When we hear the term “addiction disorder,” what most commonly comes to mind are substance abuse and alcohol use disorder. Traditionally, most well-known recovery and support programs are geared toward these types of addictions. However, the terms “addiction” and “addiction disorder” encompass a much broader range of behaviors that can become problematic when performed in excess. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, “addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.” An addiction is essentially a disease involving reward circuitry in the brain, which is manifested by the pursuit of reward in ways that are maladaptive.
This article describes four types of non-substance addictions that affect many people. Chances are, you likely know someone who struggles with one or more of these addictions. While many of these disorders are not currently classified under medical codes, they can truly become overwhelming and negatively impact behavior in significant ways. The common thread across these addiction disorders is that engaging in the behavior releases endogenously-produced endorphins that elevate dopamine levels, a mood-altering chemical in our brain. When dopamine is released, it gives people the same kind of rush that drugs and alcohol can produce, and individuals will continue to seek out this feeling, sometimes to the point of disrupting other facets of life, like work or school.
One addictive behavior that has emerged over the last decade has been online gaming. Internet gaming disorder is manifested by excessive use of Internet games, which leads to distress or problems functioning. Symptoms of this addiction disorder are frequently characterized by unsuccessful attempts to limit gaming, deceiving others about the amount of time spent on games, reduced interest in other activities, and resultant problems in relationships, school, or work. Internet gaming disorder tends to affect males aged 30 and under who have full-time jobs or attend school. Oftentimes, people with this disorder are most comfortable socializing or coping with other stressors online. Available research suggests that there are underlying similarities between gaming addictions and other impulsive control or substance use disorders.
Many people seem to be joined at the hip to their smartphones. Like the other behaviors described here, similar to drugs and alcohol, smartphone use can trigger the release of dopamine that can create an addictive reward system. People who become addicted to smartphone use rely on the device to socialize, date, participate in sexual relationships, and engage in other stimuli-boosting behaviors.
While there is not a specified amount of time that constitutes smartphone addiction or overuse, there are red flags that point to disordered behavior. These symptoms include: neglecting your face-to-face relationships and responsibilities, a decline in productivity or the quality of work, and compulsively checking phones in a way that may compromise safety or the ability to focus on another task. If you or a loved one is demonstrating these tendencies, then it could be time to make a change.
It’s important for everyone to monitor their relationship with their smartphone and examine whether they are using it at a frequency that is negatively impacting their emotional health. Heavy smartphone use can be symptomatic of other underlying problems (e.g. stress, depression, or loneliness), and it can also exacerbate these problems. Smartphone addiction can have many negative impacts on everyday life, such as fueling anxiety and depression, intensifying attention deficits, and increasing social isolation, even while active on social networking apps. Furthermore, with distractions and notifications interrupting real life activities or work, theoretically round the clock, one’s capacity to think, work, or interact on a substantial level is compromised. Excessive smartphone use creates a person who is never truly alone with his or her thoughts; a person who constantly feels the need to check their phone, instead of catering to basic needs like eating and sleeping.
Compulsive shopping is characterized by spending excessive time and money on purchases, sometimes without even using or opening them, and lying and/or hiding these purchases. In response to their behavior, individuals often report guilt around compulsive shopping but cannot stop because they experience a “high” from engaging in this behavior. Furthermore, tolerance can build in a similar way to substance disorders, meaning increasing quantities are necessary to achieve the desired effect. Typically, this behavior develops in response to feelings of emptiness, depression, or another negative emotional state and is used to mask these emotions and create a sense of control.
While engaging in exercise can be a healthy behavior, it can be taken to the extreme. Compulsive exercisers narrowly prioritize exercise to the detriment of their responsibilities, work, relationships, and sometimes even their own health. Compulsive exercisers often are fixated on caloric intake and/or pounds lost, and this becomes another way to control this aspect of their environment. Again, there may not be firm criteria to establish when this behavior crosses into a problematic level, but common patterns include exercising for more than two hours every day, skipping work or other responsibilities to exercise, exercising to the point of injury, and, in some cases, exercising in spite of an injury.
Whether it be alcohol, shopping, or a video game, people with any addiction disorder (including non-substance addiction disorder) are often struggling and wanting to make a change. Ultimately, increased awareness of these problems and increased compassion are the best catalysts for positive change. Here at Soberlink, we believe that looking at addictions, such as Alcohol Use Disorder, as chronic diseases is the best way to help someone. Understanding all of the underlying issues and proposing solutions that increase accountability is a proven way to help overcome addiction. Understanding these addictions and the ways to view them can facilitate leading a healthy life and minimize disruptive addictions.
Marni Amsellem, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice specializing in health psychology, health behavior, anxiety, stress, and coping. Additionally, she consults on and writes about a variety of mental health, relationship, and prevention-focused topics, which she shares on her website www.smarthealthpsych.com and social media @smartpsychreads.
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