Why Can’t I Stop (Fill in the Blank)?

A glimpse behind the explanation to our unhealthy habits

She’s known as “tanning mom” but her name is Patricia Krentcil. The New Jersey woman was accused of taking her young daughter tanning with her. She admits to taking her daughter along to appointments, but has never let her tan. 

Whether it’s true or not, Krentcil clearly has a problem.

Tanning, like a lot of other things we do, is not good for us. The UV rays used in tanning beds are linked to skin cancer, including the often-deadly melanoma. The FDA reports that tanning can also lead to cataracts and that UV overexposure can result in immune system suppression. 

Of course, a lot of people tan despite the warnings. They feel they look better with a bit of a “healthy tan” despite the prevailing medical opinion that there is no such thing. But Krentcil, by all accounts, has passed even that fictional “healthy tan” boundary line. 

So why doesn’t she stop—or at least ease up?

“It’s not that simple,” Madison-area psychotherapist Bonnie Lubet says of behavior change. Anyone who has struggled to lose weight knows it’s true.

It’s the same question we all ask ourselves at one time or another. Why do I keep eating when I’m not hungry? Why do I continue gambling when my family can’t afford the losses? Why do I buy things I don’t need even when I’m already in debt? Why do I spend hours and hours surfing the Internet on my computer, phone or iPad?  

Why can’t we stop doing the things that cause us more harm than good?

When talking about drugs or alcohol, it’s a bit easier to understand. Those, along with cigarettes and a few other substances such as caffeine, are physically as well as psychologically addictive. That means the individuals develop some kind of tolerance to a substance and suffer withdrawal when discontinuing use, explains Dr. Doug Jorenby, a professor in the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. 

Tolerance means someone has to consume more and more of a substance to get a desired effect. Withdrawal prompts a series of unpleasant, and sometimes life-threatening, physical symptoms. 

But the other behaviors—tanning, gambling, shopping, eating—generally don’t meet these criteria. So they seem like they should be easier to shake. With no physical effects, it should just be a matter of will. 

It turns out, however, that there is a bit of biology to our bad habits. The National Institutes of Health report that scientists have studied what happens in our brains as habits develop. The researchers found that pleasurable activities can trigger the release of dopamine, the brain chemical that regulates, among other things, pleasure. 

Lubet says many of us experience dopamine as a sort of “rush” and actually start to crave that feeling. That craving reinforces the behavior, even when the negative consequences of the behavior—debt, excess weight—mount. 

Jorenby agrees that on this level, certain behaviors can prompt the same physio-logical responses that drugs or alcohol do.

While this isn’t true drug dependence, it is a factor in why bad habits are so hard to break. In essence, we do things because they feel good. Then when we have a bad day or experience some kind of trauma, we turn to the behaviors that we know will make us feel better. Shopping, eating, surfing the web, you name it, becomes a surefire way to deal with stress. 

The thing is, Lubet says, the “rush” doesn’t last, and life’s stresses remain even after the euphoria has subsided. So it takes more eating, more shopping or maybe even more tanning to keep the bad feelings at bay. And that begins to sound like an addiction.

Only the experts don’t really like the term “addiction.” Lubet says it can create distance between clinicians and patients, and Jorenby says it usually does not enhance treatment or improve patient outcomes. Both avoid using the term even when dealing with drug or alcohol dependence that meets the clinical definition. 

While there are similarities between some excessive behaviors and drug dependence, Jorenby cautions against using the term “addiction” too loosely. “The analogy gets taken so far that it loses meaning,” he says. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all label.”

It might not be an addiction, but when something interferes with life or causes harm, it’s still a problem. Just because there isn’t a good word for an excessive behavior doesn’t mean that nothing is wrong. 

 

Jennifer Garrett is a Madison-based freelance writer.

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