When most people think about addictions, they associate the word with an addiction to substances, such as alcohol, tobacco or other drugs. But in recent years, scientists have spent more and more time studying what's known as behavioral addiction, or an overwhelming desire to engage in a particular behavior or action. Some of the characteristics of substance addictions and behavioral addictions are the same, including lack of control over one's actions, compulsive or obsessive behavior and continuing to do something despite negative consequences.
For some addictions, though, the action itself is considered socially acceptable, making the addiction harder to identify and deal with. In fact, some behaviors are so common that an addiction can easily go by unnoticed [source: Ries]. But where is the line between normal behavior and an addiction? And how can you tell the difference? Here, we'll take a look at 10 things that some people -- maybe even you -- might not even realize they're addicted to.
"Workaholic" is a term that's thrown around pretty loosely these days. But even if you spend a lot of your time working and are especially devoted to your profession, you may not necessarily be a workaholic.
Workaholics find reasons to work, even if there's no need to -- their minds are constantly thinking about work and work-related things. Workaholism is a compulsive disorder, so an addict doesn't even necessarily have to like his or her job. In other words, if you're a workaholic, it's part of who you are, not a result of the job you have [source: Robinson].
Workaholism is an emotional issue, so it's not just about the number of hours you work; it's about your frame of mind and the chemical processes happening in your body that reinforce the behavior. Some workaholics get their high from the adrenaline released when they're stressed out [source: Robinson]. Others, however, might be performance addicts who are drawn to the praise and sense of accomplishment that comes with overworking.
Like any addiction, a work addiction can negatively affect other areas of your life, such as relationships with family and friends, and even physical health. One problem with being addicted to work is that other people -- bosses, co-workers or family members -- sometimes reinforce the behavior and even reward work addicts for being so focused and driven in their jobs. Society values a strong work ethic -- so much so that it can be difficult to notice when a person has become addicted.
Even though the Internet has only been around for a few short decades, some people's preoccupation with being on the Web has crossed over from hobby to addiction. And that's probably not difficult to believe considering how much time most of us spend in front of our computers these days.
As our work, social and private lives become more and more technology-oriented, some of us have a hard time knowing when to power down. According to The Center for Internet Addiction Recovery, between 5 and 10 percent of people are addicted to Internet use today [source: Padwa]. And Internet addiction rates tend to be higher among college students -- some studies found rates as high as 15 percent [source: Young].
So what are the signs of Internet addiction? Like most addictions, the major sign is that it interferes with your normal life. For addicts, time spent online takes priority over pretty much everything else and can start to affect relationships with other people. Some studies show that Internet addicts may actually go online just to feel normal, and that time spent away from the Internet creates feelings of withdrawal. Addicts might also feel irritable, depressed or lonely when they're unable to spend enough time online. Studies show that an Internet addict will spend, on average, 38 hours per week online [sources: Padwa; Ries].
These days, getting an ultra-customized, caffeinated beverage in one of the many coffee shops around town is the norm for most people. But have you ever forgotten your morning cup of joe? Did you get a headache? Were you irritable? You might have been experiencing withdrawal from a caffeine addiction. Even if coffee's not your drink of choice, other caffeinated beverages like soda or energy drinks have the same effect.
Like most addictive drugs, caffeine provides a reward for the brain. Caffeine mimics adenosine, a molecule that induces sleep and slows down the body's nervous system. When you take in caffeine, it binds to adenosine receptors in the brain instead of allowing the adenosine to bind with them. But caffeine doesn't have the same effect as adenosine. Instead of slowing down the nervous system, caffeine causes it to speed up, and adenosine doesn't get a chance to do its thing. And the more caffeine you take in, the more reliant on it you become to keep going [source: American Running and Fitness Association]. Caffeine also increases dopamine production, which activates the pleasure centers of the brain -- another reason it can be addictive.
Some of the signs of caffeine addiction include restlessness, chest pains, fatigue, nausea and headaches. More than half of coffee drinkers experience withdrawal symptoms when trying to cut out the drink [source: Lowinson].
Does the thought of missing your favorite television series stress you out? Would you be bummed if your cable service went down for a day? Do you sometimes think you spend too much time watching TV? Well, you're not alone. As many as 12.5 percent of people say they're addicted to television, while up to 70 percent surveyed thought that others were addicted [source: Kubey].
