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Addiction: Signs and Behaviors That May be Interfering with Your Family

Addiction: Signs and Behaviors That May be Interfering with Your Family

Jennifer White* was a 36-year-old avid runner. At first, she started running to maintain a healthy weight. But as time went on, she started increasing the number of miles and days she ran until she was running every day of the year, through rain, sleet and snow and through painful injuries. She continued to run even when she caught a cold or the flu. Her obsession with exercise and rigid schedule put a serious strain on her relationships and led to the breakup with her long-time boyfriend.

Habits are a natural part of life, but as with Jennifer, any habit can turn into an addiction when taken to an extreme. The difference between a habit and an addiction is not black and white, but a matter of degrees, according to Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D., clinical psychologist at University of Connecticut and author of “ Almost Alcoholic.”  At one end of the spectrum are normal habits and at the other end are full-blown addictions. In the middle is a gray area that becomes a danger zone when the activity or substance starts interfering with your life.

The most well-known addictions involve alcohol and drugs, but compulsive behaviors such as gambling, sex, food, exercise, work and Internet use are gaining attention in the psychiatric community as they become more widespread.

Addictions are characterized by an obsession with the drug or activity, failed attempts to cut back or stop, and a negative impact on one or more areas of your life such as your health, relationships, finances, job or school.  They cause physical changes in your brain that interfere with your decision-making skills and impulse control, leading to major life consequences.


Bad Habit or Addiction: How to Tell the Difference  

“Addictions rarely happen suddenly, unless it’s something like heroin,”  says Nowinski. “Generally, they creep up on you.”

For example, you may start drinking a glass or two of wine to de-stress after work. Over time, you start having three, four or five glasses to achieve the same calming effect and start drinking earlier in the day.

You know you’re on the road to addiction when a substance or behavior starts taking over your life and squeezes out time with family and friends, says Nowinski. He asks parents to look at a child’s life as a pie chart: “ How is your child’s life divided among different things, and does one thing seem to take it over? That can apply to parents, too. Is work taking over your life? Do you come home and open the laptop and just continue working, and you don’t have any family life?”

One of the big differences between addictions and habits is the difficulty in overcoming them. “ You can break a habit with willpower because there’s nothing deeper to it. It’s like pulling out a little shell from the sand. It’s not deeply rooted,”  says Dr. Lance Dodes, former assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of “ Breaking Addiction: A 7-Step Handbook for Ending Any Addiction.”

In contrast, addictions are very difficult to eradicate. “ It’s like pulling out a tree stump, which has roots that are going 15 feet under the ground…Addictions are deeply driven and they always are serving a psychological function for you.” A person may develop an addiction to cope with intense stress or feelings of overwhelming helplessness. Dodes describes addictions as compulsions that provide a sense of relief to the addict and an indirect solution to a problem.  

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