Addictions are chronic and persistent behaviors that we continue to do despite the negative consequences, and although common addictions such as alcoholism and drug abuse may immediately come to mind, some people suffer from addictive behaviors -- and strange ones, at that. We may joke that we're addicted to chocolate, but what if you really were addicted to it? What if you couldn't stop eating chocolate no matter how sick it made you? Or, what if you were addicted to something else -- such as online gaming or eating dirt?
"Like addiction to heroin, these 'addictions' are an effort to control or avoid discomfort instead of learning to cope with it in ways that don't interfere with a person's relationships, safety or livelihood," explains Clairmarie Szopa, MS, LCPC, NCC, adjunct faculty at National-Louis University and counselor at Choices Counseling & Coaching.
So what strange behaviors are some people compelled to do? The first of our top 10 could be seen happening anywhere from Rodeo Drive to Fifth Avenue to the Mall of America.
A study conducted at Stanford University in 2006 found that an estimated 6 percent of Americans are affected by a shopping addiction, but a 2008 study in the "Journal of Consumer Research" suggests the number may be closer to 9 percent of the population. So what's the difference between simply enjoying shopping and being a compulsive shopper? Compulsive shopping is characterized by excessive time and money spent shopping, lying about and hiding purchases, masking feelings of emptiness, anger, depression or other negative feelings, and a need for establishing a sense of control. Compulsive shoppers often feel guilty about their behavior but simply can't stop shopping. And many purchases remain unopened or unused.
Compulsive shoppers experience a high or sense of euphoria from shopping. It's similar to when an individual with a substance abuse problem uses his or her drug of choice. "The external source of relief -- shopping in this case -- is always pleasurable the first time. Endorphins are released, blotting out our discomfort. If that didn't happen the first time, we wouldn't try to repeat the experience. Eventually, though," explains Szopa, "it becomes a circular exercise in diminishing returns. As stressors increase, the reward loses its punch, so we have to do it more often and in increasing amounts in an attempt to get effective relief."
A combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication (such as antidepressants) can help break the shopping cycle, and is often accompanied by programs such as "Debtors Anonymous" or other credit counseling.
For many of us couch potatoes, an addiction to exercise may sound impossible. Thirty minutes a day, most days of the week is difficult enough. How can anyone fit in hours of exercise on a daily basis? Think about it -- why would it be called a runner's high if it didn't feel great? Compulsive exercisers make exercise their focus, to the detriment of their relationships, work (or school) and even their own health.
Compulsive exercise comes from a need for control and many who are addicted obsess over caloric intake or pounds lost. They may work out alone, work out with the same routine, work out for more than two hours every day, skip work to exercise or even exercise to the point of injury (and continue to work out despite their injury).
Did You Know?
It's estimated that 10 percent of high-performance runners as well as 10 percent of body builders have an addiction to exercise.
The natural high you feel after a day at the beach could be addictive.
A study conducted at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and published in the August 2005 edition of the journal "Archives of Dermatology" found that more than 50 percent of beach lovers could be considered tanning addicts, and 26 percent of sun worshippers would qualify as having a substance-related disorder.
Tanning, whether at the beach or in a booth, is a high-risk activity because of its known link to skin cancers, yet some people can't give it up. When we're exposed to ultraviolet rays from the sun (or a tanning bed), our bodies make endorphins -- endorphins boost our mood. Researchers at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center found that frequent tanners (people who tan eight to 15 times every month) experience physiological withdrawal symptoms when denied the mood-boosting chemicals produced during tanning. The withdrawal symptoms include dizziness and nausea, much like what a person undergoing alcohol or drug withdrawal suffers.
The number of people choosing cosmetic surgery, according to a survey conducted by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, is on the rise. In 2008, 12.1 million people had a cosmetic procedure done, compared to 7.4 million people in 2000. Women have the most work done -- 91 percent of all cosmetic procedures are done on women. While having a nose job or breast augmentation isn't uncommon, for an estimated 10 percent of people who want plastic surgery, it becomes a problem.
Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is often the root of the desire to have repeated cosmetic surgery, and can lead not only to multiple plastic surgery procedures, despite health or financial risk, but also anxiety, depression and social isolation. BDD is an illness that is characterized by obsessively thinking about physical appearance, flaws in one's physical appearance and numerous attempts to fix the flaws (no matter whether they're real or imagined).
BDD is believed to be caused by a combination of genetic predisposition (if someone in your family has BDD your chances increase), an imbalance of chemicals in the brain (specifically, serotonin), and environmental factors (including culture and societal pressures and low self-esteem). Individuals with BDD often find relief with cognitive-behavioral therapy and medications.
