Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Obsessive-Compulsive Tea Shopping, and Unity in Addictions

I just discovered an interesting discussion thread on Steepster, How do you stop the compulsion to buy buy BUY more tea?!, through a post on the Life in Teacup Blog how to deal with obsessive tea shopping... . This got me thinking about addictions in general, and I decided I wanted to write on the topic here.

Pictured here is some heroin, an illegal drug that can be highly addictive. Addiction, including addiction to hard drugs like heroin, is something I have thought about for a long time; when I was in high school, someone on the periphery of my social circle died of a heroin overdose.

This post is only tangentially related to tea, but I think it is an important topic, and I hope people find it useful.

If you were thinking initially of compulsive shopping, and are shocked by my leap to heroin, you may think I am exaggerating. But I hope that if you bear with me, you will find that my analogy has an interesting reason behind it, and the reason is not to shock or exaggerate. And, after explaining myself, I will conclude the post with a suggestion of how to overcome compulsive tea shopping.

There is unity in addictions:

I personally believe that there is unity in addictions, in the sense that, whether a person is suffering from compulsive shopping, unhealthy behavior in sex or relationships, drug addiction, compulsive gambling, self-injury, video game addiction, or anything else, the person is suffering not just from a specific form of addiction, but from a general state of addiction. All forms of addiction have in common that a person's self-control is not strong enough that they are able to choose long-term benefits over short-term behaviors that produce some sort of immediate mental reward or stimulation.

There is some science that is beginning to confirm the idea that different types of addiction have a lot in common, in terms of what is going on with the brain. I also find it interesting that twelve step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, and other similar programs, have been developed not only to help with alcoholism, but with a variety of other sorts of addictions, and these different programs have basically the same approach. The approach begins with admitting that the people have a problem with addiction, and that self-control is inadequate. In terms of my understanding of addiction, I would say that these programs work because they change a person's beliefs (the step of believing that one has an addiction and choosing to want to overcome it is a critical one) as well as providing a network of social support.

My experience with addiction:

Addiction is not something I discuss from afar; I personally have had problems with video game addiction, and it got bad enough that I deleted all video games from my computer years ago. I could spend hours playing role playing games and neglecting all sorts of other activities. More recently, I have struggled with addictive behavior towards social media and online communication media such as Facebook and gchat. I have also seen people close to me struggle with alcoholism, self-injury, and unhealthy patterns in relationships. One of my friends found a twelve step program helpful for overcoming problems with codependency in relationships, and I have seen people overcome alcoholism while others have failed to overcome it.

Some interesting resources on addiction:

If you're interested in this topic, NPR has recently had a number of programs (and published articles) on this topic. One that I found a particularly interesting read was Addiction Is Not A Disease Of The Brain. Wikipedia's article on addiction is also well-developed and has a lot of interesting and relevant material on it. The overall picture I get by reading different materials on the topic of addiction though is that addiction is complex and involves many factors, including brain chemistry, actions, habits, and life choices, social networks and relationships with people, and beliefs about the effects of various actions.

My thoughts on how to overcome addiction:

Some people "overcome" one addiction only to fall into another. I think that this is not a true victory over addiction...truly overcoming addiction involves overcoming the whole state of addiction, in which someone seeks some sort of immediate gratification through some sort of impulsive activity. The question of which activity is more harmful is often a relative one. Playing video games may seem relatively benign when compared to heroin use, but a true video game addiction, in which a person spends hours every day playing video games, and neglecting their job, school, health, or significant other, could actually be more destructive to a person's life than someone trying heroin once and never using it again.

I think that the best model for overcoming addiction is a holistic approach, one that aims to help a person reach a healthy state in which they are thinking and acting based on the long-run rather than immediate gratification. I think that an essential part of this is feeling happy and content in the moment. Addiction is all about satisfying immediate cravings; if you are consistently able to enjoy the moment without engaging in any of your addictive vices, and, without these activities, you can feel like you have everything you need in the short-term, then you have overcome addiction. I find mindfulness exercises like meditation, or the appreciation of subtle pleasures to have a positive effect on this whole process. A lot of people use addiction to run away from their problems...difficult situations, feelings, or memories they don't want to confront. It is hard to overcome addiction if you genuinely believe that your life is in ruin, as you will feel that you have nothing to lose, but if you feel like your life is worthwhile and in order, your willpower will be greatly increased. At least, that's how I view things.

