Six Common Habits You May Be Addicted to Without Realizing

A lot of a good thing doesn’t always make it great.
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A lot of a good thing doesn’t always make it great.
Photo Credit: Jonathan Yacoub

Photo Credit: Jonathan Yacoub

When you think of addictions, what comes to mind? Alcohol, drugs, and smoking, right? But addictions to perfectly “normal” things also exist. These tend to be habits or behaviors that are typically considered healthy and ordinary, but because they’re such a regular part of our daily lives, a brewing dependency can be easily overlooked.

Here are six of the most common—and surprising—addictions and how to kick the habit for good.

01. DRINKING CAFFEINE

In a world full of Starbucks and hip cafés, starting each day with a cup of joe is far too easy. In fact, Johns Hopkins Medicine reports that java is the most widely used mood-altering drug in the U.S.

Although caffeine can fuel the occasional sleepy morning on the go, developing a headache-inducing addiction is scarily easy. All it takes is a daily dose of 100 milligrams (about one eight-ounce cup of coffee) for your body to develop a dependency on caffeine. A study in the journal of Psychopharmacology found withdrawal symptoms “after relatively short-term exposure to high doses of caffeine.”

It all starts with the neurotransmitter adenosine. According to the Pharmacological Reviews journal, adenosine is a chemical that tells your body it needs rest by promoting sleepiness. When your brain releases adenosine, it latches on to adenosine receptors. Now here’s the interesting part. Caffeine’s molecular structure is so similar to adenosine that it can bind to receptors, which tricks your nerve cells and prevents them from becoming sleepy. This mechanism is exactly what keeps you awake when you drink coffee.

As for the addiction? The Journal of Neuroscience explains how caffeine captivates your body through another neurotransmitter called dopamine. This reward-motivated chemical perks up your brain and associates caffeine with a stimulating, favorable feeling. The end result is a craving for—guess what?—more caffeine.

Though caffeine can help you be on your A-game, having too much isn’t fun. The FDA reports that common symptoms of overconsumption include nervousness, an upset stomach, and irritability. Because caffeine is a diuretic, you’ll also urinate more and become prone to dehydration. Withdrawals are just as rough, with intense headaches, muscle aches, and feeling low as common symptoms.

If you’re trying to cut back on caffeine, do it little by little. Consume less caffeine over a gradual period by drinking one cup less each day every few days. Slowly downgrading will be much easier than kicking the habit cold turkey. Or opt for decaf or a low-caffeine tea. Still need a pick-me-up? Try these natural energy-boosting foods, sans potential addiction.

02. EXERCISING

You might be thinking: Isn’t making physical activity part of your life a good thing? While it’s definitely up there on the list of healthy habits to develop, there is such a thing as too much exercise. Overdoing it can have adverse effects on your body, mind, and social life.

Healthline defines exercise addiction as “an unhealthy obsession with physical fitness and exercise . . . Exercise addicts display traits similar to those of other addicts. These include obsession with the behavior, engaging in the behavior even though it is causing physical harm, engaging in the behavior despite wanting to stop, and engaging in the behavior in secret.”

The obsessive–compulsive nature of exercise addiction, according to the Journal of Sports Medicine, can eat up your time, thus straining work and personal relationships. Because exercise activates the dopamine reward system, the brain becomes infatuated with the feeling of physical activity, which we know as the famous “runner’s high.” Fueled by endorphins produced during physical activity, this feeling can become addictive for some, pushing them beyond their normal feelings of pain and increasing the risk for physical injury and overexertion. Our bodies need downtime, after all!

If you find yourself ditching responsibilities or loved ones to work out and/or if you think you may be addicted, seek professional help. Therapy can help you pinpoint how and why the addiction developed, which enables you to broaden your focus and get that healthy life balance.

03. EATING

Our culture is obsessed with food. The National Center for Biotechnology Information reports that American restaurants have significantly supersized already large portions, contributing to the drastic increase in obesity rates since the 1970s. There’s a café, deli, or bodega around every corner. Apps on our phones make it easier than ever to order takeout.

