Hooked on a Feeling: The Dangers of Behavioral Addictions

PHOTO: Behavioral addictions, sometimes called process addictions, are difficult to measure and present a boatload of diagnostic challenges.
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Anne* was 34 years old when she thought she'd found her soul mate. Never mind that she was already married with three kids at home.

This new guy -- actually, her former high school English teacher -- made her laugh; he exhilarated her; he got her. A schoolteacher herself, Anne started skipping out of work early to meet him. "It was incredible, exciting, and miserable all at once," she says. Just like falling in love. Except this wasn't quite love.

Fueled by a soon-insatiable hunger for the high that comes with a new romance, Anne began jumping from affair to affair. Yahoo! Personals was, literally, her gateway to satisfaction in her small, conservative Arkansas town. She had standards, of course: Her boyfriends, as she thought of them, couldn't be married (even though she was), and she responded only to suitors who were highly educated (she was a teacher, after all). Eventually, she was sneaking out while her husband slept. She bought secret cell phones and hid them all over the house, in her car, under her bra.

"It got crazier and crazier," she says. "I needed more and more."

The urgency was, she guessed, similar to what crystal-meth addicts must feel.

She wasn't far off. The driving forces behind compulsions like Anne's are surprisingly similar to, and can be just as detrimental as, what makes an alcoholic crave booze or a drug addict jones for a score. But whereas drinks or pills are easily measurable, behaviors are not. And thanks to a culture obsessed with obsessions, behavioral dependencies--to things such as gambling, stealing, shopping, exercise, sex, and, yes, love -- can balloon from common indiscretions into destructive threats before women realize they're in trouble.

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Downplaying the Detriment

Anne's story may seem sensational, but cases like hers are increasingly documented, and countless people are now addicted to compulsive behaviors. So prevalent is gambling addiction, for instance, that it is included in the psychiatric bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM. (Substance addictions are a big problem as well: More than 23 million Americans are addicted to drugs or alcohol, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and more people than ever are hooked on prescription painkillers.)

Sneakier than their substance counterparts, behavioral addictions--sometimes called process addictions at treatment centers--are difficult to measure and present a boatload of diagnostic challenges. For years, addiction doctors wouldn't acknowledge them as legitimate--after all, who doesn't love food or sex? A woman who works out every day could be mentally ill or enviably fit; Anne's love addiction stemmed from a serious compulsion, yet wives who cheat on their husbands aren't always addicts. The now-accepted difference between a habit and a dependency lies in this definition of addiction: Continued compulsive use of a mind-altering substance or behavior with negative life consequences. In English: If your behavior harms you or others and you still can't stop, you could be dealing with a serious sickness.

The problem is, it's hard to reflect on whether your tendencies are dangerous when everybody everywhere seems to be addicted to something--or at least that's what they say. "I'm so addicted to these cookies," friends confide to each other, or these jeans, these spinning classes, that dating show. Search the hashtag #addict on Twitter and discover a world of habits and cravings, real and exaggerated: People confess addictions to shoes, diet soda, Forever 21, nail biting, and (naturally) Twitter.

Even life-altering dependencies are now regarded in a more casual way. In the cultural ground zero of Hollywood, for example, addictions, once shameful and scandalous, are almost completely out of the closet. Celebs speak openly about needing rehab, and their relapses somehow seem less shocking. The entertainment industry has been quick to adapt. See: Gwyneth Paltrow's upcoming Thanks for Sharing, a movie about sex addicts in a 12-step program. It's a comedy.

"We're living in a time when addiction can be said without shame... and that's a good thing," says Anna David, executive editor of The Fix, a website dedicated to addiction and recovery. The increased acceptance might help some addicts seek treatment without fear of judgment, says David. But it also has the potential to have a far less helpful effect, according to neuropsychiatrist Dr. Timothy Fong, codirector of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program. With addiction so glamorized and addiction-talk so common, it can be hard for many addicts to see their problem as a problem . . . before it's far-gone.

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*Names and identifying details have been changed.

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More from Women's Health:

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