The psychology behind “addiction” and how much is too much.
We had just returned home after a late-night walk when my friend remarked, “Do you want to grab a coffee?”
It was too late to go to a cafe, but we microwaved some water, added instant brew to it, and made some coffee. It was probably the worst coffee I’d ever tasted but the ambiance and the vibes made it one of the most cherished experiences.
I was sipping and having fun, when another friend who never drinks coffee requested, “Ana, once in a while is okay, but don’t make this a habit.”
I didn’t understand what he meant, and when I asked, he said, “Don’t become addicted to caffeine.”
I told him that would never happen because I drink only one cup of coffee per day. He shared his mother’s story who was so addicted to tea, that if she didn’t have a cup at a fixed time every morning and evening, she would get a headache and wouldn’t be able to function.
I told him I wasn’t addicted, which he countered by saying, “Every addict says the same thing.”
When I was in school, I used to listen to a song by Backstreet Boys that went like this, “It’s not that I can’t live without you. It’s just that I don’t even want to try.” This got me thinking: isn’t that how addicts might think too?
So, how much is too much? I looked into the science behind this and came up with some fascinating conclusions. Before we get started, I want to clarify that I’m not an expert and the following points are not meant to cure addiction. Rather, they take a look into the psyche behind wanting something too much, and how to identify if you have a problem.
The Psychology of Addiction
What is addiction and how is it different from wanting something too much? As Healthline suggests, “Addiction is about the way your body craves a substance or behavior, especially if it causes a compulsive or obsessive pursuit of “reward” and lack of concern over consequences.”
When my friend tells me his mother can’t function without her regular cups of tea, does it make her an addict? To this, she always counters him by saying, “I’m not addicted. I can stop whenever I want to. It’s just that I don’t want to try.”
But this sounds suspiciously similar to what the Backstreet Boys song said.
According to Psychology Today, “the distinguishing feature of addictions is that individuals continue to pursue the activity despite the physical or psychological harm it incurs, even if the harm is exacerbated by repeated use.”
True, caffeine is safe, and might even be good for the body, when consumed in low-to-moderate amounts. It doesn’t necessarily harm my friend’s mother when she consumes her daily tea. But caffeine addiction is real and its effects on the mind and body have been well-documented by scientists.
If you feel your life is significantly impaired by the absence of a particular product or behavior, you might be addicted to it.
How to Know If You’re Addicted
The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines two types of addiction: substance addiction which is the dependence on a product like alcohol, nicotine, or coffee, and behavioral addiction which can include addiction to certain habits like gambling, gaming, shopping, sex, etc.
According to Healthline, the general signs of addiction are:
- lack of control, or inability to stay away from a substance or behavior
- ignoring risk factors despite potential consequences
As ASAM establishes, addiction is when a person is unable to consistently abstain from a behavior or substance. This is typically at the cost of their mental and physical health. Hence, it’s important to understand if you’re actually addicted to a product or behavior.
The first signs
In the initial stages, it might be difficult to differentiate addiction from an experimental phase or a form of stress management, especially when it comes to common social behaviors like drinking or smoking. However, if left untreated, this so-called “phase” might develop into a crippling habit.
As Healthline suggests, here are the first warning signs a person might be addicted:
- being particularly drawn to an activity or substance
- actively seeking out situations where the substance or activity is present
- frequent episodes of binging or loss of control with little to no feelings of remorse after.
Changes in personality
With addictive behaviors that do not involve chemical substances, there are a series of conditions you can use to determine severity. As Dr. Gregory L. Jantz, the founder of The Center for Counseling and Health Resources, Washington, suggests, there are some subtle changes in personality that suggest you might be addicted to something:
- Importance: How important has it become to your sense of self and the way you live your life?
- Reward response: Does doing it make you feel better, more in control? Does not doing it make you feel worse?
- Prevalence: Do you find yourself doing it more often and for longer periods of time than you originally planned? This is the never-enough compulsion. If you feel compelled to say, “Just a little bit more,” all the time, you’re carving out more and more space in your life for these activities.
- Cessation: Do you feel anxious or uncomfortable if you cannot do it or if you just think about not doing it?
- Disruption: Has doing it disrupted your life and your relationships?
- Reverting: Do you often say to yourself you’re going to do something different but then turn around and keep doing the same thing — or doing it even more?
Addiction is when a person is unable to consistently abstain from a behavior or substance.
Getting Over an “Addiction”
Addictions often affect many areas of a person’s life. The most effective treatments are comprehensive. They often have several steps that vary from person to person. These steps can include detoxification, behavioral counseling, and long-term follow-up.
As this post by Lybrate puts it, “It is advisable to consult a therapist or counselor, prior to quitting a habit. Quitting cold may sound like a good idea, but you would still need all the help you can get to help combat some of those symptoms. This is why it is better to seek treatment for any addiction rather than going cold turkey, all on your own.”
I am not addicted to caffeine. I have one cup of coffee a day when I feel like it. To me, it’s more of an activity I do to bond with my coffee-drinking friends. It’s not something I have to do, or else my day would be incomplete. But where my friend’s mother is concerned, it might be a different case.
If you’re struggling to understand whether the behavioral changes you’re facing are symptoms, understand that the main symptom of an addiction is a problematic pattern of use, which leads to clinically significant impairment or distress. If you feel your life is significantly impaired by the absence of a particular product or behavior, you might be addicted to it.
Of course, the specific symptoms vary according to the addictive disorder. It’s important to consult a specialist rather than self-diagnosing and getting further in trouble. Abrupt termination of a substance or habit might result in symptoms of withdrawal, which can be difficult to handle on your own.
The purpose of this article is to raise some important questions and make you introspect. If you feel you might be struggling with addiction, consulting a de-addiction helpline might be useful.
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