Driven Further: High-Stress Jobs, Achievement, and Addiction Treatment

In 2014, Kevin Roose published Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits. The book follows eight young investment bankers as they enter the high-stakes world of finance, putting in 60- to 100-hour weeks as low-level analysts in the hope of working their way up the professional and financial ladder. Removed from family and friends, the new recruits face crushing pressure to perform and endure the mentally and physically draining work schedule. The high stress conditions described are nothing new; the manic pace of banking has been memorialized in pop culture for decades–and it comes as no surprise when the bankers chronicled in the book turn to illicit substance use to power through the workday. However, today’s drug of choices is not cocaine, but Adderall, and the bankers are “not taking drugs to go out and party; they’re taking drugs so that they can stay up longer and work more.”

High-stress jobs and addiction issues have a complex relationship due to a combination of practical, emotional, and cultural factors, and may present unique barriers to addiction treatment. Professionals such as bankers, physicians, lawyers, and business executives often turn to substance use to give them a performance edge and to temporarily cope with the demands of their jobs, only to find themselves living with a serious substance addiction. However, while the jobs themselves may cause some to start using, there may be a deeper and more fundamental relationship between high stress professions, high achievement, and addiction.

The Role of Genetics

People who choose high-stress jobs often share personality traits that may increase vulnerability to addiction. Contrary to the stereotype of addicts as weak-willed, unmotivated, and predisposed for failure, the traits that drive you toward success and effective leadership may be the very same traits that lead you toward addictive behaviors. David J. Linden, PhD, a neuroscience professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, writes:

When we think of the qualities we seek in visionary leaders, we think of intelligence, creativity, wisdom and charisma, but also the drive to succeed, a hunger for innovation, a willingness to challenge established ideas and practices. But in fact, the psychological profile of a compelling leader […] is also that of the compulsive risk-taker, someone with a high degree of novelty-seeking behavior. In short, what we seek in leaders is often the same kind of personality type that is found in addicts, whether they are dependent on gambling, alcohol, sex or drugs.

Linden theorizes that the obsessive, high-risk pleasure seeking that drives successful professionals stems from the a genetic mutation in the way the brain responds to dopamine that also increases the propensity for addictive behavior. Rather than deriving an unusually high level of pleasure from factors like risk-taking, success, and addictive substances, your brain may release lower levels of dopamine in response to pleasurable stimulation, creating a need for more risk-taking, more success, and more substance use to satisfy you. The mutation causes you to seek out extreme experiences in hopes of psychological pay off, manifesting in both professional gains and intensifying reliance on drugs and alcohol.

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Environmental Impact

While genetics may play a role in the formation of the driven personality, they do not tell the whole story. Environmental factors, particularly within your family of origin, can deeply impact personality development at critical life stages and influence your desire for success, propensity for risk-taking, and relationship with drugs and alcohol. Research suggests that early childhood experiences can be a significant factor in both high achievement and substance abuse. Constance Scharff, PhD, says:

What makes someone achieve at that level – the top executives – is often a stress or trauma that happened early on. There’s something, usually an early experience, that fuels that kind of drive, and oftentimes it’s the same thing that drives addiction. The vast majority didn’t have some sort of basic needs met as children, so they’re driven very, very hard to succeed. But the pain that goes with that is also what they’re self-medicating for.

When you have an underlying psychological trigger such as childhood trauma, your addiction cannot be viewed in isolation, but must be treated alongside the emotional distress in order to address the root cause of your substance abuse. Traditional 12-step programs are insufficient for dealing with addiction fuelled by early childhood experiences, as they fail to comprehensively heal these formative wounds.

Effective Intervention

People in high-stress occupations, particularly high achievers, are often reluctant to enter treatment, fearing that disrupting their behavioral patterns will impair their ability to work at the level they are used to, threatening their sense of self and their place in the world. However, substance abuse cannot sustain you forever; eventually it will catch up with you and the consequences are usually dire. Moreover, masking psychological distress with drugs or alcohol does not take away your suffering. Taking control of your addiction can release you from the emotional and physical pain of substance abuse and allow you to uncover your authentic self, to move forward with newfound confidence, clarity, and strength. The highly trained clinicians at addiction treatment programs such as Alta Mirahave the expertise to support you in breaking self-destructive patterns and replacing unhealthy habits with productive coping skills that draw on your natural healing abilities to enhance your well-being. We offer specialized treatment for co-occurring mental health disorders to allow you to explore and resolve psychological distress such as that caused by early childhood, relieving you from the weight of trauma and allowing you the emotional freedom to move on. Together, we can honor and cultivate the positive effects of your driven nature while releasing you from the damage of addiction.


Alta Mira offers innovative, personalized treatment for people struggling with addiction. Contact us for more information about how we can help you or your loved one on the path to lasting recovery.