Four Socially Acceptable Addictions

You’re useless until your first espresso. By late morning you need another to focus, then a cup of joe after lunch and another to get through that mid-afternoon lethargy.

50-hour work weeks? That’s for sissies.

A weekend just isn’t a weekend without putting in a 100-mile bike ride.

Logging on to your computer means it’s time to hunt the sweetest deals on Amazon, Etsy and eBay!

Any of these sound familiar? Drinking caffeine, working, exercising and shopping are acceptable and desirable — even necessary in the case of work. Yet, like a lot of other behaviors (eating, having sex, looking at pornography, gambling, playing video games) they can also veer into the addictive, turning a fun, necessary or healthy habit into something compulsive and destructive to physical and mental health, relationships, work, finances and more. Here’s a rundown of four seemingly harmless, even beneficial, activities that can cross the line from healthy to addictive if you’re not paying attention.

“Just one more hour at the office”

Nearly everybody thinks, and often worries, about the future: How will I pay for my kids’ college? How much will I need for retirement? Where would I like to travel and live when I do stop working? But if anxiety about the future, a need to control and a overwhelming fear of failure are driving you to workaholism, it’s time to heed the signs. It may be that your self-worth is completely tied to your job, that you’re missing your kids growing up, that you feel unable to enjoy the present and that you’re sacrificing exercise, healthy eating and sleep for a few more hours with a spreadsheet.

An obsession with work is loaded with physical and psychological consequences, including exhaustion, burn-out, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, irritability and cardiovascular ailments like hypertension and kidney complications. A 2013 study of Japanese workers found that workaholics were twice as likely to have psychological health issues, disabling back pain and miss work due to illness, particularly as a result of a mental health issue. For more information, check out the Work Addiction section.

“If you need me, I’m at the gym”

Four Socially Acceptable AddictionsWe all know exercise does a body good, though most of us struggle to get enough exercise, forget about too much. But make no mistake, when workouts are taken to an extreme, they do real harm. “You cross the threshold when you exercise excessively despite the damage it does to your physical health, your mental health and your family,” says Aviv Weinstein, PhD, a senior researcher in the department of nuclear medicine at Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv, Israel.

In his research Dr. Weinstein has found that, like other addictions, compulsive exercisers obsessively think about indulging in their habit, chase a release of feel-good neurotransmitters and, in spite of all their effort, they’re not actually happier when they’re exercising. The stress reduction and sense of accomplishment most people feel from a good sweat session doesn’t happen in compulsive exercisers, he says. So, if you’re prioritizing time at the gym or running or pedaling for miles over all else, and especially if you’re doing it through injury and pain, it’s time to consider talking to your physician or a mental health professional. Cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of psychotherapy, may be helpful, as well as quetiapine (Seroquel), according to a 2010 study. For more information, check out the Exercise Addiction section.

“Every weekend you’ll find me at the mall, the outlets, online…”

Who doesn’t enjoy the occasional splurge or spending a couple of hours browsing shops from time to time? But when we chase the high of hunting down the best deals, constantly adding to or overhauling our wardrobe or simply acquiring more or more things we don’t need in an effort to feel better, happier or calmer, we’re likely entering the realm of addiction. Sometimes, compulsive shoppers will buy to the point of financial ruin, even. Much like drug addiction, compulsive buying over-stimulates the brain’s dopamine reward system. It may be, too, that you or someone you love who over-shops is dealing with depression, low self-esteem and/or poor impulse control, according to a 2014 study in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions. The same small trial on quetiapine that looked at exercise addiction found the drug to be an effective treatment for curbing compulsive buying as well. For more information, check out the Shopping Addiction section.

“Talk to me after my venti-latte with a quadruple shot”

Caffeine, the world’s most popular narcotic, not only stimulates the mind, it helps protect it from the ravages of both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. The drug also energizes the body and makes exercise more tolerable; it’s even used in neonatal intensive care units to improve the lungs of premature babies. But unlike most other socially acceptable addictions, caffeine is very much a drug — one that activates chemical changes in the body when ingested. A majority of addiction professionals believe that caffeine dependence and withdrawal contribute to worsening anxiety and disrupt work performance enough that it merits clinical treatment, according to a study in the Journal of Caffeine Research. Excessive caffeine intake is linked to increased risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular events like heart attack. Caffeine also stimulates the brain’s dopamine receptors, just like cocaine and amphetamines. Research in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors found that most people who try to quit can’t do so easily; the withdrawal symptoms — headache, cravings, fatigue and difficulty concentrating — make it very difficult to stay away from caffeine.

In moderate doses — about two small cups of coffee per day — caffeine is okay for most people, though some are very sensitive to any amount. If you find that after drinking coffee your digestion is out of whack, your heart palpitates like a hummingbird’s, your anxiety spikes, you have trouble sleeping and/or your mood sours when a cup of coffee isn’t within easy reach, it may be time to cut back or even seek help for caffeine dependence.

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