You’ve probably never considered yourself an addict, but our everyday rituals may have more power over us than we’d like to admit. How long can you really go without a coffee? And when do you ever turn off your smartphone?
While these things are no problem in moderation, there is a point at which they can become dangerous, or even life-threatening. “An addiction may be seriously impairing a patient’s life, but they are lulled into a false sense of security because their behaviour is so commonplace,” says Dr Tara Wyne, clinical psychologist and director of The Lighthouse Arabia.
Traditionally viewed in terms of substances, the American Society of Addiction Medicine has recently embraced a much broader definition of ‘addiction’ that also encompasses behavioural addictions.
As everything we ingest is a substance of some sort and everything we do is a kind of behaviour, just about anything has the potential to get you hooked – we take a look at some of the likely culprits...
Studies show that regular caffeine users, even those who only have one cup of coffee per day, can develop a physical dependency and suffer withdrawal symptoms – from headaches and irritability to nausea and fatigue – when deprived of their fix. While the consequences of caffeine addiction are usually mild, they can also be more severe.
“I worked with a teenager who drank several two-litre bottles of cola on a daily basis,” says Dr Wyne. “It was overshadowing eating and limiting his consumption of any nutritious food. He had no awareness that his behaviour had become addictive, but it was leading to sleep disturbance and increased levels of aggression and irritability, rendering him unable to concentrate on any activity or cognitive task.”
In extreme cases ‘caffeine toxicity’, or consuming high amounts of caffeine, can cause irritability, insomnia, abnormal heartbeat, and sometimes, even cardiac arrest.
If you can’t resist the call of the sunbed every weekend, there might be more to it than just enjoying the sunshine – frequent tanners have been shown to experience a loss of control over their tanning rituals in a pattern of addiction similar to smokers and alcoholics.
UV light prompts our bodies to release cutaneous endorphins – happy chemicals that can hook tanners to the point of dependency – meaning addicts who are deprived of their sun fix can experience surprising withdrawal symptoms. In one study, frequent tanners who were given an opioid receptor blocker (which causes withdrawal symptoms in opioid drug–addicted people but not in non-addicted people) developed the same nausea and jitteriness you’d expect to find in a hard drug addict.
Other symptoms include anxiety if a tanning session is missed, competition among peers to see who can get the darkest tan and chronic frustration about the colour of one’s skin, which in extreme cases can be a form of body dysmorphic disorder.
This is probably the most harmful seemingly innocent addiction, as serious cases of tanorexia can be fatal – prolonged exposure to UV radiation is known to cause skin cancer and other dermatological issues, as well as the psychological problems associated with addiction.
Junk food junkie
You might think that just one more doughnut isn’t much of a sin, but your brain shows the same response when you eat junk food as it would if you ingested hard drugs, according to a 2010 study.
The report found that pleasure centres in the brains of rats addicted to high-fat, high-calorie diets were the same ones activated in those addicted to diacetylmorphine (otherwise known as heroin), and they became less responsive as the bingeing wore on, making the rats consume more and more food to get the same effect.
This helps explain the changes in the brain that lead people to overeat on unhealthy foods (after all, when was the last time you binged on a bowl of broccoli?) and is the most conclusive evidence that suggests obesity and drug addiction have common neurological underpinnings.
So think twice before you take another bite – it could be the beginning of a downward spiral, and the results can be very serious. “Overeating on junk food leads to obesity, heart disease, diabetes and basically any number of chronic disease states,” warns Dr Wyne.
Hooked to the net
It’s a recent phenomenon, but internet use disorder (IUD), is on the way to being recognised as a serious mental illness, and will be included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders from May next year. A person suffering from IUD will experience preoccupation with the internet, withdrawal symptoms when it is no longer available, tolerance (they will develop the need to spend more time on the net to achieve the same ‘high’), loss of other interests and find it hard to quit.
Research shows that people who are hooked on the internet have changes in how the brain’s dopamine system – the mechanism that allows us to experience pleasure and reward – operates, and a recent study used DNA samples to prove that net addicts carry the same gene variation that’s linked to nicotine addiction.
The addiction is particularly prevalent among kids, and headline-hitting horror stories have included children who have attacked or even killed their parents after being deprived of net access.
While there’s no doubt that other factors are at work in such tragic cases, for the average sufferer, “internet addiction can lead to chronic lifestyle imbalance, social withdrawal, and loss of social skills,” says Dr Wyne.
You only need to glance at the list of young celebrities who have passed away due to alleged prescription-drug addiction in recent years to be reminded of its grave consequences, with Brittany Murphy, Amy Winehouse and Michael Jackson all reported to have died of an overdose on legal medication.
Like many banned substances, these doctor-prescribed medications induce the happy chemical dopamine, which can produce cravings, tolerance, withdrawal, and many other typical symptoms of illicit substance addiction.
“We start to need increased levels of prescription drugs to achieve the same effects. With having to ingest more drugs, comes the risk of liver dysfunction, ulcers and overdose,” says Dr Wyne.
Yet people are unaware of the danger, because they assume a doctor would not prescribe something that could potentially harm them, making it very easily for them to rationalise their addictive behaviour.
Prescription drugs most often abused include painkillers, sedatives and anti-anxiety medications.
Speak to your doctor if you are concerned about a prescription, as early intervention may prevent the problem from turning into an addiction.