Many of us take part in activities that are often associated with addictive or compulsive behaviors – activities such as drinking or gambling. But not all of us are addicted to them. What constitutes addictive behavior? When do we cross the line?
Addictions come in many forms. Street drugs, prescription medications, alcohol, and inhalants are all common substances of abuse. Gambling, sex, and shopping are often associated with compulsive, or problem, behavior.
To get a clearer idea of what addictions look like and how they can be treated, we spoke to two experts on the subject: Wende Wood of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), a key addiction and mental health teaching hospital in Canada, and Sam Waldner of Samuel Waldner Counselling and Addiction Services, who is a private practitioner and a proponent of 12-step programs (of which Alcoholics Anonymous is a famous example).
Wood says that the hallmark of addictive behavior is that it interferes with a person's life – to the point where all of their energy and attention is given to that pursuit. This, she explains, is because certain activities (such as drinking or gambling) stimulate a "reward pathway" in the brain. As a result, the brain wants to continue with this activity, even in the face of negative consequences for the person involved. The desire for the "reward" becomes stronger than the impact of the negative consequences and so the behavior proceeds. For example, a person with a gambling addiction may continue seeking entry to a casino after having been banned, or may cash in their life savings so that they can continue to gamble.
Waldner describes an addiction as a continuous involvement in a repeated behavior that creates some kind of negative consequence. This also applies to a person who continues to pursue an activity despite harmful results – for example, a smoker who does not quit despite knowing the health risks they face.
Waldner says the key characteristics of addiction are two-fold: a loss of control (one's behavior becomes unpredictable, for example continuing to drink despite having vowed to stop) and a strong sense of denial. Denial about having an addiction is a powerful factor in leading the person to continue with his or her habit, as the belief is strong that there is no real problem and that next time the outcome from the same behavior will be different. "It's almost as if the person experiences a form of amnesia," explains Waldner.