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Soft addictions:?When little things take over

March 20, 2010
The Inter-Mountain

Sitting in the waiting room of the automotive repair shop, I glanced at the magazines and chose one. Better Homes and Gardens is always a good read, I mused, as I relished the time to just relax. Reaching into my large pocketbook with the never-ending pockets, I frantically searched for the baggie with the brightly colored Starburst jelly beans. Orange and red jelly beans are my favorite as I popped one after another into my mouth. Later that evening, as I logged onto my computer, my baggie with jelly beans accompanied me.

The kids laughed at my "addiction" to these sweet little nutritionally deficient beans, and I came to the conclusion, "I have a problem."

Now granted, there are worse things than Starburst jelly beans to be addicted to, like drugs and alcohol, for instance. Those are "hard addictions." But in our culture today, it seems that more and more soft addictions are making their way into our lives and taking place of the "better and best things."

Are you texting? Drinking too much caffeine? Social networking, (think Facebook and MySpace here)? Or eating too frequently? These are also soft addictions. Tired, stressed and anxious, many of us turn to seemingly harmless habits - habits taken to excess are actually soft addictions. What starts out as a soothing activity or treat can wind up numbing your feelings and draining your energy. Though these soft addictions feel like a solution to a problem, they can get in the way of leading a more fulfilling life.

For instance, you feel lonely so you log onto Facebook or MySpace. You end up spending countless hours staring at a screen when there are little eyes (or big ones) staring at you in your own living room.

"Soft addictions are an escape from uncomfortable feelings," says Judith Wright, author of "The Soft Addiction Solution." A hot cup of coffee becomes a Band-Aid for work stress. More stress means more coffee.

"If it leads to an unsustainable emotional high, or a feeling of numbness," says Wright, "that's a soft addiction." Unlike "hard" addictions, like drugs or alcohol, which can pose grave health risks, soft addictions aren't life-threatening. However, they can act as roadblocks that people aren't aware of. According to a Harris poll of more than 1,000 people, up to 90 percent of respondents suffered from soft addictions. Some of the most common: watching a lot of television, stress snacking, drinking too much caffeine, shopping, e-mailing and social networking.

"Whenever you place something - be it caffeine or an e-mail - above the important people in your life, you're causing harm," says Jennifer Ginsber, MSW, an addiction specialist with more than 15 years of experience. "You're telling your child, husband or friend that a latte or an e-mail is more important. That's a tiny hurt that you inflict every day, and in the case of a true addict, several times a day. Ultimately, these actions can strain relationships, productivity and your own well-being."

According to research writer Leah McLaughlin, "Soft addictions may become even more prevalent in economic times like these."

One office employee kept a bowl of M&M's on her desk at work. On day when things were really bad, she would reach for another handful and realize the bowl was empty. She called it a chocolate blackout.

Chocolate is an addiction for many of us, in particular women, because of our magnesium-depleted bodies. Magnesium is in chocolate and our bodies scream for more. Also, chocolate produces those feel-good chemicals in the brain. Chocolate in moderation has been found to be healthy; when it is in excess, that's not.

When you understand what soft addictions enable you to avoid - and when you learn to control these cravings - you are on the road to recovery. Now for me and the jelly beans. During my excess sugar-reloading phase a few weeks ago, I was staying so busy I was not eating right. Therefore, due to my low blood sugar (yikes, jelly beans plus low blood sugar) I needed a pick-me-up. However, because jelly beans are not "real food," they would pick me up and throw me back down fast. Therefore I needed more jelly beans.

Now, I must say it sounds humorous, but I went cold turkey. I kicked the habit and refuse to even look at them now. Actually I cannot even look at them. It's like, "Eeewww, I can't believe I was eating those." Usually I tend to be health-conscious and picky about what I put into my mouth, and lo and behold I was addicted to jelly beans! Remember, it's anything in excess that can become a soft addiction.

Inside our hearts, and even our brain, there is an emptiness and a longing to be filled. We are social creatures and have needs, and that's the way we were created. However, it is when we strive to fill those pleasure centers in our brains and hearts with something other than God and people that we get into trouble.

Many times trials come into our lives and they come in many different forms. It is then we need to remember, "His grace is sufficient for us, and His strength is made perfect in our weakness." Instead of turning to food, people, social networking sites, alcohol, drugs, or a myriad host of other things, we can turn to someone.

Also think, what were you really looking for when you signed onto Facebook, turned on your TV or stayed glued to your e-mail? Did you want to feel connected? That's the true need, so go ahead and connect with people we call family and friends. Make lunch plans, add more family time by playing a game. Instead of texting (this is a biggie for the younger generation, especially) spend time with friends. Soft addictions will drain your energy, but true connections will energize you and empower you to become all you were meant to be.

Kicking a soft addiction can be tricky, so the biblical key here is moderation. There's nothing wrong with texting, Facebooking (yeah, I guess it's a verb now), television, chocolate or jelly beans for that matter. It's the excess of anything that is damaging.

I've recently heard of several people who did "fasts" away from Facebook because it had taken over their lives. They decided that losing hours a day playing games or "stalking" (looking at other people's pictures and profiles) cannot be beneficial to overall health. If "fasting" from your soft addiction is too much for you, then think moderation. Reduce the behavior, but don't cut it out completely experts advise. Wean yourself so it loses its grip in your middle brain. That's right, even soft addictions hardwire to our brains and become insatiable.

Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., a Pennsylvania-based psychologist suggests, "If you check your BlackBerry every two minutes, limit the number of times you check it in a single day and stick to your plan. It can feel extremely uncomfortable and stressful, but every day you do this, it will get easier. It's just one day at a time."

Here are some tips from the article "Soft Addictions" by Leanna McLaughlin:

Watching TV

- You might have a problem if ... The TV goes on at night like clockwork; you often fall asleep on the sofa in front of it; or you can't fall asleep without it.

- How to kick it: Set a timer to limit it to just one hour a night. Unplug the TV one night a week and have a family game night instead.

Checking e-mail

- You might have a problem if ... You reach for the BlackBerry whether you're eating or talking to friends; you pull over to check e-mail when driving.

- How to kick it: Restrict checks to certain times and turn off the PDA after 8 p.m. Check it only twice on weekends; never bring it on vacation.

Stress snacking

- You might have a problem if ... You often reach for food when you're feeling anxious or stressed; you feel numb while eating; or you eat a lot of food without realizing it.

- How to kick it: Before you eat, write down what you're hungry for, then call a friend and share how you're feeling. Swap in more healthful snacks.


- You might have a problem if ... You need coffee first thing in the morning; you're angry if the office coffee pot is empty.

- How to kick it: Wean yourself off caffeine slowly by gradually switching to decaffeinated.


- You might have a problem if ... Your credit cards are maxed out; you hide purchases from your spouse, friends or family.

- How to kick it: Set a weekly cash budget. Record every purchase. Cancel your credit cards (yes, really).

Web surfing

- You might have a problem if ... You feel closer to strangers online than to friends and family.

- How to kick it: Restrict screen time; get a mobile phone that's not Net ready.

(Kimberly Short-Wolfe, MA, is the grief counselor and chaplain for Mountain Hospice. She is also a homeschool mom. To contact her, e-mail or call 304-823-3925, ext. 136.)



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