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What to Know About Non-Substance Addiction

When we think of addiction, we usually picture anything involving drugs and alcohol. We imagine 12-step meetings, chips, rehab centers, and a multitude of other recovery programs. We think that as long as we stay away from the really bad substances we learned about in school, we are safe from that type of life.

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The truth is that people other than alcoholics and drug addicts struggle with addiction. We may engage in compulsive eating, gambling, overspending, social media and cell phone usage, workaholism, excessive exercise, or an obsession with pornography. Not all of the non-substances we are addicted to are considered bad or unusual by society’s standards.

While maintaining a routine that involves coffee, work and exercise are perfectly normal, there is a thin line between routine and obsession. If we feel anxious and agitated anytime we try to go outside of our routine, we may be struggling with non-substance addiction. So, what exactly is non-substance addiction and why do some people have more obsessive personality traits? Here is what the experts have to say.

What is Non-Substance Addiction?

A non-substance addiction encompasses everything that does not involve tobacco, drugs, and alcohol. Risky sex, food, and other non-substance addictions are considered behavioral addictions. Anytime a person regularly engages in a behavior that he/she considers stimulating, they experience a rush of dopamine in the brain.

Unlike drugs and alcohol, dopamine is not created from the effects of the drug, but from a deep-seated psychological belief that the behavior will be rewarding in one way or another. Our brains are incredibly powerful machines. When we engage in non-substance abuse, we feel stimulated because of what our brain tells us the behavior will do for us.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, particularly if food is involved. Certain foods such as sugar, carbohydrates, and caffeine are known to be physically addicting. They also help to produce a rush of energy followed by a sudden crash that requires more of the substance. Many experts believe food addiction should be categorized as a substance abuse disorder for this exact reason.

It is hard to get to the root of non-substance addiction and understand what causes it. Most people who struggle with an obsessive personality are easily bored, anxious, depressed, and may suffer from trauma.

There is also a correlation between obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and non-substance abuse, though they are not entirely the same thing. OCD is where a person uses rituals to avoid uncomfortable feelings, which is somewhat similar to non-substance abuse. However, a person with OCD is not always struggling with a non-substance, but with a pattern of fearful thinking that is very painful unless the individual engages in rituals. Those with non-substance abuse are typically escaping boredom, depression, and anxiety. They use their non-substance to avoid feeling those emotions.

Most of Us Are Addicted to Something

Because humans tend to prefer routines as opposed to chaos, it’s easy to become addicted to a specific pattern. For example, most of us drink coffee or tea in the morning to wake up. We don’t consider ourselves addicts, but we technically are. When we try to give up coffee or tea, we have physical withdrawal symptoms. But moreover, we feel anxious and depressed because we are no longer engaging in the routine that gave us the certainty of how our day would go.

One of the more problematic non-substance addictions is cell phone usage. We go to any Starbucks or restaurant and see dozens of people on their phones while waiting in line. Many of us reach for our phones the moment we wake up, and they are the last thing we look at before we go to bed. We don’t think of ourselves as addicts until we try to take a break from our phones. We discover we can’t. Cell phone addiction is particularly harmful to young children, as their brains are still developing. Excessive cell phone usage at a young age can lead to everything from anxiety to depression to increased isolation.

So, how can we know if something is a routine versus a non-substance addiction? A good rule of thumb is that anything that negatively interferes with your day-to-day life, that hurts relationships, causes anxiety, and makes you feel isolated is typically a problem. Also, hiding the compulsive behavior or lying about it is usually a sign of non-substance addiction.

Treating Non-Substance Addiction

Non-substance addiction is a difficult to treat at times because we need some of these non-substances to live. For example, we will starve without food and going without a cell phone is almost impossible in our modern era. Other behaviors we can abstain entirely from, but some we have to learn to live with. The key is to change our perspective about the behavior, set firm boundaries about what we will engage in, and alter some of our patterns to take back control. For those behaviors we can give up entirely, we should. Here are some treatment options to consider –

· Meetings and Support Groups – There are numerous meetings available that can help with specific addictions, even if they are non-drug related. A group setting can help provide the support and accountability that individuals need to stay “sober” from their particular addiction.

· Therapy – Therapy can help get to the root cause of the obsessive behavior and provide coping skills to overcome it.

· Complete Detox – Sometimes, a complete detox from a substance that we cannot technically give up entirely (phones, sugar, etc.) can be helpful. Talk to experts and read books to create a plan. This can help to reset the brain’s reward systems. It’s important to note that some individuals with severe sugar or caffeine addictions will have to give up the substance entirely, depending on the treatment program.

· Find Hobbies and Learn to Meditate - Much of non-substance addiction stems from feeling isolated, lonely, depressed, and unfulfilled. Finding a new hobby or making new friends can be enormously helpful to reward the dopamine system in a healthy way. Meditation helps us to relax and focus on the present moment.

Do you struggle with non-substance addiction or compulsive behavior? If so, please contact Straight Talk Counseling at 714-828-2000 or visit our website at One of our professional counselors would be happy to set up an appointment.

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