Are Americans Addicted to Addiction?

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He shambled through the door and slouched into a chair at the dining table. With the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his brow, he placed his elbows on the table, leaned over and began to massage his temples.

"Ugggghhhhh," my friend groaned. "My head... is splitting."

"Did you go out to the bars last night?" I asked.

"No," he replied. "I'm not hung-over... I need Caffetto."

"What?"

"By that, I mean I need a pumpkin-spice latte."

"You may be addicted to caffeine. You know that, right?"

"Ugh... probably."


My friend wouldn't be the only one. Consider this: The average American ingests as much as 300 mg of caffeine per day, and sales of energy drinks exploded by 31.6% from June 2010 to June 2011.

But why focus just on caffeine addiction? One in ten Americans over the age of 12 are dependent on some kind of substance, and the economic toll of this dependency is estimated to exceed half a trillion dollars. That number doesn't include what can't be calculated: the sadness and hurt exacted on those suffering from addiction, as well as their family and friends.

There are even more addictions besides excessive substance and caffeine use. Americans are addicted to exercise, pornography, internet use, drugs, alcohol, sex, smoking, gambling, tanning, eating, hoarding, video games, shopping, working, television, smartphones and cosmetic surgery. Heck, we're even addicted to writing about addiction. Type "addiction" into a Google News search and you'll see what I mean. (There's like a million articles!)

In light of all these idiosyncrasies, one could easily come to the conclusion that America is full of loons (and that person might be right). There's no doubt that addiction rates have risen since the middle of the 20th century, but keep in mind that Americans are living in an age where we are bombarded with ceaseless stimulation from all angles. Denizens of the past simply did not have to contend with such frenzy.

This over stimulation offers more and more chances than ever before for addiction to take hold. Addiction is caused when neurons in the reward pathway of the brain release dopamine. The dopamine is later transferred to the synapses, where it binds to receptors and sparks feelings of pleasure. Normally, these feelings would be inhibited by a neurotransmitter called GABA, but when an excess of dopamine is consistently provided, the normal balance of the brain's circuitry is disrupted.

addictionchocolate.jpgAddicted to chocolate?

Of course, today, there is also an over-willingness to label and diagnose addiction. Take, for example, the situation described at the beginning of the piece where I jumped to the conclusion that my friend's headache was triggered by a lack of caffeine. Also, in 2007, the American Medical Association rightly asked, "Are video games truly addictive -- or just really, really fun?"

There also seems to be a fixation on the topic of addiction. Extremely popular shows like Hoarders, Celebrity Rehab and Intervention permeate cable television, and the topic never strays far from the doctor shows on daytime television.

Keep in mind that an activity from which we derive pleasure on a consistent basis is not really an addiction until it starts to become a compulsion and actually gives rise to adverse effects.

So in case you're wondering: yes, my use of the term "addicted" in the title is technically incorrect. But hey, it grabbed your attention didn't it?

Maybe you're addicted to reading about addiction!

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