one of the more effective escape routes for youth leaders trapped in adrenalin addiction stems from one of the areas inevitably affected: our spirituality. The tragic irony is that sometimes our typical “quiet time” feels like one more thing we are supposed to get done in our day, one more “should” in our lives.

An ancient practice that can help us to stand against these addictive tendencies, whether they come from within or without, is the Examen of Consiousness. The examen (say it just like “examine”) is rooted in Ignatian spirituality and can be traced back five hundred years to the founder of the “Society of Jesus” (or the Jesuits), Ignatius of Loyola.

The examen helps us escape our adrenalin addiction by causing us to stop and see where God has been present in our day and give thanks. Given that it generally takes about fifteen minutes, it can be done anytime, anywhere, alone or with others (i.e., your spouse, your family, the kids in your youth ministry). Most often it is done during the last hour before bed (a good reason to turn off that TV or computer a little earlier). There is always the danger that we rush through the examen just like we rush through the rest of our lives, so we’re best off if we have the time and space to settle in and focus.

1. Stop and be present to God

The first step in the prayer of examen is to slow down, to stop, and to create some space. Allow yourself to simply sit and be, and to remember that you are in the presence of God. Once we truly stop, we take a moment and remember that we belong to God. As we remember that we belong to God, we remember that our days belong to God, and that our ministry and our kids belong to God.

2. Look back over today with gratitude

Next, we ask God to illuminate the day as we prayerfully review the day’s events in the light of Christ. We remember the day with gratitude and give thanks for the gift of this day. This review causes us to remember moments that would otherwise get lost in the midst of our adrenalin-fueled busyness. A few questions we might ask include:

  • What was the “high” of my day? For what am I most grateful?
  • Where and how did God seem most present to me today?
  • What was most life-giving for me today?
  • When did I feel rested and balanced today?

Take some time to thank God for these moments, to rest in them and be at peace.

3. Uncover the lows

As we continue to allow the Holy Spirit to illumine our day, questions to help us better understand the low spots include:

  • What was the “low” of my day? For what am I least grateful?
  • Where did I least sense God’s presence with me?
  • What was least life-giving, or most draining, for me today?
  • What pulled me away from being rested and balanced?

As we uncover these struggles and trials, we can commit them to God, confessing sin as appropriate and asking God to bring new life into the dark places.

4. Rest with God

The key to the examen is its simplicity as a prayer of rest and reflection before God. Close your time in prayer by simply thanking God for being present with you.

One youth leader's use of the Prayer of Examen

In my (Jude’s) early days in ministry, living in a busy urban center, my life often spun out of control, and I felt like I was losing touch with myself, God and others.

A wise woman first suggested that I take time to examine my life at the end of each day by doing the examen. This was a difficult season in my life, and I often felt as if God was absent; practicing the examen gave me an opportunity to see that in fact God had been present, but I had been too preoccupied to notice. The examen gave me a tool to pay attention to my fast-paced life, to pay attention to where God was present, and to pay attention to myself and my own responses to the events in my life.

As I examine my day, I remember those moments when I over-reacted to a situation, or times when I was unloving. In the presence of God’s love, I can give those things to God for growth and healing and move on. While so many things around me can seem to take my life from me, in the examen I reclaim my life; I again choose life. If I am running on adrenalin, this stopping to review my day reminds me that this is not how I want to live my days, and not how I want to live my life. One of the questions that helps me do that is this one: “If my day has been too busy, what could I have said no to today?”

The examen is also a great relational tool. My husband and I use the examen questions to catch up with each other after a busy day—sometimes in the car, sometimes over dinner, and sometimes before going to sleep. It gives us a chance to reflect on our day with each other, as well as with ourselves. We also use it as a youth ministry tool, periodically asking groups of young people about their highs and lows for that day or that week.

In a society that keeps rushing without any examination, stopping to take a few moments of our day for the examen of consciousness gives us time to catch our breath and spend some moments in reflection. Counter to a culture that endorses billboard messages like “You can rest when you’re dead” (which I saw recently in a gym), the examen reminds us that real life doesn’t come from adrenalin-hyped action-filled lives and ministries. Real life comes from the realization that God was there, throughout the day, whether we realized it in that moment or not. This realization may or may not bring us our next “high”, but it offers the true power of the Holy Spirit to sustain us and give us rest from our adrenalin addiction.

Action points for youth leaders

Anne Dillard comments: “How we live our days is, of course, how we live our lives.” When you look back at your day, start asking yourself, “Is this how I want to live my life? Is this how God wants me to live my life?” When we don’t even have time for these kinds of questions, what does that say about how we’re living? And how do we feel about that?

Take stock of your ministry schedule of programs, meetings, and events, perhaps using the examen as a prayer to guide you. How much of what you do in ministry is based on fueling an adrenalin-based high? What does the pace of your ministry communicate to students about the value of adrenalin? The value of rest? What changes could you make over the next few months to break the cycle of adrenalin addiction—for you and for your students?


Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life, by Dennis Linn et al, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995.

There are various websites that describe the examen, including descriptions of the original full five-step process: thanksgiving, a prayer of illumination, the examination of the day itself, appropriate sorrow or delight, and hope for tomorrow.

The Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project has great resources for this and other contemplative youth ministry practices.

Amazon Affiliate links are included in this blog post. FYI earns from qualifying orders placed through links in this post.

Photo by Drew Darby

Jude Tiersma Watson Image
Jude Tiersma Watson

Jude Tiersma Watson, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Urban Mission in the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Seminary and serves on the Executive Committee for the Fuller Youth Institute. Jude and her husband John are elders with InnerCHANGE/CRM, a Christian Order Among the Poor. Jude has lived in the Westlake immigrant neighborhood in central Los Angeles for 20 years. The InnerCHANGE team in L.A. seeks to see God transform and raise up leaders for a new urban generation. Jude has a special interest in the integration of spirituality in the urban context.

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