How to overcome compulsive tea shopping:

I find it ironic that people suffer from compulsive tea shopping, as for me, tea is something that is associated with mindfulness, taking a break in my day to focus both on the act of preparing a cup of tea, and on the aromas, flavors, and other sensations while drinking a cup of tea, or my company when sharing tea with others. So perhaps a remedy for compulsive tea shopping would be to spend more time enjoying the tea. If you're truly enjoying what you have, you don't need any more, right?

What do you think?

Have you had any personal experiences with addiction, either mild or severe, that you are comfortable sharing in the comments? Do you think there's much truth in the "unity in addiction" view that I put forth here? What do you think about my suggestions of how to overcome addiction?


  1. I thought this was interesting, but I was wondering if there's a distinction between physical addiction and psychological addiction.
    Because some things have physically addicting substances, and some don't. Like, if you're addicted to caffeine, trying to quit will give you physical withdrawal symptoms, whereas something like gambling... well, I don't know what that's like, but I'm guessing that trying to quit gambling wouldn't give you symptoms like that.

    I guess there's always a psychological element to addiction. Or is there? I once thought I was addicted to sugar, and I stopped eating it for 3 months, and it was really easy to do, but unsatisfying in a lot of ways. Maybe I wasn't really addicted to it, and maybe it's not a very addictive substance compared to other things.

    1. This is a really good question, and I'm glad you asked because I think it's an important topic.

      I've often seen people get into the discussion of physical addiction vs. psychological addiction. My personal opinion on the matter is that while it is possible to make this sort of distinction, it is ultimately not very useful.

      To give an example, heroin is a drug that is considered extremely physically addicting: as people use it over time, it produces tolerance effects which require progressively higher doses to achieve the same effects, and it produces intense cravings and extremely unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when people stop taking it. Caffeine also produces tolerance and withdrawal, but the effect is much milder, as RateTea's page on caffeine withdrawal explains.

      If you look at what's going on in the brain of someone addicted to heroin, cocaine, or any other strongly physically-addictive drug, you will see certain changes in the brain, including changes in how the dopamine system works, and these changes are the same regardless of what a person is addicted to; the following PDF file, Is There A Common Molecular Pathway For Addiction? explains this. This is a particularly important observation because, initially, different drugs have very different effects. For example, heroin acts more like a sedative, whereas cocaine acts more like a stimulant. But activities besides drugs seem to create the same sort of pathologies in the dopamine system. Gambling is a particularly interesting behavior because it produces no direct physiological effects (unlike self-injury which cause the body to produce endorphins and other chemicals), yet it seems to produce the same drug-like effects on the dopamine system. The Oregon Problem Gambling Hotline's website has an excellent article on this topic, Problem Gambling and the Brain, which cites a number of other good sources on this. There are even some really bizarre cases of people taking other drugs that act on the dopamine system, such as to treat tremors from Parkinson's disease, having the seemingly bizarre side-effect of creating gambling addictions which vanish when people stop taking the drug, as described in the Boston Globe article Your Brain on Gambling.

      So, to get back to your original question, if you look at what's going on in the person's brain, even a purely activity-based activity like gambling, with no immediate physical repercussions, produces physiological changes in a person's brain similar to those of the most physically addictive drugs out there. And this is why I think that in the end, the distinction between physical addiction and psychological addiction is highly arbitrary and not terribly useful.

  2. I agree there is some commonness among all different kinds of addictions. But I have to admit that it seems a little scary to me to relate shopping to addictions such as drug and alcohol :-p I think the level of obsessive shopping on most regular shopaholics is somewhat comparable to procrastination - it's bad, but it's not that guilty... and sometimes it's bad that people don't feel the urgency of getting rid of the bad habit as it's doesn't feel extremely guilty.

    Although I agree the border between physical and psychological addiction is often blurred, I think it's still necessary to separate the two. The former one, typically could make a person lose normal daily functions, and this happens much less and to a lighter degree in many cases of psychological addiction. Besides, addiction and obsession are of very different levels - I feel it's quite important to distinguish the two. Although I'm not obsessive on buying tea (because it takes up space and has a shelf life!), I'm more obsessive on buying other things, such as, currently, Asian stationary. Buying too much is bad, but I think it's still far, far away from addiction, and especially physical addiction.

    1. I think the distinction here is not between physical addictions and other types of addictions, but rather, between a true addiction, and a casual obsession or form of procrastination.

