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Toxic Habits: Process Addictions

Susanne Johnson
| April 4, 2018

Illegal drugs, alcohol, or pills are not the only things that define addiction. Sometimes the problem can be a behavior (or a mixture of habits) that plague someone until major problems occur, or a disaster makes change become inevitable. These compulsive behaviors sometimes become so difficult to break that they impact everyday living and persist beyond consequences. This indicates that there may be a problem known as a “process addiction.”

There is a wide field of possible process addictions that may include things like gambling, internet use, sex, or even shopping. Sometimes the stigma and judgement around these problem habits is more powerful than the stigma around substance use problems. That stigma can make it very difficult to seek help. Many people feel deep sensations of anxiety, shame, or guilt when they realize that they have a problem with behaviors that seem easy and non-addictive for other people. Process addictions are often misunderstood, unfairly judged, and ignored in addiction literature.

Process addictions, also called “behavioral addictions”, are much more common than many people think. Just because people don’t seek help or announce their problem doesn’t mean they are not suffering. Many people are afraid to reach out for help and fear the stigma of society and lack of understanding within their own families.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction in terms of brain changes. They state that “addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry.” This means that addiction is a brain disease centered around the reward system and is not limited by substances alone.

Some common process addictions include:

  • Gambling
  • Food
  • Sex
  • Pornography
  • Use of computers, internet or phones
  • Exercise
  • Shopping
  • Use of video games

Recently, I went to a casino and, while there, watched the patrons around me, played a little myself, and also paid attention to my surroundings. Gambling is not about getting pretty, going out, and having a nice evening with others. Most of the people I saw there were elderly people, highly focused on themselves and their slot machine, feeding every penny in it they had with the big hopes of the big win. Most of them were regulars, and the only interaction with others they experience is in the smoking corner outside, while rushing a half cigarette, eager to go back to their money eating machine.

Nobody was dressed up for a fancy evening, they all had just one purpose in mind: To sit as long as possible in front of a slot machine or at a table and leave happy with a pocket full of money. Many looked as if they didn’t have the money to spend. In part, excessive use of alcohol seemed to make the spending on gambling even easier for some. Table games gave many a sense of belonging and power, which was obvious to see, while I had my doubts that they would ever throw $500 across a counter in their regular lives, as they did the chips on table games.

I tried it myself. The frustration of losing was nearly unbearable. It was constantly on my mind. I thought about what nice things I could have bought for the money that I had just fed into the slots. No, I didn’t play pennies. I wanted risk; I played maximum bet, each time, every time. You can’t win a jackpot with a 40-cent bet—you only win big if you make that click of a button take five dollars or more away from you. My mood was getting so down that lost interest in talking to anyone, eating, or drinking anything.

Suddenly I got a win. My brain made a somersault on endorphins. I instantly got high on the amount of neurotransmitters rushing through my brain, as the machine played some fancy music and indicated a big win. The numbers started to go up—they were flashing and ringing, all my senses became highly involved. What a great feeling. The machine stopped too soon, I hadn’t recovered my losses yet.

So there was only one remedy according to my brain: change my seat and do it again and again until I am the big winner. I don’t have to tell you that I left the place frustrated and with zero dollars in my pocket. In chasing my own money that I had lost, I went to the ATM and took another $200 from my bank account and lost that as well, all while chasing that high of winning.

The regret, shame, and guilt all came to me instantly on the way home. The next day, I was already contemplating going back. I started thinking that I should forget about that unlucky day—I thought, “today, it will be all different.”

Then I remembered. Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Some people come up with thoughts like, “It was Saturday, not a good day to gamble. If I go back on Wednesdays, the slots will pay better.”

Some people tell themselves how much enjoyment they got out of the evening, that it was worth every penny. Was it? Leaving frustrated? Having not talked to a single soul? Staring at a screen for hours until a headache came up? Does this sound familiar to those of you that had experience with alcohol or drug addiction? I didn’t destroy my body with any poison, but the rest is just the same.

I am in the lucky position to be familiar with my own addiction problems, issues, quirks, and habits, and can analyze my own behavior and sound the alarm when those things sneak in my life. Sadly, many others are not aware of those issues and cannot call to action. Some of us need professional help. The good news is that behavioral addictions are treatable.

I saw signs for the gambling helpline number all over the casino, but I’m sure that most people will not call there or reach out for help. It’s hard to admit having a problem with something that was supposed to be entertainment. It is entertainment for many, for those that can afford it, that don’t chase the dream, that don’t feel the compulsion. If you are an addict, like myself, then you know: we quickly have other motives, we chase the dragon, the high of the first win, the reward.

Let’s talk about shopping. I’m sure that anyone buys unnecessary things here and there, maybe after seeing an offer that is too good to pass. The retail industry makes sure that people are lured in by those sales. Scoring one of those super televisions on Black Friday for little money is a feeling much like winning the lottery. But what if you already have five televisions at home and only four rooms in the house? Or what about the person that buys a children’s winter jacket by a certain prestige brand, because it’s 85% discounted, but has no kids or relatives that age? What about the person with so much unopened toilet paper in the garage that the car won’t fit anymore? These people may not be hoarders. Compulsive shopping may be caused by a process addiction. It happens more than you might think. Don’t judge the person– if you know him, reach out and offer help if help is wanted.

Certain retailers highlight how much you ‘saved’ instead of how much you paid on your receipt. That makes you feel great about the store and you keep coming back. All of those stores, casinos, malls, and websites employ the best of the best psychologists available—professionals that have the job to make you spend more. Many of us fall in this trap, because our brain-reward systems are pre-programmed to get high from this behavior. If you are a millionaire, it may not affect your life to spend so much, but for normal people it can be a loss of important funds.

Process addictions might stand alone, or may function alongside or even as a substitute for substance use disorders. The need for reward, the wish to escape, the covering of trauma, the presence of co-occurring mental health conditions, and other underlying problems all create a variety of ways that an addicted person may try to cope. When someone enters drug or alcohol recovery, the hope is that he or she will become free of all behavioral and substance use disorders.

It is very important for each person to accept supportive help to understand the causes behind any addictive or compulsive behaviors, or they will just bounce from one problem to another. We can all learn to change toxic habits and replace them with new, healthy ways to enjoy life, cope with problems and spend our time.

Please don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Help doesn’t always involve residential treatment– perhaps visiting a therapist near you can help. But most of all, don’t be afraid to admit it. You are not alone. There are many other people in similar situations around you, perhaps more than you can imagine.

Get help before you lose what you love or need: your spouse, your family, your home, your retirement, the money to feed your child this month. Don’t feel ashamed to suffer a disease that is treatable. If you have a bad tooth, you go to see a dentist. Please see a mental health expert if you have problems with your behavioral or mental health. There is no need to suffer with this pain.

I ask you to share this article with every group you are a member of, at Facebook pages, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram. It’s so easy to copy the URL and paste it anywhere. Even if you don’t have a problem, someone near you is has this trouble. Sharing this information may help prevent pain and suffering.

We do recover.

Susanne Johnson

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