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“Every breath you take”: A brief look at love obsessions in popular music

“You are an obsession/I cannot sleep/I am your possession/Unopened at your feet
/There’s no balance/No equality/Be still I will not accept defeat/I will have you/Yes, I will have you/I will find a way and I will have you/Like a butterfly/A wild butterfly/I will collect you and capture you” (Lyrics to the song ‘Obsession’ by Animotion)

Like the word ‘addiction’, one thing we can say about the word ‘obsession’ that there is no absolute agreed definition. Dictionary definitions of obsession refer to an obsession as:

  • “…an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind” or “a state in which someone thinks about someone or something constantly or frequently especially in a way that is not normal” (Oxford Dictionary).
  • “…unable to stop thinking about something; too interested in or worried about something” (Cambridge Dictionary)
  • http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/obsessed
  • “…a state in which someone thinks about someone or something constantly or frequently especially in a way that is not normal” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
  • “…an emotional state in which someone or something is so important to you that you are always thinking about them, in a way that seems extreme to other people” (Macmillan Dictionary).

More medical definitions (such as Dorland’s Medical Dictionary) describe obsession as a recurrent, persistent thought, image, or impulse that is unwanted and distressing (ego-dystonic) and comes involuntarily to mind despite attempts to ignore or suppress it”. Given all these overlapping but differing definitions, it can be concluded that obsession means slightly different things to different people. In the latest (fifth) edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), an obsession must be distressing to be classed as a disorder. (And that’s why my obsession with music is not problematic).

I deliberately mentioned my self-confessed obsession with music because this article is a (somewhat self-admittedly) frivolous look at obsession in song lyrics. The first song I remember listening to called ‘Obsession’ was in 1981 by Scottish band Scars (from one of my all-time favourite LPs Author! Author!), quickly followed by Siouxsie and the Banshees’ song ‘Obsession’ on their 1982 LP A Kiss In The Dreamhouse (which reached No.11 in the UK albums chart). Arguably the most famous song entitled ‘Obsession’ was 1984’s top five hit by the US band Animotion (which was actually a cover version as the original was released by Holly Knight and Michael Des Barres) and later covered by The Sugababes and Karen O (lead singer of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the theme song to the US TV mini-series Flesh and Bone). Many artists have recorded songs simply called ‘Obsession’ including Tich, Tinie Tempah, Future Cut, The Subways, Jake Quickenden, Jesus Culture, and Blue Eyed Christ (amongst others).

Almost all songs with the title of ‘Obsession’ have been about being obsessed (or obsessively in love) with another person and are probably not that far removed from songs about love addiction (such as Roxy Music’s ‘Love Is The Drug’, Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’, and Nine Inch Nail’s ‘The Perfect Drug’). Not all obsessional songs have the word ‘obsession’ in their title and probably the most famous songs about being obsessed with someone are ‘Every Breath You Take’ (The Police) and ‘Stan’ (Eminem; in fact the word ‘Stan’ is now sometimes used as a term for overly-obsessive fans of someone or something). As the Wikipedia entry on ‘Every Breath You Take’ notes:

Sting wrote the song in 1982 in the aftermath of his separation from [actress] Frances Tomelty and the beginning of his relationship with [actress, film producer and director] Trudy Styler. The split was controversial…The lyrics are the words of a possessive lover who is watching ‘every breath you take; every move you make’. [Sting said he] ‘woke up in the middle of the night with that line in my head, sat down at the piano and had written it in half an hour…It sounds like a comforting love song. I didn’t realize at the time how sinister it is. I think I was thinking of Big Brother surveillance and control…[Sting] insists [the song is] about the obsession with a lost lover, and the jealousy and surveillance that follow”.

Sting’s experience of writing from what you know and feel is a staple motivation for many songwriters (and probably no different from academics like myself – I tend to write about what I know about). An article in the New York Post by Kirsten Fleming (‘When rockers are stalkers: ‘Love songs’ that cross into obsession‘) features a top ten list of ‘obsessional love’ songs (although I think very few of them are. Much better is the list of ‘greatest stalking songs’ put together by The Scientist on the Rate Your Music website). However, I do think the song-writing process can border on the obsessional and I think the Canadian-American singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette has a realistic (and perhaps representative) take on her song-writing as she noted in an online article:

“For me, what writes songs is passion. So if I’m passionately angry about something or if I’m passionately in love with something or if I’m passionately addicted to something or if I’m passionately curious or scared, this is what creates worlds in art. I think love and anger are two of the most gorgeous life forces, with love being the only one that is bottomless. All of these different feelings that I’ve been running away from my whole life, the only one that has remained bottomless and endless is love. All other emotions seem to ebb and flow and move through once they get my attention long enough to really feel, but love is the one that remains limitless”.

In this interview extract, Morissette uses the word “addicted” in an arguably positive way and echoes a quote I used in a previous blog from Dr. Isaac Marks who said that “life is a series of addictions and without them we die”. Morissette (in a different interview) was also quoted as saying:

“My top addictions are really recovering from love addictions, which is a tough withdrawal that I’ve also written records in the midst of. Probably the worst withdrawal I’ve experienced. Food addiction, which I’ve been struggling with since I was 14, and work addiction it’s the respectable addiction in the west, but it’s actually an addiction to busy-ness and the fear of stopping and being still, and all that would come up from that. Those three are my top ones, and I’ve dabbled in all the other ones but none of them have grasped hold of me like the first one did”.

The band that I think have lyrically explored obsessive love more than any other is Depeche Mode. I’ve followed them from before their first hit right up until the present day. I’ve included their songs on almost every mix tape I’ve made for any girlfriend I’ve had over the last 35 years. Their main songwriter, Martin Gore, explores the dark side of love better than any lyricist I can think of. Whereas Adam Ant wins the prize for the most songs about different types of fetishes and paraphilias, Martin Gore is the lyrical king of obsessive love (although he does occasionally wander into more paraphilic kinds of love such as the sado-masochisticMaster and Servant’. Here are just a few selected lyrics that I hope help argue my case:

