In times of stress, many of us turn to vices to cope. We pour a second glass of wine, open the ice cream before dinner, or spend afternoons binge-watching Netflix. Most of the time, these behaviours aren’t a problem. Enjoying a glass of wine (or two) doesn’t make you an alcoholic, and scrolling Instagram at night doesn’t mean you have a social media addiction.
But there reaches a point – typically when you start choosing vices over more important activities – that these coping mechanisms can become problematic. As a clinical psychologist who addresses substance use disorders and other addictions, I often ask five questions to help people recognise when a behaviour crosses the line.
Here’s how you can apply them for yourself:
Have your work or family obligations suffered?
One of the first guideposts I use is whether important aspects of your life have suffered. Are you skipping work or school to indulge in your vice? Have you forgotten a commitment to a friend or family member because of your behaviour, whether you were drinking or playing Candy Crush?
When you start to prioritise any activity ahead of your responsibilities or commitments to loved ones, this is a sign you have crossed the line from vice to addiction.
Have you tried to stop and found that you couldn’t?
Another red flag is an inability to take a break. For some people, taking a week or a month off from an activity provides the mental reset they need to find a healthy balance. For example, they go ‘dry’ for a month or take a digital detox. Others find that it helps to have an accountability buddy who can keep their behaviour in check. But when you try to take a break and find that you can’t, even when you’re intentional about your efforts, this is a sign you may need outside help.
Have you told a little white lie to yourself or others about your behaviour?
The way you describe your behaviour to yourself and others can be revealing. If you finish a bottle of wine by continuing to top off ‘just one glass’, fib about how you’ve spent your time to your partner, or convince yourself it’s ‘just one cigarette’, these are all signs to reassess how a behaviour fits into your life.
Are you overspending to support your habit?
Your pocketbook can give you another indication that a vice has become an addiction. Are you spending on your vice before necessities? Are you going into debt to support it? If you find that you’re choosing to spend money you don’t have on an indulgence – whether it’s alcohol, gambling, or even unhealthy food – that’s an indication you’re crossing the line.
Are you choosing to spend less time with friends and family?
Isolating yourself from loved ones is one of the biggest indications of a problematic behaviour. When you find yourself pulled by an addiction, and choosing that behaviour over more meaningful interactions, this is a sign that your vice is no longer harmless.
Psychologists and doctors use the mnemonic, CAGE, to further identify patterns of addiction. You can use this device as a quiz to test your behaviour:
- Have you ever felt you needed to cut down? In other words, have you personally sensed that you need to drink less, turn off your phone, or put away your credit card?
- Have people annoyed you by criticising your behaviour? Has it bothered you to put down the video game controls to have a conversation with your family? Have you felt defensive about your eating habits?
- Have you ever felt guilty about your behaviour? The way you feel when engaging in any activity is a good indication of the role it plays in your life.
- Do you need your vice as an eye-opener? Can you function in the morning without that first cigarette, hit of marijuana, or ‘quick scroll’ through Instagram?
A ‘yes’ to any one of these questions may not indicate a problem by itself. But if you find yourself nodding in agreement with two or more, it’s a sign that you may need to reassess how you manage stress.
Although formal counselling is helpful for many people who want to change their behaviour, therapy is only one path. Programmes like AA and NA have helped millions of people around the world, and you can access these resources no matter where you are, including online.
Mental health apps, social media forums, and virtual counselling groups are also good resources.
Understanding how addiction works is also important. When you eliminate a problematic vice, you still need a coping mechanism for the underlying stress. From a psychological standpoint, your brain still needs serotonin.
The good news is, there are many healthy ways to give your brain what it needs. I often recommend going for a run. Reaching out to friends and taking time for self-care can also give your brain a boost. If a Netflix marathon or a nightly beer doesn’t interfere with your work or relationships, these things might be part of your self-care. The key is to recognise when indulgences start to have negative consequences by harming your health, relationships or finances. By regularly ‘checking in’ with yourself and asking the questions above, you more easily identify when a vice has become an addiction.
Image credit: Freepik
Dr Andrew Mendonsa is a clinical and forensic psychologist who lives in California, where he is an expert reviewer for the California Board of Psychology. Passionate about the field of addiction, he is part of the Sprout Health Group leadership team.