The Workaholic Breakdown - The Loss of Physical and Psychological Health

An early sign that their physical well-being has become affected by the stress of overworking and their acute anxiety related to the fear of failure and discovery occurs as workaholics develop a rigid, stiff way of carrying their body. Their movements appear almost robot-like, and back problems are common.

Out-of-touch with their body because the obsessional left brain Thinking function is dominant and their right brain Feeling function is repressed, workaholics remain unaware of the increases in the amount of adrenalin that is being pumped into their body.  Dr. Archibald Hart, in his book, The Hidden Link Between Adrenalin and Stress, lists the effects of elevated adrenalin over a period of time:  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;  a decrease in the body’s ability to remove cholesterol;  an increase in the blood’s tendency to clot;  and an increase in the depositing of plaque on the walls of the arteries. (p. 21)

Tightly-crossed arms and legs, taut facial muscles, and locked jaws reflect their defensive attitude. They walk fast, talk fast, eat fast, and drink copious amounts of coffee just to keep going. Excessive pumping of adrenalin produces a fatigue that should act as a circuit breaker to warn of danger to all the body’s functioning systems. Instead, workaholics just drive themselves even harder until chronic fatigue shuts them down.

Severe fatigue is also a symptom of the hopelessness that feeds depression. Some of the other signs of depression to watch for are:  changes in eating and sleeping patterns;  poor concentration;  loss of motivation; emotional and physical exhaustion;  crying spells, and a loss of libido. Neediness sometimes results in an increase in sexual drive. Depersonalization results in a distancing of oneself from a problem and not caring any more. Anger and cynicism are irrational, and there is a tendency to isolate oneself from family and friends. Loss of memory and forgetfulness are severe problems for workaholics who can appear to have a mind like a sieve.

Depression can be a downward spiral that moves very fast, or it can go on for years and become a habitual life-pattern. Some workaholics have remarkable stamina and persevere at their work throughout their lifetime. Some never retire, and work into their eighties. Privately, they may complain about aches and pains, but stubbornly refuse to get medical attention.

Other workaholics are immobilized by stress, and suffer debilitating anxiety. Panic attacks and claustrophobia are common as heart activity increases and breathing is disturbed. There are vasomotor and musculoskeletal disturbances such as trembling, increased sweating, or paralysis. Physiological responses may come from external stimuli and the demands of reality, or from internal pressure to push forward, to keep on performing, and seek gratification of blocked drives. Other signs of anxiety include excess stomach sensitivity, ulcers, abnormal blood pressure, heart trouble, nervousness, lack of vitality, and a total inability to relax. Workaholics often report a feeling of pressure in their chest, constricted breathing, dizziness, and light-headedness.

Unfortunately, all this cumulative stress can lead to strokes and heart attacks, or what the Japanese call “karoshi,” death from overwork. Those who exaggerate and falsify reality often retreat into a psychotic state where reality and fantasy blur. A complete disintegration of the ego may occur, or suicide may be the tragic end.

It may seem counterintuitive, but workaholics are at special risk of suicide when they lose their position or business. Shame plays a major role because their fear of failure is huge. Without the prestige, power and control that success brought them, some lose their self-identity and will, and sink into deep despair. Forty-one year old David Kellerman, the CFO of Freddie Mac who chose to hang himself, and German billionaire Adolf Merckle who walked to the train tracks near his home and waited, are but two sad examples. Predicting such a fate is never easy. Reports out of Japan of 30,000 suicides every year since the 1998 financial crisis should sound the alarm in North America. (Mark MacKinnon, 2009)

Hopefully, workaholics who are following this blog may have better insight into further identifying their conscious fears, fatigue and guilt as the breakdown spirals downwards.  An awareness of feeling flat and numb requires considerable insight. Others who care about the workaholic will be better equipped to understand all the personality and character changes that remain largely unconscious, and go unrecognized by workaholics themselves.

We are now going to look at The Big Three as I call them – Denial, Control, and Power – concepts that make it very difficult to recover from this insidious addiction.

Hart, Archibald. The Hidden Link Between Adrenalin and Stress.  Dallas: Word Publishing, 1991.

MacKinnon, Mark. “Japan’s jobless forced to sleep in Internet cafes.” Toronto: The Globe and Mail, March 17, 2009.

Copyright 2013 – Dr. Barbara Killinger

About the Author

Barbara Killinger, Ph.D.

Barbara Killinger, Ph.D., was an author and clinical psychologist in Toronto who specialized in workaholism.

You are reading

The Workaholics

Workaholism and Power

Why does the ambition to gain power often lead to immoral /unethical decisions?

Workaholism and Control

Why workaholics are called "control freaks," and how control affects their lives

Workaholism and Denial

Why it is so difficult for workaholics to develop insight and to recover.