Some types of addictions develop as a sort of self-medication. In other words, they're used as a way of dealing with negativity or to numb emotions such as sadness, loneliness or stress. Sometimes they just make you feel relaxed or help you to tune-out for a while. One example of this effect is television. Studies show that people feel more relaxed and at ease while watching television -- they're less alert and their brain waves are less active [source: Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi]. And that's what most people want after a long day at work, right?
The problem is that relying on something like television to take away stress can become addictive behavior. And like addictive drugs, the longer you do it, the less of a reward you get from it. That's why, for instance, the fifth hour of TV viewing is less satisfying than the first.
What's more, when you're relaxed, you're less likely to stop doing what you're doing -- in other words, relaxing in front of the TV makes you less likely to want to turn the TV off and go do something else.
Being in love creates feelings of excitement and attachment, but addicts become overly preoccupied and even obsessed with those feelings. One type of love addiction occurs when a person becomes obsessed with a love interest. These people tend to feel as if they can't live without the person, and that their significant other is their only source of happiness.
Another type of love addiction happens when the addict seeks to replicate the emotional high of a new relationship over and over again. When you're in love, the body releases a bunch of chemicals that make you feel energetic, happy and motivated, such as dopamine. You also have increased levels of oxytocin, which gives you a feeling of attachment. This effect is greater early in a relationship, which is why some people who are "addicted to love" continually seek out new love interests in order to reproduce those early-relationship feelings [source: Sussman].
Scientists think there may be a few things that can lead to an over-preoccupation with love. While brain-related problems or imbalances may be a factor, social interactions and early family life might also play a role. Some researchers even think that our culture's obsession with portraying and idealizing love leads people to become overly focused on it, as well [source: Sussman].
We all know someone who constantly seems like a downer. You know, those glass-half-empty people? The people who can always seem to find a downside for everything that's positive? Well it turns out that some people can actually become addicted to negativity and self-doubt -- a situation that's sometimes referred to as "negaholism."
People who are addicted to negativity see everything in a negative light -- the outlook is always bleak. They find fault in most things and never seem to be satisfied. What's more, negativity addicts might actually seek out negative situations and criticism or be preoccupied with past negative experiences. Negaholics also tend to complain about a problem, rather than try to fix it.
So what's addictive about being negative? Well, like most addictive behaviors or substances, negativity gives you a mental stimulus. And our brains actually react more strongly to negative stimuli than to positive stimuli, so negative thoughts and feelings are more stimulating than positive ones. What some people become addicted to is the surge of brain activity happening when they think negatively [source: Cannon].
Negativity addiction can be deep-rooted and can result from emotional trauma or dysfunction at an early age. It's kind of like a build up of negative emotions that paints everything else in a negative light, sometimes making it difficult to overcome [source: Cannon].
Exercise is a healthy activity, and even though not all of us engage in it, we all know the benefits. But for some, the need to break a sweat and work the body can turn from a healthy habit into a dangerous addiction.
Some people who are addicted to exercise actually experience withdrawal symptoms if they haven't exercised for a day or more. These symptoms include irritability, anxiety and even guilt for not hitting the gym. Usually these symptoms appear when the person is injured or is prevented from exercising for some reason that can't be controlled.
Exercise addicts make exercise a priority, even if it's not physically advisable (such as after an injury). They constantly feel the need to maintain a certain exercise regimen and can become stressed out of they don't feel they've exercised enough. Some might never feel satisfied with the amount of exercise they're doing.
Picking, scratching, squeezing a zit, pulling at a hangnail -- it's all harmless, right? Well, not always. The addiction to skin picking, also called dermatillomania or pathological skin picking, involves obsessively picking and pulling at the skin, even if it causes harm (like bleeding, scabbing or scarring). Some skin pickers use their fingernails and others even use implements like tweezers or pins. Some addicted skin-pickers say they spend up to 12 hours a day picking at their skin [source: Ries].
The disorder is not specific to one particular area of the body -- skin pickers might pick at their hands, arms, face and pretty much anywhere else, though some people limit their compulsive behavior to one area of their body.
For many of the afflicted, it's a nervous tic -- they pick more frequently when under stress, and it might even be a subconscious behavior that they're not always aware they're doing. Most people engage in picking when alone or only around close family, since there is a social stigma attached to this type of behavior. The majority of skin pickers tend to be women, but men can also be addicted to this behavior as well. Like exercise, picking is sometimes associated with body dysmorphic disorder, especially if the picking is related to grooming
Have you ever been called a "shopaholic" because you'll hit the mall at the drop of a hat? It turns out that shopping addiction is a real thing, and it affects about 1 in 20 people [source: Gordon]. This addiction, also called oniomania, can be destructive, and not just to your bank account.
