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How can behaviours be addictive?

Most people associate addiction with drugs and alcohol. But back in 1978, Dr. Stanton Peele explained addictive behaviour in this way:

Psychoactive chemicals are perhaps the most direct means for affecting a person’s consciousness and state of being. But any activity that can absorb a person in such a way as to detract from the ability to carry through other involvements is potentially addictive. It is addictive when the experience eradicates a person’s awareness; when it provides predictable gratification; when it is used not to gain pleasure but to avoid pain and unpleasantness; when it damages self-esteem; and when it destroys other involvements.

When these conditions hold, the involvement will take over a person’s life in an increasingly destructive cycle.

What activities can be so absorbing as to detract from other involvements? Well, any pleasurable activity can have this effect, if the circumstances are right. We likely all have periods of overindulgence in one thing or another: Netflix, chocolate, internet browsing, shopping, a new game. Moderation is a tricky balance. The word “addiction” gets thrown around a lot, but it doesn’t apply to periods of enjoyable enthusiasm.

However, when other aspects of our lives are not so gratifying, moderation can be harder to achieve. When we’re unhappy, disappointed, unsure of our path, unsure of ourselves, scared for the future or struggling with loss, it’s sometimes easier to escape and avoid thinking.

Escape is not necessarily a bad thing. We all need to escape sometimes. No one can think about their problems 24 hours a day. Fun and recreation are part of a healthy balanced life, and without them we run out of energy and strength.

So how do you know whether your escapes are healthy or not? The simplest way is to ask whether the behaviour makes things better or worse for you in the long run. Do your evenings in front of the television relax you and make you feel stronger and more able to face the next day? Or do they take away time for exercise, healthy meals, friends and problem-solving, and leave you feeling less competent and hopeful than before? Does video gaming engage you more with friends and new ideas? Or does it isolate you, invade your time for meals and sleep, and make you feel less able to function in the real world?

Unfortunately, many people respond to such negative outcomes by escaping further into the behaviour, leading to more negative outcomes, and so on. This is the addictive cycle Peele referred to.

Fortunately, this cycle, or spiral, goes in both directions. Reversing the process takes some work, but success builds on itself, and it gets easier as you go on. An important piece of the work is finding a way to address problems rather than escaping from them. And this is often where therapy comes in.

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