For those in recovery from a substance addiction or eating disorder, the holidays can prove an extremely challenging time. Certainly, this is the case for those with alcohol or food-related issues, due to the pervasiveness of spirits and treats during this season. But they are not alone. From Thanksgiving all the way through January 1st, anxiety, depression and stress is markedly increased. To cope with this inordinate pressure the desire to return to any addiction is intensified.
Fortunately, those solidly committed to recovery have thoughtfully planned for the inevitability of seasonal stress.
However, what they may not have anticipated is the lure of a process addiction. This type of addiction is defined by a reliance on internal brain chemicals that are released whenever a person engages in a specific behavior or set of behaviors.
Three process additions that can easily show up during this season are work, exercise and sex/love. Work is easy to fall into because it is the end of the year and often many tasks must be accomplished. In order to avoid anxiety-inducing holiday parties, an individual can justifiably work late. The greatest problem with this type of process addiction is that the person is often lauded for engaging in it. Upper management is impressed when an employee works late—they are dedicated, a real “company” man or woman. A bonus check, additional validation, may be forthcoming.
Excessive exercise is another. To avoid social interaction and to mitigate stress, a person may increase frequency and duration of exercise. Exercise is intrinsically reinforcing due to the endorphins that accompany the behavior. The traditional “runner’s high” is a very real thing. Additionally, since the American culture is so obsessed with the concept of holiday weight gain, such activity is deemed extremely positive.
Sex or love addiction can also crop up, especially for females. With a sex addiction, the number of partners, and the need to engage in sex, may skyrocket. With love addiction, women feel profound pressure to have a date to accompany them to holiday parties; the worst offender is New Year’s Eve. The concept of spending that all-important night alone is anathema.
Without a doubt, the most common process addiction during this time is shopping; after all, this season is defined by purchasing. Again, this is far more likely with women. The woman, who displayed rigorous restraint at the buffet table the night before, is the woman who could over buy the following day. The simple act of buying triggers a chemical reaction in the reward center of the brain. Interestingly, the purchase does not have to be for the individual herself; buying a gift for a friend will offer a similar result. This is incredibly reinforcing and our society, primarily through advertising, which always encourages you to buy more.
Although the holiday overindulgence in these activities is innocent for most people, it is something an addict can’t afford to do, due to the high risk of it giving them that “quick fix”, leading into an addiction or developing a new addiction. A process addiction can be avoided through the simple acknowledgment that it can be as addicting as a substance. And it needs to be addressed early on; the longer it lasts, the greater the potential of life-changing damage.