So what do you get from compulsive shopping other than a new pair of shoes? What's going on is that shopping makes you feel good: The body releases endorphins that stimulate the pleasure centers of your brain, making you happy and reinforcing your shopping habit. What's addictive is this high that comes with making purchases [source: Hatfield]. Another reason some shopaholics take to the stores is to soothe away negative emotions, like sadness and depression, giving meaning to the phrase "retail therapy."
But how do you know when your shopping habit has spiraled out of control? One of the most obvious signs is continually spending outside of your budget. Compulsive shoppers may have a spending limit in mind, but lack the self-control to stay within it. And it happens time and time again, not just once or twice. Shopaholics also often convince themselves that they actually need the things they're buying, even if they don't. Some shopping addicts even go to lengths to hide evidence of their shopping, whether that means stashing purchases or hiding bank statements, in fear that others will make them feel guilty about it.
Yes, that's right -- you can actually become addicted to things you're allergic to. It's a strange phenomenon, but it's pretty common and, when you get down to the science of it, it's easy to see that it works just like most other addictions.
When you have an allergic reaction to a food, the body releases a bunch of endorphins, lifting your mood and making you feel happier. The chemical high you get from these endorphins can be addictive in the same way drugs can be [source: Challem]. As a result, you end up seeking out those foods in order to replicate that euphoric feeling, a process that can end up becoming an addiction as you begin to subconsciously associate the foods you're allergic to with good feelings.
The most common foods to produce this allergy addiction effect include chocolate, soy, dairy products and wheat -- some of the "comfort foods" many of us flock to when we're feeling down.
To find out more about addictions and compulsions -- some admittedly stranger than others -- take a look at the links on the next page.
About 23.5 million Americans over the age of 12 are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Quiz yourself on addiction and dependence at HowStuffWorks.
More Great Links
- American Running and Fitness Association. "Kicking the Caffeine Habit." Running & FitNews. July - August 2008. (April 3, 2011)http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0NHF/is_4_26/ai_n29480190/
- Cannon, Carol. "Hooked on Unhappiness: Breaking the Cycle of Discontent." Pacific Press Publishing. 2008.
- Challem, Jack. "The Inflammation Syndrome: The Complete Nutritional Program to Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, Arthritis, Diabetes, Allergies, and Asthma." John Wiley and Sons. 2003.
- Gordon, Dan. "Shop Till You Stop." UCLA Magazine. Oct. 1, 2010. (April 3, 2011)http://www.magazine.ucla.edu/depts/lifesigns/shop/
- Hatfield, Heather. "Shopping Spree, or Addiction?" WebMD. 2004. (April 3, 2011). http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/shopping-spree-addiction
- Kamen, Gary. "Foundations of Exercise Science." Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. 2001.
- Kubey, Robert. "Television Dependence, Diagnosis, and Prevention: With Commentary on Video Games, Pornography, and Media Education." 1996. (April 4, 2011)http://www.mediastudies.rutgers.edu/depend.pdf
- Kubey, Robert and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. "Television Addiction is No Mere Metaphor." Scientific American. Feb. 23, 2002. (April 4, 2011)http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=television-addiction-is-n-2002-02
- Ling, Richard Seyler and Per E. Pedersen (Eds.). "Mobile Communications: Re-Negotiation of the Social Sphere." Birkhauser. 2005.
- Lowinson, Joyce H. et al. "Substance Abuse: A Comprehensive Textbook." Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. 2005.
- Padwa, Howard, and Jacob Cunningham (Eds.). "Addiction: A Reference Encyclopedia." ABC-CLIO. 2010.
- Ries, Richard K. et al. "Principles of Addiction Medicine." Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. 2009.
- Robinson, Bryan E. "Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them." NYU Press. 2001.
- Singleton, Tommie W., and Aaron J. Singleton. "Fraud Auditing and Forensic Accounting." John Wiley & Sons. 2010.
- Sussman, Steve. "Love Addiction: Definition, Etiology, Treatment." Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity. Jan. 1, 2010.
- Weinberg, Robert S., and Daniel Gould. "Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology." Human Kinetics Publishers. 2010.
- Young, Kimberly S., and Cristiano Nabuco de Abreu. "Internet Addiction: A Handbook and Guide to Evaluation and Treatment." John Wiley & Sons. 2011.