NCBI studies show that the orbitofrontal cortex—the part of the brain involved in “motivational behavior such as feeding and drinking, in emotional behavior, and in social behavior”—reacts to food stimuli by inducing a greater desire for food. It encourages consumption even if hunger isn’t present.

Researchers at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity developed a questionnaire to help individuals identify a food addiction. According to these sample statements from the questionnaire, you may be addicted to food if you:

  • End up eating more than planned when you start eating certain foods
  • Keep eating certain foods even if you’re no longer hungry
  • Worry about not eating certain types of foods or worry about cutting down on certain types of foods
  • When certain foods aren’t available, go out of your way to obtain them

 An addiction to the act of eating can develop into binge eating disorder, increasing the risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Binge eating can also be a part of bulimia nervosa, a disease of repeated eating followed by purging (such as vomiting) or nonpurging (such as excessive exercise). Of course, any type of obsession with food is unhealthy, including an addiction to avoiding it (anorexia nervosa) or a fixation on healthy foods (orthorexia nervosa). If any of this sounds familiar, seek professional help.

04. EATING SUGAR

Do you have a sweet tooth? We’re right there with you. There’s something so indulgent about a slab of dark chocolate or a sugar cookie (especially during that time of the month!). Sugar, which is considered to be a highly palatable food in Western societies, has been shown to jump-start the same neural systems seen in dependence to opioids, or prescription pain relief medications. Obesity Research also adds that this dose-reliant dependence can continue to grow with increasing sugar consumption.

The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar each day, but research shows that Americans are getting a daily dose of 22.2 teaspoons. Limiting your consumption of soda, candy, and baked goods is an excellent start. If you have a hard time cutting back, consult a nutritionist for help.

05. SHOPPING

Ah, retail therapy. There’s something so liberating about treating yourself after “one of those days.” For some people, there doesn’t even need to be a reason to shop or splurge. According to the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, the excitement of spending money stimulates—you guessed it—the dopamine reward system. More than 80 percent of the country’s obsessive buyers are women, the NCBI reports, so it seems that we females are more apt to a behavioral dependence on buying.

Although that new dress or those cute knickknacks can give you a thrill, remember that this feeling is temporary. Financial habits and debt, however, stick around for a long time. Find yourself shopping because of stress or “just because”? Try focusing on healthier, more enriching hobbies such as hiking or learning a new craft. And if you think you’re shopping to make yourself look better? Remember: Clothes won’t matter once you start talking. While it never hurts to build a solid wardrobe, your brain and heart are always enough.

06. USING TECHNOLOGY

There’s a reason why they call this the “digital age”—these days, we can do pretty much anything with technology. Our society is full of screens, swipes, and clicks.

Technology has done amazing things for people, but there are definitely some exceptions. On a physical level, it can dry out your eyes, blur your vision, and induce headaches. These symptoms describe a condition called Computer Vision Syndrome, or Digital Eye Strain, according to the American Optometric Association. And because eyesight declines as we age, it wouldn’t hurt to treat your eyes well now. Penn Medicine suggests taking frequent breaks by looking away from the screen every fifteen minutes and constant blinking to prevent dry eyes.

There’s also the mental aspect of a technology obsession. According to Dr. Christopher L. Heffner at AllPsych.com, studies state that Internet addicts use the digital sphere as an escape from the real world. Instead of socializing with people face-to-face, it becomes easier to do behind a screen. NCBI researchers have also determined that avid Internet users have an increased activation of the orbitofrontal cortex, jump-starting that dopamine reward system.

When the Internet starts taking precedence over life’s responsibilities and in-person relationships, it’s time to take a step back. Make an effort to take on hobbies that don’t need major web time, such as cooking or yoga. Spend time with friends and family, especially to enjoy a common interest together. The NCBI confirms that these types of social interactions can provide you with a feeling of deep fulfillment that a screen can’t match.

Because all six of these habits are seemingly normal, they’re easy to overlook. Be aware of your habits, and form a balanced approach to your wellness. Don’t be embarrassed to seek out a therapist if you feel any of these addictions forming. The more aware you are of your daily habits, the more you can control your health.