Picture this: You’re getting ready to go somewhere, like work, or a baby shower, or maybe parent-teacher conferences. You’ve given yourself plenty of time, but somehow, when you check the clock, you see you’re cutting it close. Instead of streamlining the rest of your routine, like a person who prioritizes punctuality would do, you answer a day-old text from your mom then decide today is the day to switch purses. You waste precious minutes doing other non-essential tasks, diverted by things you typically ignore, until you finally break free, grab your stuff, and race out the door. You drive way too fast, cursing traffic and applying mascara at the stoplights. You arrive 10 minutes late, full of breathless apologies and excuses, but really, you have no one to blame but yourself.
Is this scenario familiar? You begin with the best of intentions and end up in a manic rush? Does it happen regularly, without interceding circumstances? Has being late resulted in negative consequences, after which you vow to get your act together? Do you feel unable to control your compulsion to dawdle? Have family and friends spoken to you about it, in an effort to get you to change? Do they use the word “inconsiderate”?
If you answered yes to two or more of these questions, you have a tardiness tendency, and while it may stem from poor time management, it has become a habit. Habits lie on the outskirts of ordinary behavior, serving an ulterior purpose that is often unhealthy, and in many cases a bad habit will develop into a full blown addiction. Depending on how chronic your pattern, you might actually be addicted to being late. Or, more precisely, you might be addicted to the chemicals your body releases when its hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is activated by the external pressures of time constraints.
The role of HPA
The HPA axis is the human body’s central response system. It intertwines the central nervous system, which is responsible for processing information, and the endocrine system, which responds to this information by releasing a variety of hormones. In times of stress, the hypothalamus will coordinate with the pituitary and other glands, flooding the body with a hormone cocktail that heightens awareness, improves cognition, induces euphoria, and triggers a burst of stored energy. Akin to the fight-or-flight mechanism, which discharges the sympathetic nervous system and facilitates immediate physical action, the HPA axis reacts indiscriminately to threatening stimulus. Any stressor that registers on our sensory radar qualifies as perceived danger and will activate the launch code.
Plainly put, our chemical brains can’t tell the difference between walking into a pit of venomous snakes and walking into a room full of glaring coworkers.
When we’re running late, this sophisticated physiological process kicks in, and the result is an intense visceral surge. Some find it overwhelming and unpleasant, what with the rapid heartbeat and sweating, and will take measures to avoid it in the future. Others describe it as a thrilling rush, similar to what people experience when skydiving, bungee jumping, or pursuing other extreme sports. It is even possible to build a tolerance for hormonally induced excitement, requiring riskier adventures to produce the same effect. The activation of the HPA axis is the one thing all addictions have in common.
In a recent study published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” researchers suggest a connection between a person’s tolerance to acute stress and their propensity for addiction. They document a wide variety of addictions, from gambling to drugs to exercise, and conclude there is a correlation between these behaviors and an elevated stress response. It seems the more sensitive a person is to stress, the more likely they are to use the HPA axis reaction as a coping mechanism. There is also evidence this inclination is epigenetic (influenced by both biological and environmental factors). Just as alcoholism, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol runs in families but can be avoided, stress addictions can too.
To be clear, labeling your chronic lateness an addiction is not helpful in and of itself. Whether you are powerless in the throes of rushing out the door or just terrible at planning ahead is a distinction without a difference – the problem remains that your habit inconveniences others. What is helpful, though, is understanding the underlying motivation and recognizing the pattern of the HPA axis reaction. Once you identify the feeling of impending lateness as nothing more than a hormonal gust, you will likely stop self-sabotaging with time-wasting tactics – or at least be aware of what you are doing.
Admitting you have a problem and enlisting family members to steer you back on track when you get distracted are essential first steps to promptness, but as with any addiction, behavior modification only works if the addict wants to quit.