  • Extract 1: “Dark obsession in the name of love/This addiction that we’re both part of/
Leads us deeper into mystery/
Keeps us craving endlessly/Strange compulsions/That I can’t control/Pure possession of my heart and soul
/I must live with this reality/I am you and you are me” (‘I Am You’ from Exciter, 2001)
  • Extract 2: I want somebody who cares for me passionately/With every thought and with every breath/Someone who’ll help me see things in a different light/All the things I detest I will almost like” (‘Somebody’ from Some Great Reward, 1984)
  • Extract 3: “Well I’m down on my knees again/And I pray to the only one/Who has the strength to bear the pain/To forgive all the things that I’ve done/Oh girl, lead me into your darkness/When this world is trying it’s hardest
/To leave me unimpressed/
Just one caress from you and I’m blessed” (‘One Caress’ from Songs Of Faith And Devotion, 1993).
  • Extract 4: “Taking hold of the hem of your dress/
Cleanliness only comes in small doses/
Bodily whole but my head’s in a mess/Do you know obsession that borders psychosis?/It’s a sad disease/Creeping through my mind/Causing disabilities/Of the strangest kind/Getting lost in the folds of your skirt/There’s a price that I pay for my mission/Body in heaven and a mind full of dirt/How I suffer the sweetest condition” (‘The Sweetest Condition’ from Exciter, 2001)
  • Extract 5: “It’s only when I lose myself with someone else/That I find myself/I find myself/Something beautiful is happening inside for me/Something sensual, it’s full of fire and mystery/I feel hypnotized, I feel paralized/I have found heaven/Did I need to sell my soul/For pleasure like this?/Did I have to lose control/To treasure your kiss?/Did I need to place my heart/In the palm of your hand?/Before I could even start/To understand” (‘Only When I Lose Myself’ from The Singles, 86-98)
  • Extract 6: “I want you now/
Tomorrow won’t do/
There’s a yearning inside/And it’s showing through/Reach out your hands/And accept my love/We’ve waited for too long/Enough is enough/I want you now” (‘I Want You Now’ from Music For The Masses, 1987)
  • Extract 7: “Don’t say you’re happy/Out there without me/I know you can’t be
/’Because it’s no good/I’m going to take my time/I have all the time in the world
/To make you mine/It is written in the stars above” (‘It’s No Good’ from Ultra, 1997)
  • Extract 8: “Wisdom of ages/Rush over me/Heighten my senses/Enlighten me/Lead me on, eternally/And the spirit of love/Is rising within me/Talking to you now/Telling you clearly/The fire still burns” (‘Insight’ from Ultra, 1997).

These are just a few of the ‘obsessional’ lyrics from Depeche Mode’s back catalogue (and there are plenty of other songs I could have featured). I often think that the lyrics in songs or poetry say far more about the human condition than any paper I have published on the topic, and that is why I am (and will continue to be) a music obsessive.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Dorrell, P. (2005). Is music a drug? 1729.com, July 3. Located at: http://www.1729.com/blog/IsMusicADrug.html

Fleming, K. (2014). When rockers are stalkers: ‘Love songs’ that cross into obsession. New York Post, July 2. Located at: http://nypost.com/2014/07/02/the-10-creepiest-musical-stalkers/

Griffiths, M.D (1999). Adam Ant: Sex and perversion for teenyboppers. Headpress: The Journal of Sex, Death and Religion, 19, 116-119.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Music addiction. Record Collector, 406 (October), p.20.

Morrison, E. (2011). Researchers show why music is so addictive. Medhill Reports, January 21. Located at: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=176870

Salimpoor, V.N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K. Dagher, A. & Zatorre, R.J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience 14, 257–262.

Smith, J. (1989). Senses and Sensibilities. New York: Wiley.

The prose and cons: A brief look at ‘poetry addiction’

Back in May 2014, I gave a whole afternoon of talks on behavioural addictions (including gambling and gaming addiction) at Castle Craig, an inpatient addiction treatment centre in Scotland. One of the most interesting people I met there was the psychotherapist Christopher Burn who on the back of his latest book Poetry Changes Lives describes himself as “a history addict, grandfather, recovering alcoholic, and poetry fanatic”. Maybe I’ll write a blog on what it is to be a “history addict” in a future blog, but this article will briefly look at an article just published by Burn on ‘poetry addiction’.

Anyone that knows me will tell you that writing is an important activity in my life. Many of my friends and colleagues describe me as a ‘writaholic’ and that I am addicted to writing because of the number of articles that I have published. Regular readers of my blog will also know that I have written articles on obsessional writing (graphomania), obsessional erotic writing (erotographomania), diary writing, excessive blog writing, and excessive (productive) writing.

Although I wouldn’t describe myself as a ‘poetry fanatic’ I do love writing poetry myself and have had a number of my poems published. In fact, in 1997, I won a national Poetry Today competition for the best (20 lines and under) poem for An Alliteration of Life. Burn’s article on ‘addiction to the act of writing poetry (like his latest book) is an interesting read. Burn has even coined a new term for addiction to poetry – ‘poesegraphilia’. Burn notes that the Irish dramatist George Farquar said that poetry was a “mere drug” and that:

“Many poets, great and not so great, have suffered from addiction to mood altering substances – Coleridge, Rimbaud and Dylan Thomas (‘the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive’) spring to mind. Many great poems have been written about addiction too. It seems however that very little attention has been given to the addictive power generated by the act of writing poetry itself. One thing is for sure – poetry has a power to alter our mood – not normally in the pernicious or directly physical manner of say, a line of cocaine, but in a pervasive and generally enjoyable way that can usually only be helpful. This mood changing effect can come from either reading or writing poetry but of the two, it is poetry writing that is the most dramatic”.

As an amateur poet myself, I know only too well the emotional power of words and that words can have a mood altering effect (both positive and negative). There is even ‘poetry therapy’ and (in the USA) a National Association for Poetry Therapy and an Institute for Poetic Medicine that advocates the intentional use of poetry and other forms of literature for healing and personal growth”. (For a concise overview of ‘poetry therapy’ check out this article on the GoodTherapy website). Burn says that “writing poetry may not affect a person’s life with the degree of powerlessness and unmanageability that say, alcohol does, but it can still have a very marked influence”. He then includes part of an interview transcript from BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs programme with Les Murray, an Australian poet:

“It’s wonderful, there’s nothing else like it, you write in a trance. And the trance is completely addictive, you love it, you want more of it. Once you’ve written the poem and had the trance, polished it and so on, you can go back to the poem and have a trace of that trance, have the shadow of it, but you can’t have it fully again. It seemed to be a knack I discovered as I went along. It’s an integration of the body-mind and the dreaming-mind and the daylight-conscious-mind. All three are firing at once, they’re all in concert. You can be sitting there but inwardly dancing, and the breath and the weight and everything else are involved, you’re fully alive. It takes a while to get into it. You have to have some key, like say a phrase or a few phrases or a subject matter or maybe even a tune to get you started going towards it, and it starts to accumulate. Sometimes it starts without your knowing that you’re getting there, and it builds in your mind like a pressure. I once described it as being like a painless headache, and you know there’s a poem in there, but you have to wait until the words form”.

