The human brain is a remarkable tool that’s finely tuned to pick up signals of pleasure. This trait may have helped ancient ancestors to stay alive in a world full of danger, as those who had brains fine-tuned for pleasure would likely remember and seek out those parts of the community that could keep them alive. Their brain cells may have released pleasure chemicals when they stumbled into fields full of blackberries, for example, and when they were hungry, those signals could help them to remember where those tasty little morsels were. As humans have continued to advance, this trait isn’t always vital to life. People don’t really need to know where berries are, for example, but the brain still functions in much the same way, releasing chemicals when something good happens to the person in question. This trait can sometimes lead to chemical addictions, as brain cells might release chemicals when drugs are available. It could also lead to compulsive attachments to specific behaviors, as some acts could also allow the brain to respond with chemical signals of pleasure.
The Basics of Addiction
In an article about behavioral addictions, published in the journal Science, the author suggests that much of the knowledge regarding addiction comes from sophisticated brain scans. These imaging techniques allow medical professionals to measure the brain’s response when it’s presented with a variety of different kinds of stimuli. When the brain senses a reward, portions of the brain involving pleasure become active, while those involving impulse control go dark. Much of that work has been done on drugs, but according to this article, the brain makes no distinction between a reward that comes from drugs and one that comes from an act. If there’s pleasure, the brain reacts accordingly. Drugs might produce a more enhanced response, of course, but behaviors can also cause chemical changes in the brain. A pleasurable signal isn’t necessarily negative. After all, a life with no pleasure might quickly become a life that didn’t seem worthwhile or rewarding in any way. The problem comes when people develop an unhealthy attachment to that feeling of pleasure. Their brains seem to call out for the chemicals, no matter what their rational minds might say, and they become consumed with the response that comes as a reaction to a pleasurable signal. The cells of the brain, however, become burned out and numb due to their constant immersion in signals of pleasure, and they stop responding to small signals. In time, the person might need bigger hits just to feel normal. The brain has been modified to such a degree that standard operating procedures don’t seem to apply. The person needs the brain chemicals and can’t get them in any other way.
While almost any act could be fodder for a behavioral addiction like this, the American Psychological Association suggests that behavioral addictions tend to form in response to behaviors that can improve the mood or boost feelings of self-esteem. When the act has the ability to change the person’s mood from low to high, or when the behavior can serve as a boost that can banish dark moods, it’s a likely target for compulsion. These are the kinds of behaviors that just seem rewarding, and as a result, they’re a little harder to ignore. At the moment, experts recognize only one act in the context of addiction. Gambling, according to an article in Psychology Today, remains the closest act to drug addiction in terms of changes in brain chemistry. But these experts also have an opening in which to apply the addiction diagnosis to other behaviors. When these experts see addictive behaviors that aren’t gambling, they can label their clients with a “behavioral addiction not yet specified,” and ensure they get the help they need.
As a result, people who engage in all sorts of behaviors could be considered addicts, including people who:
- Surf the Internet
- Binge eat
- Pull their hair
- Engage in sexual activity
The behaviors people engage in can also vary by gender. As an article produced by ABC News put it, women often struggle with “mall disorders” such as shopping and binge eating, specifically because these are the types of behaviors the culture encourages them to indulge in. They may not ever shoot up with a needle, but they might not think twice about going to their favorite online mall when their day has gone poorly and they can’t seem to find another way to make feelings of pain fade away. Men, on the other hand, might be more inclined to develop sex addictions or online gaming addictions, as these are the sorts of acts the culture encourages for males. No matter what activity the person engages in, it’s important to draw a distinction between behaviors people engage in due to pleasure, and those they tackle due to addiction. There are all sorts of things people do frequently in order to feel better about their lives, and as long as those behaviors don’t cause them harm, they’re not considered especially damaging. A woman who shops just once after a bad day, for example, might not be considered an addict. Similarly, a man who hits the treadmill for a few added minutes when he feels low might not be considered an addict.
It’s only when the behavior becomes compulsive, when its no longer attached to feelings of happiness and pleasure, that the addiction community becomes concerned.
It’s a fine line, and the behaviors might look different in each and every person.
Exercise addictions provide some of the most clear-cut examples of how a behavior can become compulsive and dangerous. In the beginning, those who like to exercise and stay fit may enjoy their sessions, and they may engage in them in groups.
Over time, however, they may begin to:
- Sneak in exercise sessions late at night or in the early morning
- Exercise even when ill or in pain
- Lie about how much they exercise
- Feel physically ill when they don’t exercise
- Think about exercising all of the time
When a full exercise addiction is in place, according to an article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the person’s life revolves around exercise, and the behavior is no longer pleasurable. It’s just something the person needs to do in order to avoid feeling sick or depressed. This is more than a mere hobby. It’s a compulsion. Those with sex addictions may follow this same path. They may begin by having sex with their partners, and then begin chatting with others in online forums devoted to sex. They may later meet with these people for casual sex. In time, they may need to augment the act by taking on more partners or taking more risks during sex. The actual act itself might not even be pleasurable for these people, but they feel physically and mentally compelled to keep at it.
Building a life around a behavior can lead to serious physical and mental consequences. People might endanger their personal safety and mental health in pursuit of the target of their addictions, and they may ruin the lives and financial security of their family members in a desperate attempt to keep the addiction moving forward. People with these addictions may also be deeply, deeply unhappy. They may want to stop their behaviors, but they may not be able to do so. The desperation they feel may be palpable, and they may be tempted to lean on drugs or alcohol in order to make the pain go away.
If this sounds familiar to you, we’d like to help. At Futures of Palm Beach, we provide extensive help for people who have addictions, as well as for those who might have an eating disorder complicating their addiction. We’ve helped people who have behavioral addictions that involve food, including binge eating disorders, but we’ve also helped people with gambling addictions, shopping addictions and more. If you’d like to find out about our integrated treatment programs, please call.