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Is the Rat Race Lifestyle to Blame for Substance Abuse?

Most Americans today live a rushed, overburdened lifestyle, thanks to long hours, no vacations, and bosses who can reach them at home. Even your personal time can become high pressure due to the desire to live up to the perfect images displayed on social media. The burden of high-performance expectations at work and at home are wearing on Americans, leading to a host of physical and mental problems, as well as soaring rates of substance abuse. If our rat race lifestyle is one of the driving causes behind substance abuse in the United States, then learning how to get out of the rat race is a necessary part of effective substance abuse treatment.

What is the Rat Race Lifestyle?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines the rat race as “a way of life in modern society, in which people compete with each other for power and money.” This is true, but it’s only part of the picture. Many Americans feel trapped by the need to work to pay their bills. You may work all the time to get rich or get ahead in your profession, or you may work all the time because you can’t afford not to.

Why do so many Americans live the Rat Race Lifestyle?


For most people, the only way to get money is to work. Maybe you need to pay off your student loans or credit card debt. Most Americans face some kind of debt. Maybe you spend money you don’t have to keep up with your neighbors, or because you aspire to a more glamorous lifestyle than you can afford. Maybe previous unemployment forced you to rack up debt, or the desire to give your kids a good Christmas. Every day, Americans receive thousands of messages urging them to spend money to feel better, look better, and be happier.

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Society has a way of elevating certain professions while looking down on others. Many people pursue careers in prestigious fields such as medicine, law, or finance, not because they have a passion for it, but because they want to impress people, please their families, or build up a shaky self-image. You may have joined the rat race to work towards a higher position that will give you more status in the future, assuming that once you succeed, you will finally be happy and satisfied with yourself.


When you overspend, you can’t save for a rainy day, or for retirement, and the fear of being buried under all your debt can drive you to use energy you don’t have to work jobs you don’t like. Even if you aren’t in debt, you may still feel enormous pressure at work. Maybe you have a scary boss, or a demanding partner. Maybe you worry about worst case scenarios—that you’ll lose your job and get evicted, or be unable to feed your family. Maybe you aren’t sure what might happen if you let yourself slow down, but you’re too scared to risk finding out.

The Rat Race is Making Americans Miserable—and Leading Them to Substance Abuse

how to get out of the rat race

Many people turn to drugs to enhance work performance.

Americans are working harder, and working longer hours, and arranging their lives around work more than ever before. Meanwhile, levels of depression and anxiety keep rising. The rat race itself takes an emotional, mental, and physical toll, but so does the realization that even though you are doing everything you are supposed to, you’re still miserable. Or maybe you feel incapable of doing everything you’re supposed to, and you’re desperate to improve your situation. These kinds of feelings can easily lead you to turn to drugs or alcohol for stress relief, for performance enhancement, or to self-medicate psychological issues.

Some careers are more susceptible to substance abuse than others, such as:

  • Construction workers: Physical injuries, muscle soreness, and ailments related to overuse are the driving force behind most substance abuse in this profession, but a culture of social drinking after work also contributes.
  • Healthcare workers: Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals face extremely high stress and extremely long hours, sometimes in shifts that disrupt their sleep cycles. Burnout is common, as is a tendency to self-diagnose and self-medicate.
  • Hospitality and Food Service: Employees in bars, restaurants, and hotels are expected to keep smiling while rushing to meet the demands of often rude or impatient customers. Alcohol is readily available in these environments, and often, so are other drugs that relieve stress or boost energy.

Is the Rat Race Lifestyle to Blame for Substance Abuse?

Stimulant Abuse

Prescription and illegal stimulants are addictive substances commonly associated with the rat race because they can increase attention, alertness, and energy. Stimulants are hard to resist for people who don’t have enough hours in the day to do all the things they need to do.

Prescription stimulants such as Adderall are some of the most commonly abused drugs on college campuses today, second only to marijuana. All these drugs speed up the central nervous system, providing more energy—but they don’t always provide better focus. Studies have indicated that some users actually perform more poorly on tasks while under the influence of stimulants, and for those who do succeed in getting a performance boost, there are dangerous consequences. Repeated stimulant use, even over a relatively short period of time, can lead to anger, paranoia, and psychosis. Long term use can cause brain damage and heart problems that can be permanent in some cases.

Professional help is usually needed to give up these drugs. If you are accustomed to relying on stimulants to keep you awake and working hard, you may find the fatigue and brain fog that sets in after quitting to be incredibly distressing. Other withdrawal symptoms, such as diarrhea, nausea, and body aches, are also difficult to face, and some symptoms, such as seizures, can be dangerous. Detoxing at an addiction treatment facility with medical resources will safely and successfully guide you through detox to sobriety.

Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse is very common among professionals in the rat race, and is even more insidious due to the way drinking is normalized in many workplaces. If you work in sales, or in a corporate job, you may be expected to take clients out to drinks and show them a good time, and many office relationships are built upon after-work happy hours.

Alcohol is the most commonly abused addictive substance in the United States. Over 15 million Americans have been diagnosed with alcohol use disorder, and many more likely suffer it without being diagnosed. Many of these individuals are professionals as well. In 2013, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 79.3% of binge drinkers and 76.1% of heavy drinkers are employed, and 15% of American workers (more than 19 million people) report drinking or being impaired by alcohol on one or more occasions at work over the previous year.

Lawyers show a particularly high rate of problem drinking, which was examined in a recent anonymous study conducted by the American Bar Association and the Betty Ford Foundation. The study not only illuminates the problem of alcohol abuse among lawyers, but also sheds light on the reasons why so many people living the rat race lifestyle suffer from problems with alcohol.

Lawyers employed by law firms exhibited the highest rates of alcohol abuse. One reason for this is the culture of drinking at law firms, which not only normalizes drinking, but encourages it as a part of professional duties, such as socializing with clients. Another reason for excessive drinking is the pressure of building a career, which is why lawyers in the first 15 years of practicing show the highest rates of drinking. Younger lawyers also tend to have enormous student debt—often more than $100,000.

No matter the profession, stress is one of the most frequent motivations for alcohol abuse. The problem with using alcohol as a stress reliever is that it only works in the short term. Long term heavy drinking alters your brain chemistry, releasing additional stress hormones to adjust to the regular presence of alcohol, a central nervous system depressant. As a result, you face higher levels of anxiety in response to stress than you did before, and you require increasingly large amounts of alcohol to feel the relaxation that you crave. Long term chemical changes in the brain can cause depression and other psychiatric problems as well.

The Need for Work-Life Balance

If one of the causes of substance abuse is the rat race lifestyle, then learning how to get out of the rat race is a necessary component of substance abuse treatment. Giving up the rat race doesn’t necessarily mean quitting your job, but rather learning how to achieve a healthy work-life balance. A good place to start is by letting go of perfectionism. Holding yourself to an impossible or impossible to sustain standard will always lead to burnout or unhealthy behaviors like substance abuse. Try to shift your focus to doing the best you can instead.

Other good advice for a healthy work life balance:

1. Start small.

Overachievers are especially likely to take on too much with an all or nothing attitude. Try not to exchange your overly harsh standards in the rat race for overly harsh standards for how to get out of the rat race. Instead of vowing to never again work over the weekend, limit weekend work to Saturdays only, or promise yourself one entirely work-free weekend per month. Even small changes can have big benefits, and over time you can take on more.

2. Restructure your life for more time and less stress.

Step back to honestly examine all that you do, and identify areas where a change could make your life easier. If you always organize the annual corporate retreat, maybe it’s time to delegate some or all of those duties to someone else for a change. If you can afford to, pay for help in the house or the yard—even if only once a month. Hiring someone to take care of some of your non-professional work will give you more time to relax. You should also examine your life for time-wasters, like social media or that game on your phone you can’t resist. People can be time wasters too. If you have a coworker who unloads on you for an hour every morning, plan ahead, and come up with polite ways to excuse yourself.

3. Turn off the tech—at least for a little while.

With smartphones that allow you to check your work email and the increasing number of people who work remotely from home, the line between work hours and personal time is often blurred. When your boss can consult you on an office problem at home in the evening, you never get the chance to feel like you’re off work. Turn off your phone (or at least the notifications) whenever possible. Even just an hour or two of uninterrupted, non-work time can give you some much needed peace.

4. Look after your physical health.

Overwork makes it too easy to neglect healthy behaviors like eating well and exercising. Driving through for fast food in the morning is chosen over cooking breakfast at home. Long hours at work get in the way of going to the gym, or heading outside for a run. Good nutrition and physical fitness are needed for energy and mental focus. Exercise is also excellent for anyone in substance abuse treatment, as it releases dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter that can be depleted by chronic substance abuse.

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If you recognize that your drinking or drug use has gotten out of control, it’s time to choose sobriety and find professional help. Call 800-996-6135(Who Answers?) to find the right care for your needs. The best time to start healing is now.

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