I’ve always argued that anything can be addictive if it is something that can constantly reinforce and reward behaviour. Theoretically, there is no reason why writing poetry could not be mood modifying and potentially addictive. As Burn observes:

“Many poets talk about the dream-like trance that envelops them during the act of creating poetry and how this can last sometimes for days. This is not a simple cathartic event, which can happen too, but a state that affects mind, body and spirit. Here is poet and author Robert Graves on the subject: ‘No poem is worth anything unless it starts from a poetic trance, out of which you can be wakened by interruption as from a dream. In fact, it is the same thing’. All this trance-like sensation sounds to me a bit like the effect that certain mood altering substances can have, and we know how addictive they can be”.

Burn then goes on to question whether the act of writing poetry can be clinically classed as an addiction. To do this, he uses criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM] and argues that the act of writing poetry could potentially meet some of the criteria for addiction including: (i) persisting with the habit to the detriment of other activities and relationships, (ii) increased tolerance, (iii) unsuccessful attempts to stop, (iv) increase in time spent on the activity, and (v) persisting with the habit despite knowledge of negative consequences. Based on this he then goes on to argue:

“It seems to me that there is enough anecdotal evidence to indicate that for some people, poetry, in particular the act of writing poetry, is a powerful and addictive behaviour that meets at least a few of these [DSM] criteria…Problem gamblers often talk of the trance-like state they get into when for example, playing slot machines; reality and awareness of the world around them disappears and everything is focused on them to and the moment. As in poetry writing. British poet JLS Carter describes poetic creation as ‘An addiction – you can go for days thinking of nothing else, in a kind of trance where all other thoughts and considerations are sidelined. That way madness lies’. By its very nature, poetry puts a special power into words that affects us in a way that most conversation or written narrative does not. Poetry gets under our skin, alters our moods and stays in our head in a special way”.

Much of Burn’s admittedly anecdotal argument that poetry can be addictive all comes down to how addiction is defined in the first place and also takes the implicit view that some activities can be what Dr. Bill Glasser would call ‘positive addictions’ in that there are some behaviours that can have positive as well as negative consequences. However, for me, there is also the question of whether positive addictions are “addictions” at all. Have a quick look at Glasser’s criteria for positive addictions below. For an activity to be classed as a positive addiction, Glasser says the behaviour must be:

  • Non-competitive and needing about an hour a day
  • Easy, so no mental effort is required
  • Easy to be done alone, not dependent on people
  • Believed to be having some value (physical, mental, spiritual)
  • Believed that if persisted in, some improvement will result
  • Involve no self-criticism.

Most of these could apply to ‘poetry addiction’ but to me, these criteria have little resemblance to the core criteria or components of addictions (such as salience, withdrawal, tolerance, mood modification, conflict, relapse, etc.). My own view is that ‘positive addiction’ is an oxymoron and although I am the first to admit that some potential addictions might have benefits that are more than just short-term (as in the case of addictions to work or exercise), addictions will always be negative for the individual in the long run. Although no-one is ever likely to seek treatment for an addiction to writing poetry, it doesn’t mean that we can’t use activities like writing poetry to help us define and refine how we conceptualize behavioural addictions.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Burn, C. (2015). Poetry Changes Lives. Biggar: DHH Publishing.

Burn, C. (2016). Poesegraphilia – Addiction to the act of writing poetry. Poetry Changes Lives, May 27. Located at: http://www.poetrychangeslives.com/addiction-to-the-act-of-writing-poetry/

Glasser, W. (1976), Positive Addictions, Harper & Row, New York, NY.

GoodTherapy.Org (2016). Poetry therapy. Located at: http://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/poetry-therapy

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

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

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

Klein. P. (2006). The therapeutic benefit of poetry. The Therapist. Located at: http://phyllisklein.com/writing-for-healing/the-therapeutic-benefit-of-poetry/

Larkin, M., Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Towards addiction as relationship. Addiction Research and Theory, 14, 207-215.

Needles and the damage done: A brief look at ‘knitting addiction’

In a previous blog, I briefly looked at ‘quilting addiction’. It was while I was researching that blog that I also came across a number of academic papers on the sociology of knitting and various references in the academic (and non-academic) literature to ‘knitting addiction’. In previous blogs I have written about the work of Dr. Bill Glasser who introduced the concept of ‘positive addiction’ in a 1976 book of the same name.

In a more recent 2012 paper on the topic in the Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy, Glasser claimed that he had heard numerous stories from many different individuals claiming they were ‘positively addicted “to a variety of activities such as swimming, hiking, bike riding, yoga, Zen, knitting, crocheting, hunting, fishing, skiing, rowing, playing a musical instrument, singing, dancing, and many more”. Glasser (1976) argued that activities such as jogging and transcendental meditation were positive addictions and were the kinds of activity that could be deliberately cultivated to wean addicts away from more harmful and sinister preoccupations. He also asserted that positive addictions must be new rewarding activities that produce increased feelings of self-efficacy.

This idea has actually been put into practice with knitting. Dr. Kathryn Duffy published a paper in a 2007 issue of the Journal of Groups in Addiction and Recovery about knitting as an experiential teaching method for affect management for females in addiction group therapy at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre. Duffy claimed her knitting program had been successful in facilitating discussions and beneficial in providing a skill for moderating stress and emotions, both for female inpatient and outpatient drug and alcohol addicts.

A more recent paper by Dr. Betsan Corkhill and colleagues examined knitting and wellbeing (in a 2014 issue of Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture), using the World Health Organisation’s definition of wellbeing as “an ability to realize personal potential, cope with daily stresses, and contribute productively to society”. Their paper argued that knitting contributes to human wellbeing and has therapeutic benefits for those that engage in it because it is a behaviour (like many others) that can be used as a coping mechanism that can help overcome the daily pressures of life. One of the more interesting papers that I read on knitting was one published in a 2011 issue of Utopian Studies by Dr. Jack Bratich and Dr. Heidi Brush about “fabriculture” and “craftivism”:

“When we speak of ‘fabriculture’ or craft culture, we are referring to a whole range of practices usually defined as the ‘domestic arts’: knitting, crocheting, scrapbooking, quilting, embroidery, sewing, doll-making. More than the actual handicraft, we are referring to the recent popularization and resurgence of interest in these crafts, especially among young women. We are taking into account the mainstream forms found in Martha Stewart Living as well as the more explicitly activist (or craftivist) versions such as Cast Off, Anarchist Knitting Circle, MicroRevolt, Anarchist Knitting Mob, Revolutionary Knitting Circle, and Craftivism…When we use the term craft-work, we are specifically referring to the laboring practices involved in crafting, while fabriculture speaks to the broader practices (meaning-making, communicative, community-building) intertwined with this (im)material labor”.

