Strange Addictions: Sugar, Porn, Ice Cubes and More

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Going without coffee can lead to nasty withdrawals.

Addiction is a complicated idea. Even different mental health professionals define it differently, but there are a few points of agreement. If a substance or behavior is harming you or your relationships, if it’s hard to consistently avoid, and if you find yourself craving it all the time, you may be addicted.

In the 1970s and 80s, psychologists reserved the word "addiction" for substances like alcohol and cigarettes. But in the 21st century, brain scanning technology has shown that certain behaviors can trigger the same spots in the brain related to reward.

Smartphone Addiction?

Consider this: are you addicted to your smartphone? We spend nearly three hours looking at our phones every day, checking them 150 times each day on average. Fully half of all teens say they’re addicted. App designers know this, and try to create the most addictive experience possible to gather and retain customers. Maybe it’s time to set some limits, like a few hours of the day devoted to living phone-free.

Can You Be Addicted to Caffeine?

Going without coffee can lead to nasty withdrawals.

You may not need rehab, but just like harder drugs, caffeine can be addictive. If you try to quit, withdrawal symptoms set in—nausea, exhaustion, difficulty concentrating. You may become more irritable, and painful headaches can follow. That’s bad news for the more than 80% of Americans who consume caffeine every day.

Caffeine goes straight to your brain, where it gets locked into place instead of a structurally similar, natural chemical our bodies produce called Adenosine. Adenosine is what makes you feel sleepy after an active day. But if the cell receptors that usually receive adenosine are busy handling caffeine, you remain awake and alert. That’s how caffeine hooks you.

There is good news for those suffering from caffeine addiction. If you can make it a week or two without any caffeine, your brain resets and you can rest easy knowing your withdrawal is behind you.

Is Sugar Addictive?

Sugar gives your brain a rush more powerful than cocaine, according to one study.

Whether or not sugar is actually addictive is controversial. Eating too much of it does produce some of the effects of addiction, though. A midday candy bar can help you get through the sleepy time after lunch, but it’s followed by a hard crash. That’s your body responding to simple sugar with a quick energy rush that it can’t sustain. Sugar gives your brain such a powerful reward that it even surpasses cocaine in this respect, according to one study.

Sugar may not be the only food that mimics addictive behavior. When your ancestors were scrounging in the savannah for any food they could find, their brains were programmed to light up when anything sweet, salty, or oily touched their lips. Your body is no different. The difference is your environment. Now those foods are everywhere! But your brain still experiences intense pleasure when you eat these foods, making them tough to resist.

Shopping Addiction

Some people rack up incredible debts through compulsive shopping.

Do you feel lost without your credit cards? Has shopping sparked arguments with your loved ones? Ever lie about your spending? These are some of the questions you might be asked by a mental health professional to assess shopping addiction.

Just like more familiar addictions like smoking or drinking, shopping addiction gives you a big rush followed by a big let-down. When you first buy something, that glittery new object gives you an exhilarating feeling. But after that brief emotional high is over, guilt and remorse often follow. Many of those addicted to shopping never even open or wear their purchases.

Addicted to Gambling?

Problem gambling can cause serious personal consequences.

By now you may recognize a pattern in this list. The unusual addictions provide short, intense highs followed by emotional lows. Gambling is no different. When gamblers win big, they feel larger than life. When a gambler has an addiction, that high can temporarily disguise all the low points when the odds didn’t go their way—and over time, they almost never go your way.

Problem gambling tends to follow certain patterns. When someone is addicted to gambling, he or she may lie about how much they gamble, they may gamble even when they don’t have the money to back up their bets, and they may try to cut back on the amount of gambling unsuccessfully. If that sounds familiar, addiction counseling can help.

What Is Plastic Surgery Addiction?

Some people seek out cosmetic surgery for all the wrong reasons.

Cosmetic surgery isn’t necessarily harmful. It can help boost self-esteem for people with reasonable expectations, for example. But not everyone has reasonable expectations.

Somewhere between one and three out of every hundred people experience body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), a mental condition that causes people to obsess over imagined imperfections in their appearance. BDD is 15 times more common in those seeking plastic surgery. Although many plastic surgeons try to avoid treating BDD sufferers, not all are successful. BDD is not usually improved by cosmetic surgery.

