Soft addictions

Julie Deardorff

They may not be street drugs, but certain addictive habits can still be a drain on lifestyle

When Rich and Gertrude Lyons first admitted they were powerless, television was the first thing to go. Then they weaned themselves from mail-order catalogs, electronic gadgets and sugar.

Today, the Chicago couple is still grappling with their “soft addictions,” or ordinary behavior that, if overdone, can wreak havoc on your life. Unlike hard addictions, which are usually related to a chemical substance, you don’t die from soft addictions.

“But you don’t really live, either,” said self-help guru Judith Wright, who labeled the phenomenon more than a decade ago.

Costs of ‘addiction’

People have always had ways to zone out, but experts such as Wright say soft or mild behavioral addictions are escalating, partly because there are so many new things to get addicted to, and many have the disposable income to do it.

But identifying and treating a soft addiction is difficult. Because whether it’s watching the NCAA tournament, checking e-mail, editing Wikipedia entries or walking into Starbucks, the activities are seemingly harmless behaviors.

The problem is that when even healthy habits such as exercise are used too often or for the wrong reasons, they sap one’s time, money and energy and prevent people from living the life they want, according to Wright, founder of the Chicago-based Wright Institute, a personal development and training center.

Rich Lyons, 41, for example, habitually zoned out in front of the television at night, staying up far later than intended and waking up crabby the next day. He said that practice resulted in another soft addiction: a grumpy mood. His wife, Gertrude, 41, meanwhile, found she had a soft addiction to shopping for adorable but overpriced baby clothes that, ultimately, her children didn’t want to wear. She also had a bad habit of paging through mail-order catalogs when she had better things to do.

“It wasn’t an overspending issue as much as it was buying stuff you knew you didn’t need,” Gertrude said. “It was like buying something felt like it would make me feel better.”

A common problem

The affliction strikes men and women of all ages and races. A poll conducted for the Wright Institute found 91 percent of people have a soft addiction that keeps them from feeling satisfied. “And the other 9 percent of people are in denial,” Wright said.

Procrastination, watching too much television and overworking are the top three. But a new study shows college undergraduates might be addicted to tanning under UV lights. The Internet, meanwhile, is being blamed for a host of compulsive behaviors.

Technology can cause addictive behavior “partly because each potential response required for a cell phone message or an e-mail doesn’t always seem so large, so why not mow some of them down now?” said Jeff Davidson, author of Breathing Space: Living & Working at a Comfortable Pace in a Sped-Up Society.

Losing control

Though there is still controversy about whether compulsive Internet use and video-game playing merit a medical diagnosis, treatment centers have opened around the world, including in Korea, China and the Netherlands. The Priory Clinic in London is treating “texting addicts,” or those who might spend up to seven hours a day writing and receiving text messages on their cell phones.

“It’s more of a process of control and losing control,” said psychologist Chris Stout, an executive director at the Timberline Knolls, a Chicago-based women’s residential treatment center. “It’s easy to confuse an addiction with a compulsive behavior. An addiction involves deception, denial and dishonesty. A compulsive behavior is more apparent such as repetitive behaviors and is a way to cope with anxiety.”

Unlike a bad habit, a soft addiction also has an identifiable cost of money, time, energy or intimacy associated with it, according to Wright. Feeling numb, high, buzzed or in a trance when you’re doing an activity could mean you have a problem.

“If you can’t remember what you did, ate, saw or bought, that’s a sign,” she said. “But if you’re doing the activity and feel more alive and vital, and you’re learning, growing, clear, grounded and present, that’s a passion. We shouldn’t confuse the two.”

Top 10 soft addictions

  • Procrastination.
  • Watching too much television.
  • Overworking.
  • Acting moody, such as being grumpy, cranky or overly happy.
  • Overeating.
  • Drinking too much coffee.
  • Shopping impulsively.
  • Daydreaming excessively.
  • Complaining excessively.
  • Surfing the Internet excessively.

Source: Harris Poll conducted for the Wright Institute.

Julie Deardorff

Chicago Tribune