The paper also outlined how women who knit in public (such as during a lecture or a conference) are often castigated and/or ridiculed for their behaviour. They even cited Sigmund Freud in relation to why knitting in public causes discomfort for onlookers:

“Freud institutionalized a concept denoting the jarring and disorienting effect of being spatially out of phase: unheimlich. The queasiness of the unheimlich occurs also when interiors become exteriorized (especially the home, as it also means unhomely). Knitting in public turns the interiority of the domestic outward, exposing that which exists within enclosures, through invisibility and through unpaid labor: the production of home life. Knitting in public also inevitably makes this question of space an explicitly gendered one. One commentator observes that knitting in public today is analogous to the outcry against breast-feeding in public twenty years ago (Higgins 2005). Both acts rip open the enclosure of the domestic space to public consumption. Both acts are also intensely productive and have generally contributed to women’s heretofore invisible and unpaid labor. But could such an innocuous activity as knitting have such social ramifications? How disruptive can fabriculture be when crafting women are more in the public eye than ever before? Many of us may know that Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, and other celebs knit”.

The paper goes on to say that there are various knitting blogs (such as Etherknitter) that “expose the dark side of knitting” including excessive consumption and addiction. I then went onto the Etherknitter website and located an article specifically written on knitting addiction (‘Etherknitter’ turned out to be the pseudonym of the individual that runs the site). Here are some extracts from the article which also notes some of the shared terminology between drug addiction and knitting addiction:

“It’s been a revealing several days. I have discovered that I am incapable of not knitting. The only thing that would have stopped me would have been pain… In college, when I flirted with smoking cigarettes for six weeks…Alcohol has never appealed…In my profession, an uncomfortable number of practitioners succumb to the siren song of drug addiction…Then we get to knitting. I can’t not knit. Well, I can, but it hurts too much to be worth it. (I wonder if that’s why addicts stay addicted.) I was talking to a [fabric store] owner recently…She commented that the staff in the store sees a lot of people at the store who act out their neediness through yarn. She saw it as uncontrolled buying. Since we were talking about obesity in America at the time, she was tying it into alcohol/drug and food addiction. [The Too Much Wool website] pointed out our knitterly use of the word ‘stash’, and its clear crossover to the drug culture. Blogworld is full of knitters describing uncontrolled stash acquistions [such as ‘majorknitter’]. And trying to hide the size of the stash from significant others. And selling parts of their stash to others. The addiction to fiber and knitting is probably more benign, except for the financial aspects, and the time constraints. I really do have to beat myself to fulfill the more boring paperwork obligations in my life since I started knitting. The needles (aha! Another crossover analogy) are more fun. I don’t plan to do anything about my knit-addiction quite yet. But it does bother me”. 

In researching this article I came across a number of online accounts of people claiming to be genuinely addicted to knitting. This extract was particularly revealing as this short account seems to highlight many of the core components of addiction such as salience, conflict, and withdrawal symptoms:

“So, I’m 22 and I go through all that typical 22-year old stuff. Sometimes, my life gets rough and I have trouble coping. Rather than going out with friends and drinking till I puke, or going and smoking a few cigarettes or a joint, or having sex with random boys, I turn to my knitting in times of crisis. This might sound like a constructive thing. After all, I’m creating rather than destroying, right? Wrong. I say that I’m addicted because I am. I can’t function on a normal level without my knitting bag at my side. I can’t sit still in class or on a break if I’m not knitting. My head hurts, I sweat, I get jittery if my hands are doing nothing. And it gets worse. I skip classes to go to yarn stores. I come back late from breaks at work because I needed to finish just one more row. I already have one knitting tattoo and another planned. I pay my rent late because I spent my entire paycheck on yarn. My boyfriend’s half of the apartment is slowly being taken over by my stash. My life isn’t complete without knitting. I bought two spinning wheels so I could spin my own yarn. I think that if I ever lost a hand or arm due to an accident I would probably kill myself because I couldn’t knit…I’ve admitted to myself that I have a problem, but most people see knitting as simply my hobby. It goes so much deeper than that and I feel like I finally needed to say something”.

Academically, there is little on knitting addiction. In an unpublished thesis by Christiana Croghan, she noted in one paragraph that:

“Baird (2009) supports the theory that knitting alters brain chemistry, lowering stress hormones and boosting the production of serotonin and dopamine. Dittrich (2001) argues while there are many health benefits associated with knitting there is also a health risk of the possible development of carpal tunnel syndrome. Research suggests knitting may also have an addictive quality that Corkhill (2008) considers to be a constructive addiction that may replace other more severe harmful addictions. Marer (2002) interviewed professional women who knit during lunch hours, and found a consistent theme of relief from anxiety and a sense of clear headedness at work. Marer (2002) also found patients with severe illnesses such as cancer experience a greater sense of coping when they knit”.

More specifically on addiction, a 2011 issue of Asian Culture and History, Hye Young Shin and Dr. Ji Soo Ha examined knitting practice in Korea. Their qualitative research revealed that:

“Immersion in knitting projects can become so intense as to create anxiety for some knitters after the completion of a knitting project. They confess a sense of emptiness or feeling lost after a period of deep mental and physical engagement. This suggests that knitting can become an activity that does not arise out of necessity or has a clear purpose. However, knitters who have a lot of experience with knitting practice tend to say that long experience with knitting has enabled them to handle this urge to indulge in knitting, a typical symptom in the early stage of one’s knitting career”.

Their paper includes the following quotes from knitters that they interviewed:

  • Extract 1: “Knitting is a kind of addiction or drug. I feel so bored and empty and a sense of being lost when I’m done with one project.”
  • Extract 2: “For example, I check the time when a TV drama begins and I can stop knitting when the drama starts. When I first started knitting, I couldn’t control my urge to keep knitting on and on, but now I can; otherwise I can’t enjoy it as a pleasurable and long-term hobby. I still want to carry on when I sit for knitting, not wanting to stand up to wash the dishes, but now I can control myself.”

I have always argued that is theoretically possible for an individual to become addicted to anything if there are constant reinforcements (i.e., rewards). The anecdotal reports in this article suggest that a few individuals appear to experience addiction-like symptoms but there is too little detail to say one way or another whether knitting addiction genuinely exists.

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

Further reading

Baird, M., (2009). Fighting the stress with knitting needles. Located at: http://heal-all.org/art/18/human-body/1999/fighting-the-stress-with-knitting-needles

Bratich, J. Z., & Brush, H. M. (2011). Fabricating activism: Craft-work, popular culture, gender. Utopian Studies, 22(2), 233-260.

Corkhill, B. (2008) Therapeutic knitting. retrieved from www.knitonthenet.com/issue4/features/therapeutic knitting/

Corkhill, B., Hemmings, J., Maddock, A., & Riley, J. (2014). Knitting and Well-being. Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture, 12(1), 34-57.

