What Is ‘Drama Addiction’? Here Are a Doctor’s 7 Red Flags You Have One

We can be addicted to substances as well as nonsubstances. Our interview with Dr. Scott Lyons explains what addiction to drama is, how to recognize it, and how to manage it.

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Americans are more stressed and anxious than ever. The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America 2022 survey showed what the APA referred to as “a battered American psyche” and a population that largely feels out of control. From civil liberties distress to worries about the economy to the environment, Americans report a lot is keeping them up at night. Some of this stress and anxiety is due to external factors, like the issues out in the world, and some due to internal stimuli (“I don’t have control”). All of it, says Dr. Scott Lyons PhD, DO, can lead to an addiction to drama. When crisis and chaos are the norm, drama can feel like a balm.

Scott Lyons is a doctor of osteopathy and licensed holistic psychologist, as well as the author of the May 2023 book, Addicted to Drama. Dr. Lyons spoke with The Healthy @Reader’s Digest about drama addiction and even created a drama addiction quiz to help determine if you or someone you know is drama-obsessed.

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What is drama addiction?

Dr. Lyons admits there’s no easy way to describe addiction to drama, so he leaned on a quote from Alfred Hitchcock: “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” Dr. Lyons reframes addiction to drama to show how addiction to drama is an adaptive survival mechanism and how it helps us. “Addiction to drama is an avoidant strategy to help us keep distance from our underlying pain and trauma,” he says, adding that it’s about making sensations in response to numbness.

“When we have trauma or pain, our body freezes and creates a protection response, and that freezing is essentially a layer of numbness,” Dr. Lyons explains. “Drama helps bring us over the height of the wall so we feel something,” Dr. Lyons says, “and it reminds us we’re alive.”

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What does addiction to drama feel like?

Experts say parts of the human brain respond to a negative stimulus such as what we call “drama” because it’s synonymous with a sense of connection, even if that bonding happens through crisis and chaos. There’s even a reward circuit for this in the brain—because it’s so critical for our survival—and it’s a natural endorphin, which relieves pain. “Drama addiction treats pain and the subsequent numbness that forms around it through a heightened intensity of feelings, sensation and activity that reaffirms we’re still alive,” Dr. Lyons says. This is why trauma bonding exists.

Drama addiction occurs on a spectrum. Dr. Lyons reminds readers that trauma isn’t the event. “Trauma is what happens in the liminal space between one event and the perceived stress of the next event,” he says, “And that interstitial space is where we see these adaptive strategies form because we change our physiology to be in the anticipation and protection of the next possible trauma.”

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What are common symptoms of drama addiction?

Dr. Lyons says he has experience being both in the drama himself and observing it as a researcher and therapist. He’s identified seven common symptoms.

  • Lack of control, which Dr. Lyons defines as “The inability to control the external world leads to feelings of being overwhelmed, helpless and victimized.”
  • Always Intense – “Intensity for people addicted to drama often translates to an unrelenting sense of urgency,” Dr. Lyons explains. “Without it, something feels wrong.”
  • Prone to Overreaction – “Extreme thinking, creation of big stories, and the meaning and emotion associated with them lead to overreactions.”
  • Feeling alone, isolated and abandoned – “Inherent in the sense of feeling abandoned and alone is a mistrust that anyone would or could support or be present for them,” Dr. Lyons says.
  • A constant sense of uneasiness – People with an addiction to drama feel like something is always about to go wrong. This looks different from the outside, where it feels like the drama addict is sucking the air out of the room, but from the inside the drama addict “is assigning meaning and trying to make sense of the constant sensation of dis-ease.”
  • Numbness and sensory overload – “They have a continuous sense of too much and not enough of anything, but especially feelings,” Dr. Lyons explains.
  • Dissociation – “Many people addicted to drama experience variations of disassociation, or a sense of being anchorless, detached from themselves, and lacking solid ground and a sense of stability,” Dr. Lyons says.

How to thrive with (and around) drama addiction

Whether you’re a drama addict or close to someone who is, the most important thing is identifying it without judgment. When it’s someone else, Dr. Lyons encourages “empathic understanding,” which means you don’t try to fix them, and you reframe or reorient your orientation to the behavior. This may look like clarifying your boundaries and taking alone time to re-center yourself. Sometimes, it can mean walking away from a relationship.

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Jaime Stathis
Jaime Alexis Stathis is a nonfiction writer whose favorite topics are humans, technology, animals, wildlife, and the places where they intersect. She writes about health, wellness, technology, nutrition, and everything related to being a human being on a constantly evolving planet. Her work has been published in Self, Wired, Parade, Bon Appétit, The Independent, Rachael Ray In Season, and others. She is also a Licenced Massage Therapist. Jaime is working on a novel about a heroine who saves herself and a memoir about caring for her grandmother through the dark stages of dementia.