      When I say "shopping addiction" I'm not thinking about someone who is casually procrastinating and maybe spending a little more money than they'd like. A true shopping addiction is when someone is spending beyond their means, spending a disproportionate amount of time and/or money shopping to the point where it is detracting from their life, is trying to scale back their shopping but feels unable to do so, and/or is shopping in order to escape problems in their life.

      I still believe there is essentially no distinction between physical addiction. If you look at what's going on in the brain, it's a physical addiction either way. These cases you are describing are not true addictions. People casually use the term "addiction" to talk about something less serious. But some people do get addicted to activities like shopping in the same way that they can get addicted to hard drugs like heroin and cocaine.

      I think it would be more accurate, to use the drug analogy, to compare the casual shopping example to casual recreational drug and alcohol use, like people who have a couple beers regularly when out with friends. Some people drink alcohol on most days, but we would probably not call them alcoholics. Nor would most people call someone a pothead just because they smoke marijuana from time to time. These people don't have the brain changes and changes in patterns of behavior characteristic of serious addiction. But some people, including both drug users and people who are addicted to other non-drug activities or behaviors, do have those changes.

      Is this distinction making sense?

    2. Yes that makes sense. But I still feel there is a huge difference between addiction of, for example, shopping or computer games (even when it's severe addiction) and addiction of, for example, drugs. If a healthy person is injected heroine (like what happened in some group crimes), he would be addicted to it and wouldn't get rid of it easily without medical help. But addiction of shopping or computer games is not formed over a short period of time, and is often a result of many other factors (such as long-term depression). The former could be caused by one single drug, and the latter is usually caused by a combination of various factors.

      Besides, I guess what I wanted to say at the beginning was, it just sounds scary to list shopaholic next to drug addiction :-p

    3. I've never used any illegal drugs, but I've talked to some people who have experimented with harder drugs, including cocaine and heroin, using them several times, without becoming addicted, and without requiring serious medical help to stop using them.

      The drug education program in the U.S. often seems to give people the impression that these drugs are so addictive that people try them once and become hooked. While there are certainly people who become hooked in this manner, I think that these people are particularly vulnerable, i.e., they are depressed or have other problems in their life, perhaps the addiction-related problems with self-control that I describe here.

      I ultimately think that the simplistic way we teach about drugs in our schools actually makes more people vulnerable to drug addictions. Young people in recreational drug circles are going to see people who experiment with harder drugs without becoming addicted. They then think--oh, that person used such-and-such drug several times, and they stopped, and they're fine, their life isn't falling apart, they're not an addict, I can do it too. But the problem is, different people react differently to drugs, and also, some people are just inherently more vulnerable to addiction.

      It is scary to list a shopping addiction next to drug addiction, but that's not why I'm trying to do it. I think that ultimately, when people realize that there's a certain commonality in different addictions, it is empowering.

      For one, there's a tendency for people who abuse substances or activities other than illegal drugs to dismiss drug addicts as "the other", often treating them with disdain or contempt. I think this leads to harsh sentencing to jail time, rather than treating addicts with love and compassion and trying to help them, as I believe to be a more constructive approach, both on a practical level, and because of my religious beliefs. But I also think that, in the case of people vulnerable to addictions, it leads people to a false sense of security...oh, I'm not addicted, my problem is much milder than those people. It even happens with drugs..."I just smoke weed, and marijuana is not physically addictive." -- I can't even count how many times I've heard that, including from some people who smoke weed every day and would be described by most people as "burnouts".

      Yes, it's scary. But I think in the end, it lulls us out of our false sense of security, and empowers us to band together and help each other out with the struggles in our lives rather than labelling people as "the other" because they are handling their struggles in a different way.

  3. Yes, the distinction makes sense. Underlying many compulsive behaviors is trying to ease pain. For many, it is pain those of us not so afflicted cannot even fathom, for others, much less, but it is pain.

    However, there are also predispositions to some forms of addiction, which I use for alcohol and drug abuse. Those with it in their families are much more likely to develop it. I am not sure where the line is between learned behavior and differences in brain chemistry - there is a lot of literature about fetal alcohol syndrome babies that supports the latter.

    When I worked in in-patient mental health we noticed that about 90% or more of our alcoholics and drug addicts smoked almost obsessively and the alcoholics were never without a cup of very very heavily sugared coffee. We felt that this was a substitute addiction.