Croghan, C. (2013). Knitting is the new yoga? Comparing techniques; physiological and psychological indicators of the relaxation response. Unpublished manuscript. Located at: http://esource.dbs.ie/handle/10788/1586

Dittrich, L. R. (2001) Knitting. Academic Medicine, 76(7), 671. Retrieved from: http://knittingbrain.com/results.php

Duffy, K. (2007). Knitting through recovery one stitch at a time: Knitting as an experiential teaching method for affect management in group therapy. Journal of Groups in Addiction and Recovery, 2(1), 67-83.

Glasser, W. (1976), Positive Addictions. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Glasser, W. (2012). Promoting client strength through positive addiction. Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy, 11(4), 173-175.

Etherknitter (2006). Public displays of knitting. Etherknitter Blog. Accessed April 19, 2006, http://etherknitter.typepad.com/etherknitter/2006/03/please_picture_.html

Marer, E. (2002). Knitting: the new yoga. Health, 16(2), 76-78.

Shin, H. Y., & Ha, J. S. (2011). Knitting practice in Korea: A geography of everyday experiences. Asian Culture and History, 3(1), 105-114.

Flying ‘high’: A brief look at ‘binge flying’ and ‘flying addiction’

As part of my job I do a lot of travel. It’s an occupational necessity. Last year alone I did over 20 work trips abroad that comprised over 50 flights (such as the six flights that I had to take to get to a conference in Uruguay and then back to the UK). One of my research colleagues at a conference in Taiwan jokingly accused me of being ‘addicted’ to flying. Nothing could be further from the truth. For me, flying is little more than a way to get from A to B. However, I have tried to turn my experiences into something more positive and have written a number of short articles providing tips about flying and travelling abroad for outlets such as the British Medical Journal and the PsyPAG Quarterly (see ‘Further Reading’ below).

However, there are a few papers in the academic literature that have proposed the idea of ‘binge flying’ and ‘flying addiction’ in the Annals of Tourism Research. One British research team (Drs. Scott Cohen, James Higham and Christina Cavaliere) have written various papers on flying, particularly the dilemma that many business travellers face in wanting to be ‘green’ and ‘eco-friendly’ but knowing that the amount of flying they are doing is contributing to climate change and leaving a ‘carbon footprint’.

One of the papers published by Cohen and his colleagues was entitled ‘Binge flying: Behavioural addiction and climate change’. In their introduction to the topic, the authors referenced my 1996 paper in the Journal of Workplace Learning on behavioural addictions to argue there was now evidence that many behaviours could be potentially addictive even without the ingestion of a psychoactive substance. They then went on to say:

“[Two] articles in the popular press have further implicated frequent tourist air travel as a practice that may constitute behavioural addiction (Hill, 2007; Rosenthal, 2010). In stark contrast to most behavioural addictions, which are characterised by severe negative consequences for individuals directly, the destructive outcome attributable to excessive flying is premised upon air travel’s growing contribution to global climate change. Both Burns and Bibbings (2009) and Randles and Mander (2009) cite Hill’s (2007) interview in ‘The Observer’ with ‘Rough Guides’ founder Mark Ellingham, who coins the term ‘binge flying’ in critiquing the public’s growing appetite for holidays accessed through air travel”.

They also used my 1996 paper to make a number of points to support their premise that excessive flying can be conceptualized as an addiction. More specifically, they noted:

“Griffiths (1996) notes that behavioural addictions may have ‘normative ambiguity’, in that moderate use is accepted but stigma can result from over-enactment of the behaviour, or compulsive consumption (Hirschman, 1992)…Even though addictions are typically conceptualised as purely negative, Griffiths (1996) distinguishes a number of possible addiction benefits that individuals may perceive, such as changes of mood and feelings of escape, positive experiences of pleasure, excitement, relaxation, disinhibition of behaviour and the activity as a source of identity and/or meaning in life…Not only does excessive tourist air travel meet this basic criterion of behavioural addiction where longer-term outlooks are sacrificed for immediate gratification, but tourist experiences also supply many of the psychological benefits that Griffiths (1996) uses to characterise sites of potential behavioural addiction. These include feelings of escape, heightened experiences of pleasure and excitement (a ‘buzz’ or ‘rush’), relaxation, disinhibition of behaviour and the activity as an arena for identity work and searching for meaning in life”.

To support their argument that flying can be an addiction, they assert there are three key characteristics that can be found in addictive behavior that can be applied to flying: (i) a drive or urge to engage in the behaviour, (ii) a denial of the harmful consequences of the behaviour, and (iii) a failure in attempts to modify the behaviour. As regular readers of my blog will know, I operationally define addictive behaviour as comprising six components (salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict and relapse), and as such, flying would be unlikely to be classed as an addiction by my own criteria. The authors interviewed 30 participants as part of their research but little of the qualitative data presented made any reference to addiction or elements of addictive behaviour. They somehow concluded that:

“Continued movement in consumer discourses towards a mainstream negative perception of the practice of holiday frequent flying may eventually find tourism consumption the further subject of query as an addictive phenomenon. Frequent air travel may then join gambling, smoking, shopping, video games and Internet use, (Clark & Calleja, 2008), amongst others, as ‘pathologised’ sites of behavioural addiction that reflect society’s (re)positioning of certain types of behaviour as socially dysfunctional”.

The concept of ‘binge flying’ and ‘flying addiction’ were more recently critiqued by Dr. Martin Young and colleagues in a 2014 issue of the Annals of Tourism Research. Their view closely matches my own view (and they also cite my 1996 paper on behavioural addictions) when they asserted:

“We take issue with the application of a behavioural addiction framework in the context of consumption generally, and frequent flying specifically. We argue that while the conceptual lens of behavioural addiction may be seductive to some (cf. Hill, 2007), it is, in contrast to the position of Cohen et al. (2011), ultimately counterproductive to the development of a meaningful critical response to the question of frequent flying and environmental damage… There is, of course, a deep irony in even trying to view frequent flying through the lens of addiction. Tourism, traditionally the realm of freedom, unconstraint and abandon (Crompton, 1979; Sharpley, 2003) is now recast as a pathology, associated with the pernicious tendencies of the human psyche.