Ice chewing is a crunchy habit that may be an indicator of iron deficiency anemia. The practice of compulsively chewing and consuming excessive amounts of ice is called pagophagia. Pagophagia is a form of pica, a condition where people crave and eat nonfood items that have no nutritional value.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 2 percent of American males ages 18 and older as well as 16 percent of females between ages 16 and 19 are compulsive ice chewers.
Treating compulsive ice chewing often requires nothing more than treating the iron deficiency, although for some people, the compulsive craving may indicate a developmental disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder or too much stress.
Did You Know?
According to a January 2008 article in the "Wall Street Journal," sales of machines that produce easier-to-chew ice increased by roughly 23 percent between 2003 and 2006.
Compulsive hair pulling is a psychological condition known as trichotillomania, or trich, and it's estimated that as many as 11 million Americans suffer from it.
Trich is an impulse-control disorder and those with it can't overcome the overwhelming urge to pull out their own hair -- be it from the scalp or crown of the head, their eyelashes, eyebrows or any other part of the body. The hair pulling is so extreme that it results in bald patches. Those afflicted often experience feelings of tension or anxiety that aren't relieved until they pull, which gives the individual a sense of relief or pleasure. In addition to pulling, those with the disorder may also chew or eat their hair.
"Impulse control disorders," Szopa explains, "are different from addictions, though both stem from feelings of low personal control. People who struggle with impulse control disorders have difficulty delaying the gratification of many types of urges in a wide variety of circumstances, and they have difficulty anticipating the negative results of satisfying those urges."
The saying goes, "Tattoos are like potato chips ... you can't have just one."
Roughly 14 percent of Americans have a tattoo, according to a 2008 Harris Interactive poll. People often associate their tattoos with specific characteristics. For example, 36 percent of inked individuals say their body art makes them feel rebellious, 31 percent feel sexier and 19 percent feel attractive and strong.
Tattooing and other body modification such as piercing, branding and scarification, are ways for individuals to express themselves and display body art -- and many people report that the endorphins released during a tattoo session make up for any discomfort during the process.
However, when body modification turns to self-mutilation or self-injury, mental health professionals grow concerned. Cutting, for example, is a technique people with emotional problems use to control their emotional pain. Cutting and other self-injurious behaviors can be symptoms of mental illnesses including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Craving and eating nonfood items is a condition called pica and those with the disorder are known to compulsively eat paint, feces, cigarette ashes, paper and a variety of other non-nutritional items. When the cravings are for soil or otherwise earthy materials (including coal, chalk and clay), it's called geophagia.
Pica and geophagia may be caused by nutritional deficiencies of iron or zinc, often because of dieting, food deprivation or malnutrition, but may also be symptoms of developmental disabilities such as autism or mental retardation or mental illnesses such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. Some women experience pica during pregnancy, and some cultures don't find such practices out of the ordinary.
Pica may be treated with a combination of behavior therapy, aversion therapy and positive reinforcement. Environmental education, family education and medical treatments are helpful in addressing any nutrient deficiencies, anemia or lead exposure.
Could video game playing be an addiction? Yes, says the Center for On-line Addiction -- at least when it becomes excessive, the gamer is overwhelmed with thoughts of gaming while engaging in non-gaming activities, the gamer lies about time spent gaming and feels anxious or irritable when not gaming. These criteria are similar to the criteria for compulsive gambling.
Addicted gamers are typically male and most are under the age of 30. While the cause of gaming addiction is unclear, mental health professionals believe it may be similar to other impulse control disorders. The act of gaming elevates dopamine levels, a feel-good, mood altering chemical our brain produces. Gaming can also give a person who may have poor self-esteem or trouble socializing a way to escape daily life or even a way to cope with depression and anxiety symptoms.
Internet and the Blackberry
There's a reason the Blackberry is nicknamed the "Crackberry" -- a study conducted at Rutgers University suggests that while many of us find our work-issued Blackberry a type of albatross, some people become preoccupied with the Internet and the connection their Blackberry provides, compulsively checking for new e-mail or updates every few minutes. It's a vicious cycle, though, according to a recent study from the MIT Sloan School of Management: Compulsively checking your Blackberry gives a sense of control but also leads to an increased level of stress.
The problem has become prevalent enough that many mental health professionals now recognize Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) as a condition characterized by Internet usage that interferes with a person's daily life (social events, school and work) along with symptoms of withdrawal (including tension, anger and depression) when unable to go online.
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