One study found that just 2% of those who undergo surgery see an improvement in their BDD symptoms. While a majority of those with BDD report feeling better about the part of the body that experienced surgery, they tend to feel worse overall, often shifting their area of obsession to another body part. This can lead to a vicious circle of plastic surgery, which can appear addictive.

Can You Be Addicted to Tanning?

Tanning sends pleasure signals to the brain, as do addictive drugs.

Are you addicted to tanning? The UV light that tanners bathe beneath causes skin cancer in some, but many can’t seem to resist. But are they addicted? Several studies have psychologically tested frequent tanners, and the results are surprising. One study of Texas beachgoers found that more than half met the standard of a tanning dependency, and more than one in four could be diagnosed with substance abuse disorder.

Frequent tanning causes pleasure and a sense of wellbeing. It releases endorphins in the skin, the chemicals associated with pleasure. It can be relaxing and mood-enhancing like many addictive drugs. Withdrawal from tanning can cause familiar signs of dependence as well—difficulty controlling use, neglecting other activities, and tolerance among other signs. Some suspect it could lead to other addictions as well, including recreational drug use and smoking.

Dermatologists recommend switching to self-tanning sprays and creams. These are not associated with cancer risks, but they also don’t give you an endorphin rush. For that, consider exercise, which is both pleasure-inducing and healthy. Just don’t get addicted to that…

Excessive Exercise Addiction

Extreme exercise can become addictive.

Even healthy activities can become addictive when taken to the extreme. Exercise is one of them. This is true for a small minority of active people, and one thing that tends to unite them is a need for control in their lives. One key sign of exercise addiction is continuing your workout even while injured.

Society plays a part, too. Cardio workouts like running can become addictive for women prone to anorexia who want to remain thin. For men, building muscle mass can become an obsession in a condition known as muscle dysmorphia.

Many others are more solitary in their pursuit of athletic perfection. Solo exercises can sometimes breed exercise addiction, so some treatments encourage those affected to take up yoga, class routines, and other social workouts. Sometimes the “runner’s high” that comes from the rush of endorphins generated during exercise can also contribute to this problem.

Is Social Media Addictive?

Social media may lead to compulsive behavior.

The Internet is everywhere. And at least 28% of the time spent online is devoted to social media. For teens, that percentage may be higher; they average three hours a day on Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and the others. For some, uncontrolled Internet use can become psychologically problematic, leading psychologists to coin a new term for the problem: "Internet Use Disorder."

Like social media itself, the idea of being addicted to it is fairly new. Mental health professionals haven’t decided if it fits the criteria for its own disorder. But some in the profession argue that it does. All those "likes" and comments can be stimulating. Better make sure they’re not stimulating a compulsion though.

Sex and Porn Addiction

Sex can be risky and harmful for some.

For most people sex is an enjoyable way to share affection and intimacy. The pleasure of sex may also be addictive, though. It’s not how often you have sex or how many partners you have that determines a sex addiction. It’s how harmful sex becomes in your life.

As described, sex addicts suffer from their obsession. Their sex life becomes self-destructive, sabotaging work and relationships. Sex and the pursuit of sex can occupy so much time that the rest of one’s life begins to diminish. Sex addicts may practice sex in dangerous ways, they may find it impossible to stop, and often the sex itself is unsatisfying.

However, the idea that sex can form addictive behaviors is controversial. Many researchers discount the idea entirely. But if someone has an overwhelming compulsion to view pornography or engage in risky sexual practices, there could very well be a psychological problem at play, regardless of what it is named.

Addicted to Love?

Love that causes harm, such as abuse or compulsion, may be considered addictive.

Do you fall in love easily and often? Do you feel powerless when you’re with the one you love? Does being away from your love throw you into a terrible mood? That behavior could be normal, but it could also suggest addiction.

Psychologists debate how to describe love addiction. Some say the body naturally reacts to love feelings positively, so love cannot be addictive. Others say love is only addictive when it causes serious negative consequences like abuse or sexual compulsion. Still others claim that all love has addictive tendencies.