Dr. Young and colleagues’ paper asserts that the idea that flying in extreme cases could be classed as a behavioural addiction is “unconvincing” (and again is something that I agree with). The paper also adapts the 2013 DSM-5 criteria for gambling disorder (substituting the word ‘gambling’ with ‘flying’) to highlight that while it is theoretically possible for someone to have an addiction to flying, it is highly unlikely even amongst the most frequent of flyers. As they note:

“A diagnosed flying addict (and some may exist) would appear to differ from the frequent flyer who is feeling guilty about the environmental consequences of flying. Indeed, the latter would appear to be entirely rational. Flying may be associated with feelings of guilt and suppression, but so are many other activities, like driving to work, using plastic bags, and using electricity from coal-powered generators. This does not make flying an addiction as defined by the DSM-5. In addition, a flying addict would be addicted to the act of flying when, in reality, people fly as part of a broader tourism or business journey or experience. Flying may be incidental to the motivations for travel, merely an unavoidable part of attaining a particular experience. In other words, the focus of flying addiction is likely to be complicated and shifting, unlike, for instance, gambling addiction, that is more clear-cut”.

Pathologizing a behaviour like flying may be stretching the addiction analogy a little too far, but I don’t see a theoretical reason why someone could not become addicted. However, it’s unknown as to what the actual object of flying addiction might be. Is it the actual flying and being in the air? The thrill of take-offs and landings? Is it the feeling of being attended and catered for (especially when flying business class) by the airline staff? Is it the anticipation associated of visiting somewhere new? All of these suggestions could be empirically tested but probably from a purely motivational view rather than from an addiction perspective.

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

Further reading

Burns, P., & Bibbings, L. (2009). The end of tourism? Climate change and societal challenges. 21st Century Society, 4(1), 31-51.

Clark, M., & Calleja, K. (2008). Shopping addiction: A preliminary investigation among Maltese university students. Addiction Research and Theory, 16(6), 633-649.

Cohen, S. A., Higham, J. E., & Cavaliere, C. T. (2011). Binge flying: Behavioural addiction and climate change. Annals of Tourism Research, 38(3), 1070-1089.

Crompton, J. (1979). Motivations for pleasure vacation. Annals of Tourism Research, 6(4), 408–424.

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

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Tips on…Business travel abroad, British Medical Journal, 327, S38.

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

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Tips on…Conference travel abroad. Psy-PAG Quarterly, 83, 4-6.

Higham, J. Cohen, S. & Cavaliere, C. (2013). ‘Climate breakdown’ and the ‘flyer’s dilemma’: Insights from three European societies. In: Fountain, J. & Moore, K. (Eds.). CAUTHE 2013: Tourism and Global Change: On the Edge of Something Big (pp. 321-324). Christchurch, N.Z.: Lincoln University.

Hill, A. (2007). Travel: The new tobacco. The Observer, May 6. Located at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2007/may/06/travelnews.climatechange

Hirschman, E. C. (1992). The consciousness of addiction: Toward a general theory of compulsive consumption. Journal of Consumer Research, 19(2), 155-179.

Randles, S., & Mander, S. (2009a). Practice(s) and ratchet(s): A sociological examination of frequent flying. In S. Gössling & P. Upham (Eds.), Climate change and aviation: Issues, challenges and solutions (pp. 245-271). London: Earthscan.

Rosenthal, E. (2010, 24 May). Can we kick our addiction to flying? Guardian, May 24. Located at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/may/24/kick- addiction-flying

Sharpley, R. (2003). Tourism, tourists and society. Huntingdon: Elm Publications.

Young, M., Higham, J.E.S. & Reis, A.C. (2014). ‘Up in the air’: A conceptual critique of flying addiction. Annals of Tourism Research, 49, 51-64.

Horticulture clash: Can gardening be addictive?

Back in November 2000, I appeared in numerous tabloid newspapers around the world in a story about ‘gardening addiction’ (such as one in the Daily Mail – ‘Professor says gardening is addictive’). It all began after I was interviewed by a journalist from the New Scientist magazine (Andy Coghlan). Coghlan wanted my reaction to a study published in the journal Biological Psychology led by my friend and colleague, Dr. Gerhard Meyer (with who I later co-edited the book Problem Gambling in Europe in 2009). Meyer and his colleagues had carried out a study on blackjack players and showed that they increased their heart rates while gambling (something that I also found in an earlier study I published on arousal in slot machine gamblers in a 1993 issue of the journal Addictive Behaviors). Meyer’s study also found that blackjack gamblers playing for money also had increased levels of salivary cortisol compared to blackjack gamblers playing for points.

I was asked by Coghlan whether I thought gambling could be a genuine addiction, even though it didn’t involve the ingestion of a psychoactive substance. I systematically went through my addiction components model (salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict, and relapse) and spent about 15 minutes talking about my research on various behavioural addictions. When the New Scientist article was published, the only quote attributed to me was the following:

“Some people say you can’t have addiction unless you take a substance, but I would argue that gambling taken to excess is an addiction. If you accept that, you then accept that sex, computer games, even gardening, can be addictive. It opens up the floodgates to everything else”.

I had quite deliberately used the example of gardening to make the point that addiction should be assessed by standard addiction criteria and that if any behaviour fulfils all the criteria for addiction it should be classed as such irrespective of what the behaviour is. I also said in my interview with the New Scientist that I had never come across a case of gardening addiction but that it was theoretically possible. The New Scientist story was re-written by many different news outlets around the world. My comments were included in all of these stories. Some of these stories were reported with the focus being on the gambling study (such as the one reported by the BBC which you can read here). Others such as the Daily Mail and the New York Post (NYP) made my comments as the focus of the story. Here is what the NYP reported under the headline ‘Garden-variety junkies hooked on hobby’:

“Before you stop to smell the roses, you might want to think twice. People who enjoy gardening are as physically addicted as junkies and alcoholics, researchers claim. The findings by scientists at Bremen University in Germany are controversial because many experts refuse to believe that behavior can be addictive…The scientists also found the same is true of sex and gambling. They studied gamblers and measured the amounts of a stress hormone linked to addiction. Dr. Gerhard Meyer asked 10 gamblers in a casino to play blackjack, staking their own money. While the volunteers played, Meyer measured changes in their heart rates and levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva. He then asked them to play for points rather than money, as a ‘control’ situation. Both heart rates and cortisol concentrations were markedly higher when the gamblers played for money…People who use addictive narcotics also have increased cortisol levels, which, in turn, can trigger the ‘addiction chemicals’ dopamine and seretonin in the brain. ‘Some people say you can’t have addiction unless you take a substance, but I would argue that gambling taken to excess is an addiction’, psychologist Mark Griffiths said. ‘If you accept that, you then accept that sex, computer games, even gardening, can be addictive. It opens up the floodgates to everything else’. If the new research is correct, gardening, gambling and sex, which involve pleasurable rewards for effort expended, could set up an addictive chemical pathway in the brain…Meyer says his findings might reduce the culpability of people who have committed crimes. If lawyers can attribute their clients’ crimes to physiological cravings rather than acts of free will, they may receive lighter sentences, he says”.

