There’s a fine line between addictive and compulsive behavior. For a long time, drugs and alcohol were the mainstays of addiction, until neurologists and psychologists learned that the chemical signals activated in the brain during certain activities—sex and gambling are the popular examples—could make behaviors potentially as addictive as consuming those legendary substances.
But outside these well-known (if not particularly well-understood) examples of addiction and compulsion, are other behaviors that, despite their relative obscurity, fit the bill of being potentially harmful, difficult to quit, and often start as a way to experience pleasure or alleviate anxiety—just like the other mainstays of chemical dependency.
The stereotype holds that naughty little boys are always pulling the hair of poor little girls (who the boys secretly like) and causing general grade-school mayhem. In reality, compulsive hair-pulling is a recognized disorder (known as trichotillomania), whose sufferers simply cannot resist the impulse to pull—and in more extreme cases, compulsively pluck or otherwise remove—hair.
The science on this one isn’t exactly cutting-edge, but researchers have learned a lot by looking outside the human species. It just so happens that animals will often exhibit a similar behavior in response to extreme stress. Birds that lose a friend or cage-mate will often compulsively pluck their own feathers to compensate for the absent grooming partner.
While humans don’t depend on one another for grooming in quite the same way, trichotillomania is also frequently associated with a trauma or stress, from which the sensation of plucking can sometimes provide (short-lived and ultimately destructive) relief.
Though painful, hair-pulling or plucking in both animals and humans may also cause the release of certain hormones associated with pleasure, which (just as with drugs) diminishes through repetition, requiring addicts to go to ever-greater lengths to get the same sense of relief (or “high”), until the compulsion becomes destructive. Birds will routinely pluck all the feathers out that they can reach (leaving just those on their heads remaining) while people will pluck themselves bald.
Either in a desperate bid to hide the evidence, or simply as an extension of the hair-pulling ritual, sufferers of trichotillomania will sometimes (about 5-10% of the time) eat the hair they pull (this one is known as trichophagia). Sadly, intestines—like indoor plumbing—are prone to getting blocked up and damaged by the build-up of hair, leading to a whole host of problems beyond baldness and embarrassment for those who eat hair.
In less-extreme cases, though, people (and animals) will stop short of actually eating their hair, and simply suck on it. Although it carries a greater social stigma, hair-sucking in humans and animals alike is done for similar reasons to thumb-sucking: the rooting reflex (one of mammals’ most basic instincts) drives typically younger individuals to continue seeking something to suckle.
While many children are satiated with a pacifier or finger, popular gender conventions mean that, since longer hair is more common among girls, there is a tendency for hair-sucking to become a compulsion almost exclusively in girls.
Meanwhile, among kittens or puppies who are born prematurely or separated from their mothers to early, it is not uncommon to find one or two pups with patches of constantly matted, bleached-out fur where their litter-mates have been suckling, slowly drawing all the pigment out.
Sometimes, the oral fixation that leads to thumb-sucking or hair-chewing can become even stronger. Nail-biting is one of the most common nervous habits people have, but it can actually escalate into biting and chewing the skin of the fingers itself.
This is called dermatophagia. When done regularly enough, people who nibble their nubs develop callouses, along with a growing need to chew more, harder, and more often to get the same “relief” that started the behavior. And just like with compulsive hair-plucking, the sensation of relief or even pleasure can be sufficiently stronger than the associated pain, that the passive nibbling escalates into full-on self-mutilation.
Skin-Picking Disorder (or Excoriation Disorder) drives people to compulsively rub, scratch, or simply pick away at the skin, with a predictably nasty suite of associated side-effects. While the disorder is commonly associated with drug abuse, it can also become a problem among the sober, complicating the treatment and diagnosis.
7. Animal Rescuing
Thanks to the discrete, tasteful reality television programming trend, the existence of “hoarders” is pretty firmly in the public consciousness. For those who missed the serial PSA that are A&E and Lifetime channels, hoarders are people with compulsion to either buy too much stuff, or experience such anxiety that they are unable to get rid of anything—even rubbish.
A peculiar subset of this particular disorder is animal hoarding, which becomes a problem when the pet-lover is no longer able to provide sufficient care or sanitation for their animals, yet refuses to give them up or stop collecting more. While animal hoarding is often (especially on television) presented as a problem among amateur breeders or rural folk who aren’t Price is Right fans, new evidence is emerging that as much as a quarter of all animal hoarding cases result from people attempting to “rescue” vulnerable animals.
Whether alleviating guilt or trying to feed the caregiving instinct, these would-be pet adopters find themselves unable to say no whenever they see a untagged dog running around the neighborhood, or happen to be flipping channels and catch an ad featuring Sarah McLachlan. They end up accumulating so many animals that their rescue becomes a hostage crisis, and their pets need rescuing all over again.
Another common animal-focused compulsion, Feeders have an overwhelming need to provide sustenance to wildlife. Whether they are over-feeding their own pets, or delighting in throwing seed to wild birds (pigeons and ducks or other water fowl are common victims), these people believe they are acting out of compassion, but actually cause all sorts of dietary and dependency issues in the animals they feed.