    I personally come from a long line of bi-polar and alcoholic folks. Early on, I noticed my capacity for alcohol far and away exceeded that of my contemperaries - that is one of the first signs of being on the road to alcoholism - so I basically stopped drinking and never have more than 1 or 2 and I drink rarely. others are not so fortunate to know they're in trouble.

    This is a truly complicated issue, but i would like to seperate out compulsion, which is comparatively mild, from addiction, which is life encompassing and destroying. Where one crosses the line, I'm not sure.

    Excellent and thought provoking article, Alex, thanks

    1. Thanks.

      That makes a lot of sense, about the smoking / coffee+sugar as a substitute addiction. I also have a history of alcoholism in my extended family, and found it a bit scary, and I've seen that when I'm in a bad place emotionally or during a difficult time, I tend to exhibit addictive behaviors to various activities, especially computer-related things.

      I also agree with what you said about it being important to separate out mild compulsions from addiction.

    2. I've thought about alcoholism for some time. I feel it's sort of a borderline type of addiction. It often has psychological root. But I suspect physical causes also play important roles. I know some social drinkers would get extremely sick once over-drinking. To those people, there is no fun of over-drinking, and I suspect those people would have smaller chance to become alcoholic.

      What Marlena says about "substitution addiction" also makes me think that even when obsession is at a lower level, there could be "substitution obsession", for example, from compulsive shopping to compulsive eating, or from crazily buying one kind of things to buying another different collection of things. In my observation, "shopping therapy" or light level of compulsive shopping exist among many women. I suspect it's because many other behaviors are not as encouraged as shopping - for example, many women feel guilty about eating too much, or are discouraged from doing other things, but there are always different means in the society that encourages consumption behaviors directly or indirectly. So eventually compulsive shopping may become the "substitute" of other things.

    3. I think alcoholism is one of those things that can be a more borderline type of addiction, but in some cases, it can be more extreme, like hard drug addiction. And I do think you're right that part of this has some sort of physiological roots...there seems to be a genetic predisposition to alcohol abuse in certain groups of people, for instance, whereas other people simply don't enjoy the effects of alcohol as much.

      The whole issue of "shopping therapy" is also interesting. I think that that highlights another problem I see in our society, which is not so much an addiction or compulsion (although it may encourage them) as it is a destructive cultural practice or belief...the idea that a good way to solve our problems or improve our happiness is by buying things. I think that this belief is at the root of consumerism, which I see as a highly destructive value system, destructive in the sense that it causes environmental decline, weakening of communities, and negative effects on the psychological health of individuals. And it would make sense to me that a lot of the beliefs about shopping and material objects in our society, beliefs that flow from a consumerist way of looking at things, could predispose people towards unhealthy or compulsive behavior with shopping. But that's a whole other topic in itself.

  4. I thought I would post this here (I just posted this on Gingko's blog). I'm sorry if this is redundant.

    I don't know where to start, or what to say here, as this touches on a topic I have struggled with most of my life, and one I have strong opinions about. I am glad there is a discussion about it here, though. I posted a number of replies to the related thread on Steepster.

    I guess I want to take a deep approach (as that seems to be in my blood). Only recently have I started to see life as the glass half-full, rather than the glass half-empty. This is a fundamental shift in the way I perceive things, so I feel it's impact in nearly everything I do (as long as I am aware of it, that is). This is one way I like to explain it. 1) If I come from a place of scarcity, such that I unconsciously feel I don't have enough, and/or I feel I need to get the thing I don't have RIGHT NOW, before it's gone, then I tend to make poor choices, and, as this relates this to Tea, buy tea I don't really need (i.e. even though I already have plenty of tea, I choose to buy more of it since it's on sale in the belief that if I don't it will go away and something that good will NEVER cross my path again). 2) If instead I come from a place of abundance, such that I feel I have everything I need in this moment, and furthermore that when I need what I don't have I believe I will get it when the time is right, then I tend to make much better choices (and avoid the sales when I already have plenty of tea, for example).

    That's what I call the scarcity (fear) vs. abundance (trust, or faith, or love) concept in a nutshell (Anthony Robbins first helped me to understand this concept over a decade ago, and here I am, now, just getting it). I don't have any more time to devote to that concept now just now, but it's a start. It's one of the most life changing things that has ever happened to me. And I want to share it here in the hope it will help others.

    1. Wow, what you're saying here really resonates with me.

      I also think that getting from the "half-empty" mindset into the "half-full" mindset, or as you put it, being in a place of abundance rather than scarcity, is directly related to overcoming addiction, and making healthy decisions in general.