I spent much of the week in the media trying to get what I had actually said into context (and even appeared on Channel 4’s Big Breakfast television show defending what I had said). The Daily Mail article had sought comment from TV’s most high profile gardening expert Alan Titchmarsh who said: “[Gardening] is a very addictive pursuit. Once you’ve discovered the thrill of making things grow, you can’t stop. I get very twitchy if I can’t get outside and garden for a few days. It is an addiction – but a positive, useful addiction”. While I have no doubt Titchmarsh believed gardening to be a positive addiction (and would fulfil Dr. Bill Glasser’s criteria for positive addiction that I examined in a previous blog), it wouldn’t be an addiction using my own criteria. I wrote a letter to the New Scientist that they published on November 22 (2000) under the title ‘All kinds of addiction’. In that letter I wrote:

“My alleged comments about gardening addiction have been taken totally out of context and I would like to set the record straight, particularly as many of the national media appeared to have had a laugh at my expense following your press release on this story. My comments were made in reaction to the research by Meyer on gambling addiction, and whether I thought gambling was a true addiction because it didn’t involve a drug. I replied that any behaviour, be it gambling, sex, eating, Internet use, playing computer games or even, theoretically, gardening, that features all the core components of addiction, that is to say, mood-modifying effects, withdrawal symptoms, build-up of tolerance, total preoccupation with the activity, loss of control, neglect of everything else in their lives and relapse can be classed as an addiction. This was not reported in your article, leaving me wide open to misinterpretation. For the record, I have never said that gardening is addictive. What I have said is that any behaviour that fulfils the criteria for addiction can be operationally defined as addiction”.

On the same day (November 22), the Daily Mail also published an edited version of the letter I sent to the New Scientist buried away on page 73 (which you can read here) under the title ‘Eh, not quite’. In retrospect, I can smile about the whole incident, but I wasn’t smiling at the time. In a 2005 paper in the Journal of Substance Use, I subtly included a reference to the ‘gardening addiction’ story (or rather the lack of it) in a paper examining the nature of addiction:

It is also important to acknowledge that the meanings of ‘addiction’, as the word is understood in both daily and academic usage, are contextual, and socially constructed (Howitt, 1991; Irvine, 1995; Truan, 1993). We must ask whether the term ‘addiction’ actually identifies a distinct phenomenon – something beyond problematic behaviour – whether socially constructed or physiologically based. If so, what are the principal features of this phenomenon? If we argue that it is hypothetically possible to be addicted to anything, it is still necessary to account for the fact that many people become addicted to alcohol but very few to gardening. Implicit within our understanding of the term ‘addiction’ is some measure of the negative consequences that must be experienced in order to justify the use of this word in its academic or clinical context. It seems reasonable at this stage to suggest that a combination of the kinds of rewards (physiological and psychological) and environment (physical, social and cultural) associated with any particular behaviour will have a major effect on determining the likelihood of an excessive level of involvement in any particular activity”.

I have still to come across anyone that I would say is genuinely addicted to gardening. However, I did come across an interesting paper on unusual compulsive behaviours caused by individuals receiving medication for Parkinson’s disease. The paper was published in a 2007 issue of the journal Parkinsonism and Related Disorders by Dr. Andrew McKeon and his colleagues. They reported seven case studies of unusual compulsive behaviours after treating their patients with dopamine agonist therapy (i.e., treatment that activates dopamine receptors in the body). One of the cases involved a man who developed a gardening compulsion:

“A 53-year-old male with [Parkinson’s disease] for 13 years became intensely interested in lawn care. He would use a machine to blow leaves for 6 [hours] without rest, finding it difficult to disengage from the activity, as he found the repetitive behavior soothing. He also developed compulsive gambling”.

This case study at least suggests that someone can develop addictive and/or compulsive like behaviour towards gardening but is obviously isolated and very rare (and in this case brought on by the medication taken). I am not aware of any empirical research on gardening addiction since my comments on the topic back in 2000. However, I still stick to my assertion that if the rewards are present (i.e., psychological, social, physiological, and/or financial), it is theoretically possible for people to become addicted to almost anything – even gardening.

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

Further reading

Glasser, W. (1976). Positive Addictions. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

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

Griffiths, M.D. (1993). Tolerance in gambling: An objective measure using the psychophysiological analysis of male fruit machine gamblers. Addictive Behaviors, 18, 365-372.

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). All kinds of addiction New Scientist, November 22, p 58.

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

Hoffmann, B. (2000). Garden-variety junkies ‘hooked’ on hobby: Study. New York Post, November 10. Located at: http://nypost.com/2000/11/10/garden-variety-junkies-hooked-on-hobby-study/

Howitt, D. (1991). Concerning Psychology. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Irvine, J. M. (1995). Reinventing perversion: Sex addiction and cultural anxieties. Journal of the History of Sexuality, 5, 429–450.

Meyer, G., Hauffa, B. P., Schedlowski, M., Pawlak, C., Stadler, M. A., & Exton, M. S. (2000). Casino gambling increases heart rate and salivary cortisol in regular gamblers. Biological Psychiatry, 48(9), 948-953.

Meyer, G., Hayer, T. & Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Problem Gaming in Europe: Challenges, Prevention, and Interventions. New York: Springer.

McKeon, A., Josephs, K. A., Klos, K. J., Hecksel, K., Bower, J. H., Michael Bostwick, J., & Eric Ahlskog, J. (2007). Unusual compulsive behaviors primarily related to dopamine agonist therapy in Parkinson’s disease and multiple system atrophy. Parkinsonism & Related Disorders, 13(8), 516-519.

Truan, F. (1993). Addiction as a social construction: A postempirical view. Journal of Psychology, 127, 489-499.

Om Sweet Om: Can Transcendental Meditation be addictive?

Back in 1991, not long after I had been awarded my PhD, I was asked (by my then girlfriend) to attend on a course in Transcendental Meditation (TM). Up until that point, my only knowledge of TM was through my reading of many books about the Beatles and their association with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi back in 1967-1968. Although somewhat skeptical of TM I attended the weekly sessions for the whole course and was eventually inducted into the world of TM by a lovely guy called Mike Turnbull.

We didn’t have Google back then, but as a psychologist, I carried out a literature search and found that Turnbull had actually published papers on TM including a study in a 1982 issue of the British Journal of Psychology with Hugh Norris (entitled “Effects of Transcendental Meditation on self-identity indices and personality”). The results of Turnbull and Norris’ study showed that participants practicing TM appeared to have experienced consistent and definable changes of a beneficial nature, and that the value of TM as a therapeutic tool was recommended. For the next couple of years I did TM daily but by the mid-1990s TM had dropped out of my daily routine and now I only very occasionally do it.

