Behaviours can be as addicting as substances like alcohol and drugs. Learn which activities can cause serious problems for some people.
When most people hear the word addiction, they think of dependence on a substance, such as drugs or alcohol. And for good reason: According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in 2014 an estimated 21.5 million Americans aged 12 years or older have a significant problem with alcohol or drugs.
But alcohol, uppers, downers, and other commonly abused substances aren't the only things Americans abuse or think they're addicted to. In fact, just substitute the word "behaviour" for "substance," and you open up the definition of addiction to all kinds of dependencies, some of which may surprise you. Whether it's sex, the Internet, or bungee jumping, the desire to experience a "high" becomes so strong that the so-called addict loses control and seeks the activity despite all negative consequences.
While experts don't agree on whether they're all true addictions, here are eight habits that people get hooked on.
Constantly bucking your odds? Of all behavioural addictions, an addiction to gambling is the one that most closely resembles drug and alcohol addiction. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) classifies gambling disorder as an addictive disorder. Studies show that gambling addictions light up the same areas of the brain as drug addictions — and treatment for gambling disorder is usually included in the same type of therapy settings as drug and alcohol abuse.
You occasionally hear about a celebrity going into rehab for sex addiction, but is an obsessive craving for sex a real addiction? Perhaps: Though it's not formally classified as an addiction, there are treatments for it, and the APA did consider, but reject, the idea of adding addictive sexual behaviour to the fifth edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders under the heading "hypersexual behaviour disorder." In addition, the symptoms of sex addiction — including loss of control and disregard for risks and consequences — are very similar to those of traditional addictions. What's a sex addict to do? As with drugs, alcohol, and even gambling, hypersexual activity seems to respond best to 12-step programs, such as Sex Addicts Anonymous.
We're living in a wired world — but is it possible to be too plugged in? Psychologists and psychiatrists don't generally consider Internet addiction a true addiction. But it can be a problem for some people when it involves loss of control, as well as negative consequences at work and at home. Research presented at the 2014 annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association seemed to support the idea of Internet addiction by showing changes in the brain identified by neuroimaging. The web may occupy up to 11 hours out of an "Internet addict's" day. Studies suggest that compulsive Internet use affects 6 to 14 percent of Internet users.
Shopping: It's yet another behaviour that, when it spins out of control, is considered to be an impulse control disorder (rather than a true addiction). Do you purchase items to avoid feeling sad — but then feel guilty afterwards? Do you have a closet full of clothes that still have the price tags on them? You could be a shopaholic. Studies show that compulsive shopping affects more women than men, and that it can result in big problems, both financially and personally. How can you get help? Treatment for a shopping addiction usually involves counselling and behavioural therapy.
Video Game Addiction
Can't get your hands off that game console? Research shows that video game addiction is most common in boys and men — and one study even found that as many as 1 in 10 video players between the ages of 8 and 18 are "out-of-control gamers" (and games begin to feel more like reality than fantasy). If you're addicted to your video games, treatments include counselling and behaviour modification.
Plastic Surgery Addiction
To improve the way they look, some people go under the knife again and again…and again. In fact, people with a propensity for plastic surgery may obsessively go from doctor to doctor until they find a plastic surgeon or dermatologist who agrees to treat them. The truth is, these people are more likely to have body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) than a cosmetic surgery addiction. About 1 to 2 percent of the population has body dysmorphic disorder, according to the International OCD Foundation, and the disorder is thought to be many times more prevalent among plastic surgery patients. People with this disorder are preoccupied with their appearance and believe that they are ugly or deformed.
Binge Eating Disorder: Food Addiction
For years, Americans have argued over whether food obsessions can actually be food addictions — or whether this "disorder" is more of an excuse. In truth, binge eating disorder is a real problem that affects about 3 percent of adults in the United States. Symptoms include eating to ease emotions, overdoing it on food while alone, and feeling guilty after the binge. The cause of eating disorders is not known, but it is probably linked more to depression than addiction.
Risky Behaviour Addiction
Thrill seekers share many of the same symptoms as drug addicts; they get a rush from skydiving or rock climbing, but after a while, they seek out even more dangerous adventures to feel that same level of excitement. And studies show that these thrills flood the brain with the same chemicals released by addictive drugs.
The bottom line: Not all behavioural addictions meet the classic definition of physical addiction, but they do share many of the psychological and social hallmarks — and they will respond well to traditional types of addiction treatment.