Food junkies, Internet junkies, shopping junkies…what is it that makes people go on an extended binge?

It's always hard to decide what to write about at the beginning of the year. I mean the last thing I would like to do is to serve you a downer when you're still full of good cheer and all that, by getting into some soul-searing stuff or lecturing you on what you need to do for the year ahead and why your New Year resolutions may not work. But now, when you've hopefully recovered from your New Year's Eve excesses and have probably told yourself that you will never again indulge in alcohol and the like, even if this may not yet have progressed to the status of a full blown resolution, may be a good time to explore the phenomenon of the addict that rests within each of us.

I don't propose to examine the issue of chemical dependence — alcohol, street drugs or prescription drugs— for, I, as well as many others, have written extensively on this subject in the past, here as well as elsewhere. These are very serious problems and require a lot of concerted efforts to mitigate the adverse impact they have on individuals, families and society at large. The good news is that the last two decades or so have seen the emergence of excellent initiatives in the governmental, non-governmental as well as the private sector that provide sensitive interventions to help people recognise and overcome these problems, even though they are still fighting some major battles like public apathy.

A different sort

However, what I'm addressing today are the so-called non-chemical addictions or ‘social addictions', if you'd like to call them that. Most human beings pass through periods in their lives, when they feel compelled to engage in some apparently mindless activity that, for the time being, seems to provide some relief from the prevailing chaos in their lives. This could be something as simple as spending hours in front of the television set. Or going on uncontrollable buying sprees just to feel and smell the newness of the product. Or getting into a series of dead-end relationships. Or going on eating binges. Or playing computer games or surfing the Internet for many hours in a day, uncaring of unattended work piling up. In other words, bingeing on anything potentially destructive to the body or the soul. Fortunately for many of us, after a period of this compulsive indulgence, we pull ourselves back to the mainstream and get on with our lives, until the next compulsion hits us.

Not everyone is so lucky, though. Some tend to become ‘addicted' on a more permanent basis to whatever they feel compelled to do. As a result, we have love junkies, sex junkies, relationship junkies, food junkies, television junkies, shopping junkies, Internet junkies, gaming junkies, Facebook junkies and so on, the common features to each being an obsessive preoccupation with the activity they have chosen; difficulty in stopping the activity even if it comes in the way of their financial, social or emotional well-being; accompanying feelings of shame and self-disgust; and the experience of a sense of craving, irritability and restlessness when they are unable to engage in the activity – all classical ‘ symptoms' of addiction. And through all this, they may never have smoked a cigarette, touched a drop of alcohol or come anywhere within sniffing distance of non-prescription drugs. And you believed that only chemicals induced addiction!

Incomplete science

These social addictions have been less extensively researched than substance abuse, but are increasingly being recognised as distressing enough mental health issues to merit further study. There is some early indication that similar brain mechanisms as in chemical dependence may be in operation in these addictions as well, but the state of the art is not quite conclusive on this yet. It would be most convenient to place the blame at the doorstep of phenomena like degradation of basic human values, the break-up of the joint family and social stress to explain away these social addictions, just as the very availability of drugs, poor parenting and character flaws have been at various times held erroneously responsible for drug addiction. But the real reason that each of us is an addict waiting to happen has to do with the fear that all of us, living with so many uncertainties in our social and personal environments, experience every now and again. When we're afraid, we tend to ward off this feeling by numbing our minds and brains with repetitive activities.

What it takes to deal with the potential addict in us is to accept that fear, unpredictability and chaos are as much part of our lives as scams, mobile phones and traffic. To deal with these, we need to confront them head on, understand them and make our peace with them, whether with assistance or through a process of rational introspection. Most importantly, we should never attempt to suppress our fear and conflicts, for if we do, they will inexorably manifest themselves in other forms — compulsive behaviour and eventually addictions, whether chemical or social. So, if you're going to make just one new year resolution, let it be to never fear fear, but to deal with it and let it go once and for all. So much for the lecture, here's wishing you a Happy New Year!