Also in 1990, I became a psychology lecturer at the University of Plymouth, and was given my own specialist research-based module to teach on ‘Addictive Behaviours’ (which I still teach to this very day). It was during my teaching preparation for that module that I first encountered TM in an academic capacity in the context of ‘positive addictions’ (an area that I looked at in one of my early blogs).

It was in Bill Glasser’s 1976 book Positive Addictions that I first encountered the argument that activities such as TM and jogging could be considered positive addictions. It was also argued by Glasser that activities like TM was the kind of activity that could be deliberately cultivated to wean addicts away from more harmful and sinister preoccupations. According to Glasser, positive addictions must be rewarding activities (like TM) that produce increased feelings of self-efficacy.

As I wrote in my previous blog on positive addictions, one of my mentors, psychologist Iain Brown (now retired from Glasgow University) suggested it might be better to call some activities “mixed blessing addictions”, since even positive addictions such as exercise addiction (suggested by Glasser) might have some negative consequences. I have published a fair amount on exercise addiction since 1997 and I am of the opinion that some excessive exercise is genuinely addictive. However, I have never researched into excessive TM and as far as I am aware, there is no empirical evidence that it is addictive.

Anecdotally, I have been told that some TM practitioners (particularly those that teach it) appear to be “addicted” to TM. As a consequence, I decided to do a little digging to see if I could unearth anything on the relationship between TM and addiction. This led me to a 2010 article by Michael Sigman in the Huffington Post entitled Meditation and Addiction: A Two-Way Street?” Sigman recounted the story about how one of his friends spent over two hours every day engaging in TM while in the lotus position. He then claimed:

“There are those few for whom meditation can become compulsive, even addictive. The irony here is that an increasing body of research shows that meditation – in particular Buddhist Vipassana meditation – is an effective tool in treating addiction. One category of meditation addiction is related to the so-called ‘spiritual bypass’. Those who experience bliss when they meditate may practice relentlessly to recreate that experience, at the expense of authentic self-awareness. A close friend who’s done Transcendental Meditation for decades feels so addicted to it, she has a hard time functioning when she hasn’t ‘transcended’”.

Obviously this is purely anecdotal but at least raises the issue that maybe for a very small minority, TM might be what psychologist Iain Brown calls a “mixed blessing addiction”. An article was published on the ‘TM-Free Blog’ entitled Addiction and transcendental Meditation” that (for purposes of balance and fairness) publishes “skeptical views of transcendental meditation and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi”. The article pulled no punches and opened with the claim:

“TM has addictive qualities. Acknowledging the addictive characteristics of TM and other practices, Carol Giambalvo and other cult experts founded ReFOCUS.org to help former cult members break their addiction to trance states… Some devout TMers on the monastic Purusha or Mother Divine programs behave as if in an autistic state. These participants meditate for many hours daily, sometimes for years”.

They also claim that because empirical studies have shown that TM can increase pain tolerance, that the body is producing its own morphine-like substances (i.e., endorphins). Therefore, the addictive qualities of TM may be due to increased endorphin production that creates a semi-dissociative blissful state. For those substance addicts that have been successfully treated using TM, it would be a case of ‘one addiction replacing another’ (which was basically Bill Glasser’s argument in his book Positive Addiction). The article also claimed that endorphin-induced trance states explain why individuals who attend long meditation courses have higher levels of receptivity.

In researching this blog, I did come across some self-reported accounts of people who thought that they might be genuinely addicted to TM. For instance:

“I sometimes worry about being addicted to meditation. I have a compulsive personality and usually think of meditation as a good addiction that not only improves life [and] replaces all other addictions (it was only after beginning to meditate that smoking and drinking dropped away for me). The fact remains, however, that there is an element of compulsive (and therefore possibly unconscious or unexamined) behaviour that motivates the desire to follow a strict twice-a-day-routine. Every so often I skip a session or, less frequently, a whole day. I have been surprised recently how quickly I seem to experience withdrawal symptoms. I just feel off as the day goes on. After meditating it is like all my settings have been returned to normal and I feel great again. Then I think: isn’t that, in essence, just the what the alcoholic or drug addict experiences? I have no plans to stop meditating but I wonder if there is an element that is beyond my control?”

An article in the Canadian newspaper, the Edmonton Sun reported that TM can be addictive based on an interview with former “TM guru” Joe Kellett (who now runs an anti-TM website). Kellett said there was “a compendium of 75 studies of TM technique in 2000 [which] found that 63% of practitioners suffered long-term negative mental health consequences from the repeated dissociation – or disconnection – with reality caused by going into a trance-like state”. I haven’t located the study Kellett referred to although many TM websites claim that there have been over 600 empirical studies highlighting the positive benefits of TM, particularly in relation to various healthcare outcomes. Kellett went on to claim in his interview that:

“Dissociative ‘bliss’ is often an easily produced substitute for true personal growth. As teachers we memorize almost everything we are to tell students. We were very careful not to tell them too much less they become ‘confused’ by things that they ‘couldn’t yet understand. Only after they had the ‘experience,’ could we start very gradually revealing TM dogma in easy, bite-sized chunks, always after they had just finished meditation and were therefore likely to be still in a dissociative state”

Obviously, it is difficult to answer the question of whether TM is genuinely addictive given the complete lack of empirical evidence. However, from both a psychological and biological perspective, I think that such a concept is theoretically feasible but we need to carry out the empirical research

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

Further reading

Allegre, B., Souville, M., Therme, P. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Definitions and measures of exercise dependence, Addiction Research and Theory, 14, 631-646.

Berczik, K., Szabó, A., Griffiths, M.D., Kurimay, T., Kun, B. & Demetrovics, Z. (2012). Exercise addiction: symptoms, diagnosis, epidemiology, and etiology. Substance Use and Misuse, 47, 403-417.

Edmonton Sun (2006). Dissociative bliss becomes addictive. April 17. Located at: http://www.religionnewsblog.com/14345/dissociative-bliss-becomes-addictive

Glasser, W. (1976), Positive Addictions, Harper & Row, New York, NY.

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

Griffiths, M.D. (1997). Exercise addiction: A case study. Addiction Research,  5, 161-168.

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

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

Sigman, M. (2010). Meditation and Addiction: A Two-Way Street? Huffington Post, November 15. Located at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-sigman/meditation-and-addiction_b_783552.htm

TM-Free Blog (2007). Addiction and transcendental Meditation, February 23. Located at: http://tmfree.blogspot.co.uk/2007/02/addiction-and-transcendental-meditation.html

Turnbull, M.J. & Norris, H. (1982). Effects of Transcendental Meditation on self-identity indices and personality, British Journal of Psychology, 73, 57-68.