Wednesday 21 March 2018

Could your habit be causing you harm?

Whether it’s a flutter on the horses or a glass of wine in the evening, it can be hard to know if you need to break a habit before it causes real problems. Psychologist David Coleman  helps you spot the warning signs

In association with the Health Service Executive

Do you ever find yourself getting lost on your phone? Have you noticed the hours idle by while you scroll through Instagram, play videos on YouTube or check responses to your Facebook status updates?

Your phone may be the first thing you reach for in the morning and the last thing you touch before you go to bed. Perhaps, during the day you have a constant urge to check it to see what's trending, who's posting, who's watching what. Does this sound like you? Could you be addicted to your phone?

It's an interesting question, because it forces us to think about what addiction actually is. What really counts as addiction?

Outside of its implications for physical health, could a habitual glass of wine every night be an alcohol addiction? Does regular surfing of the internet looking at pornography, because you're bored and it's available, represent a porn addiction? Does your strong desire to check your phone constantly mean you are addicted to it?

By necessity, this article will only ever be an overview of the area of addiction. There are vast amounts of knowledge built up, from decades of research, that cover aspects of the psychology of addiction, the biology of addiction, the sociology of addiction and so on. Because so much of this is filled with jargon, you may not find it easy to navigate the area, and may find yourself confused.

So, I'll do my best to try to translate the relevant information from each of these areas to get a holistic view of what addiction is all about.

For the sake of simplicity, I'd like to use a definition of addiction by an American clinical psychologist, Tom Horvath. He defines addiction as: "the repeated involvement with a substance or activity, despite the substantial harm it now causes, because that involvement was (and may continue to be) pleasurable and/or valuable".

Often we only think of addiction in terms of drugs, alcohol or cigarettes and may focus only on the fact that the substance itself is addictive, creating cravings and so on. But this is too restrictive, since we know that many behaviours, like gambling, watching pornography, sex, eating even, can also be addictive. But we are all likely to engage in some of these activities some of the time, so what makes the difference between normal behaviour and addictive behaviour?

Another important element is the recognition that it is the repeated involvement with the substance or behaviour that is problematic.

True addiction occurs insidiously and repeatedly, without the person appearing able to stop or change. So, placing a bet on a horse doesn't mean that you are addicted to gambling, even if that bet is huge and reckless and more than you can afford to lose. It is when, despite the ups and downs, especially the losses in gambling, you keep returning and keep betting that you might have a problem. So another key factor in understanding when those behaviours may have moved into the realm of an addiction is to consider the harm they cause. As the definition says, addictions cause 'substantial harm'.


Let's use a few examples to illustrate this. Imagine you are a heavy user of your phone. Imagine too that your near-constant flicking on, or swiping across, your phone leads to constant rows with your partner, who complains of being ignored, or of never having your full attention. If these rows, directly related to your phone use, lead to the relationship breaking down, it could be argued your use of your phone caused you and your ex-partner substantial harm.

If you can't even drive a short distance without checking your phone (as many people can't) and then you have an accident, this again may fulfil 'substantial harm'.


Consider a person who binge-drinks every weekend, drinking their way through €100 of alcohol each Friday, Saturday and Sunday night.

Irrespective of their hangover and inability to function during the day, they may be leaving themselves seriously short of cash for other essentials like accommodation, heat, food, transport and so on. Their performance in work may be impacted, leading to many missed Mondays and perhaps, over time, leading to them being let go for underperforming.

The damage the person does to their own health, finances and career could be considered serious harm. Mix this in with a dereliction of their family responsibilities, and we can begin to consider they may have a problem with alcohol addiction.

Some authors will talk about this harm as the 'costs' associated with an addiction: direct costs in terms of damage to your health, financial cost, or damage to your relationships with others. But there are also indirect costs that come from the person's preoccupation with the substance or behaviour, as it consumes their time, emotional energy and fills their thinking such that their lives may even revolve around the addiction.

The person who is addicted may not even be aware of, or may choose to ignore, the harm they are causing. This blindness to the impact of their addiction may be a way to allow them to continue unabated, as full acceptance of the harm they cause may force them to think about change.


This takes us to the final part of the definition: the fact the substance or behaviour may have been, or may continue to be, pleasurable or valuable to the person. Often, the substances or behaviours that become addictive start out pleasurably or had some value such as serving to numb emotional pain, or allowing us to feel socially confident. But it can seem counterintuitive, as the costs of those behaviours become evident, that the person continues, despite the harm.

Despite, for example, the dire straits that we sometimes see people in when they are addicted to drugs, with chronic health problems, no money, physical cravings and so on, they still turn to the substance. This is where the complexity of the way the brain functions, both biologically in terms of the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, and behaviourally in terms of self-fulfilling prophesies, like 'I can't change; it's too hard', or 'I've failed to change in the past, so there's no point trying now', can kick in.

Breaking the cycle

Most of us are lucky enough that even though we have habits like drinking alcohol or the odd flutter on the horses, we don't slip into the category of addiction. This is because, as the costs (financial, health, relationship) build up, we reconsider, reduce or stop. It is when we don't stop that we have a problem. Change can only come about when we recognise we have a problem and when we feel motivated to do something about it.

If you have recognised something about your behaviour, you can take the courageous step to get help. It is never too late to change.

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