Compulsive gambling, overeating, shopping, sexual behaviour, internet use, and even TV watching all offer opportunities for addictive behaviours.
Most compulsive addictions are officially called impulse control disorders. These are defined as “a failure to resist an impulse that is harmful to the individual or others but often starts out as pleasurable.” This generally involves an increase in tension or arousal before actually undertaking the act. This is then followed by gratification, pleasure, relief, and then remorse and guilt over the consequences of the act.
Addictive behaviours alter brain chemistry in much the same way as psychoactive drugs do. And the reasons that people engage in compulsive behaviour are the same reasons that they engage in compulsive drug use: to get an instant rush, to forget problems, to control anxiety, to oblige friends, to alter consciousness, to self-medicate, and so forth. The following are some of the most common compulsive addictions:
Gambling addiction is defined by Gamblers Anonymous as “any betting or wagering, for self or others, whether for money or not, no matter how slight or insignificant, where the outcome is uncertain or depends upon chance or skill.” The problems that result from pathological and problem gambling are often as severe as any drug-based addiction.
Compulsive shopping (oniomania) and obsessive spending are described as a pattern of chronic, repetitive purchasing that becomes difficult to stop and ultimately results in harmful consequences. Shopping can give temporary needed relief from depression, anxiety, loneliness, or anger. Some shop for a “pick-me-up”, to get a high, a rush or emotional pain relief, similar to psychoactive drug users. They often buy things they do not need and later experience significant remorse.
Compulsive overeating occurs when the desire to eat is triggered more by emotional states rather than hunger in an effort to calm, satisfy, control pain, and combat depression.
Sexual addiction is marked by compulsive sexual behaviour over which the individual has little control. Activities can include self-pleasure, viewing pornography, high frequency sex with one partner, serial affairs, phone sex, and visits to prostitutes and strip clubs.
Internet addiction, like all other addictions, involves compulsion, loss of control, and continued use despite adverse consequences. Some addicts experience a stimulant-like rush when online, while others speak of being tranquilized or in a trance-like state by their quiet isolated online time. In other words, some use it to stimulate, others to zone-out.
Computer games addiction is fast becoming a major compulsion for many “gamers” who will spend countless hours, either alone or with others, playing competitive games that are readily available through purchase or online. These are most popular with younger men and male teenagers and this often leads to neglect of school work, jobs, and relationships.
The biggest problem with most compulsive addictions is the ease with which one can access their “drug of choice”:
- There is an abundance of available casinos, lotteries, internet betting, poker tournaments, etc. and the ability to use credit that makes gambling easy and convenient. A big win while gambling imprints the brain in much the same way that cocaine would.
- There are plenty of fast food restaurants and a growing attraction to sugar and fat-laden foods. The compulsive eater eats to change mood rather than sustain life.
- There is an abundance of easily available sexual material on both TV and the internet. Participation in pornography and other compulsive sexual activities can result in the “user” avoiding normal relationships.
- The ease of obtaining credit, the influx of advertising, home shopping networks on TV, and internet shopping kindles a surge of pleasure with no regard for financial responsibility or even a need for the item.
In 2002, UCLA researchers found that 71% of Americans went online for an average of 11 hours per week. It is not unusual for problematic users to spend well in excess of 35 hours per week online outside of school or work hours.
If you or someone you care about appears to have a compulsive addiction, there are professional addictions counsellors available to assist in overcoming these destructive behaviours.
Ref: Inaba, Darryl S. & Cohen, William E. (2004). Uppers, Downers, All Arounders (5th Ed). Ashland, OR: CNS Publications, Inc. (Pages 290-318)