What they agree on is the science of love. When you are in love, your body’s chemistry changes. You get a rush of dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and other hormones related to pleasure and reward. Drugs of abuse also stimulate these hormones, particularly dopamine.

Can Tattoos Be Addictive?

The rush of a new tattoo design may be addictive to some.

Do people get addicted to tattoos? One out of every five U.S. adults has at least one, and many tattoo enthusiasts can’t seem to stop at just one. The ingredients of an addiction are there—a pleasurable new experience that can fade over time, leaving you wanting more.

But at least one expert says it’s not accurate to describe tattoos as addictive. Psychologist Viren Swami has conducted several studies on tattoos. He says on average, people spend two to seven years between new tattoos. They also rarely cite addiction as the reason for new tattoos.

Video Game Addictions

Countries like China are treating young people for video game addictions.

Can you be addicted to a game? Today’s video games are designed like slot machines to dole out rewards to their players slowly over time. Like the drip, drip, drip of a morphine IV, players get a momentary rush as the hours, days, even weeks tick by. Although psychologists have not yet defined problem video gaming as an addiction, it was included as a subject that needs further in the latest edition of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders)—the manual mental health professionals use to define disorders.

Not waiting for the approval of the psychiatric community, some countries have begun treating young gamers. This is especially true in China and South Korea. Both countries fund clinics to fight what is perceived as a public health threat. Meanwhile, research is ongoing into what might define video game addiction. One possibility involves GTP (game transfer phenomenon), a condition wherein an avid player may begin to experience the virtual reality of the game world infringing on the real world.

Is Nasal Spray Addictive?

Though it mimics many symptoms of addiction, nasal spray is not addictive itself, properly speaking.

Some nasal sprays can cause effects that look like addiction. These are nasal antihistamines, a class of drugs that includes brand names such as Afrin, Triaminic, and Mucinex. When you take these drugs for longer than the recommended four to six days, they can trigger sneezing and runny nose—the very symptoms they are meant to stop. This can lead some to use more and more of the medication to get the same nasal relief.

While this pattern may resemble addiction on its face, dig a little deeper. Is there a compulsive psychological need to use the spray? No. Is taking the spray harmful to the user. Not really. Do they cause intense craving? No again. Whether or not it is addictive, these medications do cause unpleasant problems for this reason. Steroid-based nasal medicines do not, however.

Addicted to Chewing Ice?

Some people have powerful compulsions for chewing and eating nonfood items called pica.

Chewing ice is generally not a good idea. It can chip teeth in some cases, so dentists tend to advise against it. However, some people find themselves strongly compelled to do just that.

There’s a name for ice craving: it’s called pagophagia. It is a form of a wider disorder known as pica, which refers to eating things that are not food. Many forms of pica seem to be related to nutritional deficiencies or malnutrition. Scientists once thought eating these nonfood items—which can include cigarette butts, soap, and dirt—provided some missing mineral in the eater’s diet. Now that is generally considered untrue. In fact, the exact opposite can be the case; sometimes eating the nonfood item can actually cause deficiencies themselves.

How Do Addictions Start?

Behaviors mimic some of the reward-granting properties of addictive drugs.

Not long ago, experts only referred to substances of abuse when they talked about addiction. While some psychologists maintain that only drugs like alcohol and cocaine can be addictive, many more are now convinced that many behaviors that you crave can lead to addiction.

These pleasing behaviors start to become addictive when they are used to ease personal pain. They pay off with a sense of reward. That reward, though, becomes something you want more and more over time.

How Similar Are Different Addictions?

Though they share similarities, experts disagree on how similar various addictions are.

So the definition of addiction seems to be changing. But is your compulsion to check your smartphone the same as an addiction to alcohol? Brain scans show similar spots light up—the reward centers of the brain—when someone is addicted to something, be it a substance or a behavior. But there is little agreement about how far to take the comparison.

Perhaps a more useful question to ask yourself is: "How do I feel about my compulsive behaviors?" Anything you do excessively that causes harm to you or your family has gotten out of control. That can be a sign that it's time to get help. If you notice a pattern of abusive behavior in your life, look for a doctor or licensed therapist in your area who can help you regain control.

Reviewed by Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD on 9/21/2018

Strange Addictions: Sugar, Porn, Ice Cubes and More

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