In that sense, animal-feeders have a compounding addiction, as their behavior and ignorance of proper wildlife diet can cause the animals they ritualistically feed to become addicted to the food they are providing. In fact, feeder-compulsion is a common starting point for animal rescue hoarding, as the need to “care for” these creatures compels feeders to take the animals home with them.
Feeder behavior is also a common side effect of anorexia. People with eating disorders often obsess with feeding others to compensate for starving themselves, both of which can become borderline-addictive behaviors.
5. Beauty Products
Although it has inexplicably become fashionable to trivialize addictions by flippantly suffixing hobbies with “-aholic,” fashion magazines discussing an addiction to cosmetics are actually scratching the surface of a serious range of addictions.
People—not just women—can become addicted to acquiring and using beauty products for many of the same reasons others are compelled to gamble, shop, hoard, or even mutilate themselves.
What may start as a drive to accumulate “enough” different products, or an effort to achieve a beauty standard that, thanks to body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), is impossible, becomes an obsessive-compulsive disorder.
While it doesn’t always end in endless sessions of plastic surgery, about 15% of cosmetic surgery customers are estimated to have BDD, while roughly a quarter of those with BDD get some form of cosmetic surgery. A growing body of evidence connects the disorder to everything from an obsession with hair-extensions to sufferers becoming unable to leave the house without a mask-like layer of makeup, which can take hours for them to get just right. And let’s not forget the incidence eating disorders among the beauty-obsessed addicts.
Turns out, confession is more secular than people realize. While Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is popularly presented as a comedic foible, driving sufferers to count, touch, clean, or simply make strange noises, the real condition can manifest itself much less amusing ways.
An overwhelming compulsion to confess—and not just in the Catholic sense—can become an addiction, and often does. Just like any other drug or behavior, some source of anxiety or duress becomes associated with even minor or imagined transgressions, and confessing to them is seen as the only path toward relief. While guilt is a natural, albeit negative human sensation (likely an extension of the empathy instinct), OCD can compound the sensation until guilt becomes pathological.
When the anxiety-prone individuals learn to alleviate this guilt through confession, the stimulus-response feedback loop can develop into an addiction that send them admitting fault and declaiming their sins compulsively.
While everyone needs a restorative break from routine now and then to thrive and function, the drive to “escape” the ordinary can become a compulsion. Again, the expression “Travel-Addict” is thrown around by enthusiasts yet masks a very legitimate disorder.
Like the phenomenon that leaves fans depressed after the conclusion of a good book or the cessation of a media franchise, the end of a vacation can cause serious depression, and even the onset of agoraphobia, or a fear to leave home and interact with the “outside” world.
While dependency usually requires a build up of tolerance and conditioning, the extreme high of a vacation can potentially back the highs of escapism normally experimented in more limited doses through things like gaming or television into a concentrated punch.
Though few may be able to afford to feed this impulse to escape the ordinary and familiar, the symptoms of withdrawal can be every bit as crippling as giving up a more conventional addiction.
Many people become deeply distressed by the chaotic, randomness of everyday life. Rather than taking a mental health day or planning a vacation to cope, they resort to compulsive planning of life itself. Another hallmark symptom of OCD, compulsive planners are obsessed with trying to predict the future—not in a supernatural sense, but out of a need to prepare and control every detail.
Like the A-Team’s Hannibal, compulsive planners are desperately seeking the relief of having a plan come together—or fending off the anxiety of feeling a lack of control. The same thrill of anticipation that makes going over the peak of a rollercoaster track, or seeing the premier of a new show, so enjoyable for most can be excruciating for those addicted to planning, predicting, and mapping every detail of something they can’t actually control.
That lack of control doesn’t diminish their need to plan, as a certain relief comes from the act of planning itself, even when those plans fail to come to fruition.
1. Youth Sports
Parents are like drug-pushers: there is nothing more addictive to a young child than the attention they get from their parents. We’ve all been stuck on a plane or in a grocery store where some kid is whining incessantly, while some doting parent coos and makes a fuss, only encouraging the brat to continue the display of distress.
This is Behavioral Conditioning 101: children instinctively crave the attention of their parents, and will repeatedly perform any action that ensures they get that attention. Almost all behavioral conditioning depends on rewards; from petting your dog when it dookies outside, to applauding a toddler for graduating from diapers to toilets, positive reinforcement is, categorically, the root motivator.
So when children, instinctively hungry for the love and attention of their parents, learn that doing athletics of a particular sort can guarantee that recognition, they will start going out of their way to repeat that behavior as much as possible. Even once they develop identities independent of their parents and find their interest in sports is entirely external, it can be hard to shake the conditioning that compelled them to pursue athletics.
As a case study, consider John Hughes’s paean to high school stereotypes, The Breakfast Club. When Emelio Estevez’s character—the quintessential jock—explains why he is in detention, does he sound particularly thrilled to be the school’s resident sports star? Or is he literally taking risks, experimenting with self-destructive behavior, and slowly losing his identity to the need to continually perform as an athlete?
Unlike other addictions and compulsions, however, the pressure to continue playing and specializing in youth sports doesn’t typically relent. From guilt (over all the time and money already invested) to the promise of ever-increasing rewards (on an individual basis, athletic scholarships pay more than academic or merit-based ones, even though there is more total money in academic scholarships) make quitting sports an impossible prospect for young jocks, whatever the emotional, physical, or social price.