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Rush hour: Can you be addicted to adrenaline?

(N.B. A shorter version of this article was first published in Hopes & Fears magazine).

Conceptualising addiction has been a matter of great debate for decades. For many people the concept of addiction involves the taking of drugs. However, there is now a growing movement that views a number of behaviors as potentially addictive including those that do not involve the ingestion of a drug. These include behaviors diverse as gambling, eating, sex, exercise, videogame playing, love, shopping, Internet use, social networking, and work. The term ‘adrenaline junkies’ has now passed into popular usage and usually refers to potentially dangerous activities such as bungee jumping, sky diving, BASE jumping, etc. My own view is that any activity that features continuous rewards (i.e., constant reinforcement) could be potentially addictive. I have argued in many of my papers that all addictions – irrespective of whether they are chemical or behavioral – comprise six components (i.e., salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict and relapse). More specifically:

  • Salience – This occurs when the activity becomes the single most important activity in the person’s life and dominates their thinking (preoccupations and cognitive distortions), feelings (cravings) and behavior (deterioration of socialized behavior). For instance, even if the person is not actually engaged in the activity they will be constantly thinking about the next time that they will be (i.e., a total preoccupation with the activity).
  • Mood modification – This refers to the subjective experiences that people report as a consequence of engaging in the activity and can be seen as a coping strategy (i.e., they experience an arousing ‘buzz’ or a ‘high’ or paradoxically a tranquilizing feel of ‘escape’ or ‘numbing’).
  • Tolerance – This is the process whereby increasing amounts of the activity are required to achieve the former mood modifying effects. This basically means that for someone engaged in the activity, they gradually build up the amount of the time they spend engaging in the activity every day.
  • Withdrawal symptoms – These are the unpleasant feeling states and/or physical effects (e.g., the shakes, moodiness, irritability, etc.) that occur when the person is unable to engage in the activity.
  • Conflict – This refers to the conflicts between the person and those around them (interpersonal conflict), conflicts with other activities (e.g., work, social life, hobbies and interests) or from within the individual (e.g., intra-psychic conflict and/or subjective feelings of loss of control) that are concerned with spending too much time engaging in the activity.
  • Relapse – This is the tendency for repeated reversions to earlier patterns of excessive engagement in the activity to recur, and for even the most extreme patterns typical of the height of excessive engagement in the activity to be quickly restored after periods of control.

In short, if any ‘adrenaline junkies’ fulfilled all my six criteria I would class them as an addict. However, I have come across very few adrenaline junkies that endorse all of my six criteria. My position is that it is theoretically possible for individuals to become addicted to adrenaline producing activities but in reality, very few actually are.

Addiction is an incredibly complex behavior and always result from an interaction and interplay between many factors including the person’s biological and/or genetic predisposition, their psychological constitution (personality factors, unconscious motivations, attitudes, expectations, beliefs, etc.), their social environment (i.e. situational characteristics such as accessibility and availability of the activity, the advertising of the activity) and the nature of the activity itself (i.e. structural characteristics such as the size of the stake or jackpot in gambling). This ‘global’ view of addiction highlights the interconnected processes and integration between individual differences (i.e. personal vulnerability factors), situational characteristics, structural characteristics, and the resulting addictive behavior. In respect to ‘adrenaline addicts’ the most important factors are likely to be the individual’s personality and the potential of the reinforcing nature of the activity to produce mood modifying experiences.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Berczik, K., Griffiths, M.D., Szabó, A., Kurimay, T., Urban, R. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). Exercise addiction. In K. Rosenberg & L. Feder (Eds.), Behavioral Addictions: Criteria, Evidence and Treatment (pp.317-342). New York: Elsevier.

Demetrovics, Z. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Behavioral addictions: Past, present and future. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1, 1-2.

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.

Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Gambling addictions. In A. Browne-Miller (Ed.), The Praeger International Collection on Addictions: Behavioral Addictions from Concept to Compulsion (pp. 235-257). Westport, CT: Praeger.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Addicted to sex? Psychology Review, 16(1), 27-29

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Behavioural addiction: The case for a biopsychosocial approach. Transgressive Culture, 1(1), 7-28.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Workaholism: A 21st century addiction. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 24, 740-744.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). Social networking addiction: An overview of preliminary findings. In K. Rosenberg & L. Feder (Eds.), Behavioral Addictions: Criteria, Evidence and Treatment (pp.119-141). New York: Elsevier.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Király, O., Nagygyörgy, K., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). Problematic online gaming. In K. Rosenberg & L. Feder (Eds.), Behavioral Addictions: Criteria, Evidence and Treatment (pp.61-95). New York: Elsevier.

Kuss, D.J., Griffiths, M.D., Karila, L. & Billieux, J. (2014).  Internet addiction: A systematic review of epidemiological research for the last decade. Current Pharmaceutical Design, 20, 4026-4052.

Sussman, S., Lisha, N. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation and the Health Professions, 34, 3-56.