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The NHS definition of addiction is: ‘Not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it may be harmful to you.’ This can be in the form of anything, drugs, alcohol, exercise, work etc. Addictions may be used to relieve stress or anxiety, creating a pattern of negative behaviour.
Addiction comes in many forms. For some it may be physical, resulting in physical symptoms of withdrawal such as nausea, shaking or sleep disruption, or psychological, when the addict feels a distinct psychological ‘need’ to partake in an activity to be able to function. 
The feelings that come with withdrawal can lead to a negative cycle of behaviours and irrational thinking in which an individual may do whatever they can to satisfy their addictive desires. Becoming preoccupied in meeting these needs can start to impact your relationships with others, work, social life, and overall health. Levels of stress are further raised as the need to carry out the addictive behaviour preoccupies your mind.
A personal story of addiction
My own experience with addiction was with exercising. Participating in regular exercise is known to have numerous benefits on your health, both physically and mentally. It can reduce stress and depression, and boost self-esteem. However, as with anything, there comes a point where too much is detrimental to your health. For me, it was easy to believe that what I was doing was ‘healthy’. However, I began to take it to an extreme, feeling the need to exercise at least twice a day and making sure I was being as active as I could be when I wasn’t at the gym. I was also under-fuelling for the amount of activity I was doing. I was stuck in a cycle that I couldn’t change without feeling anxious or agitated. I was tired and stressed all the time and could think of nothing else but exercising and food.
I realised that my daily rituals and the mindset I was in were starting to have a number of impacts on my health which have had long term consequences. I used it as a way to help me cope with life stress, however it only further contributed to the stress I was putting on myself.
It was also a very lonely experience. I would miss out on social events to be able to exercise instead. It started to affect my relationships with loved ones when I would become resentful or lie if I wasn’t able to do what I deemed was ‘enough’. Later I learned these are common symptoms of exercise addiction. Others include poor recovery from training, sessions feeling harder than usual, fatigue or irritability, stress fractures and potentially hormonal imbalances.
When behaviours start to become addictive it is important to readdress their impact on our overall health. For me, there came a point when I realised that my own behaviours around exercise were taking me further from where I wanted to be, not closer, both in terms of physical and mental health.
However, I was very lucky that with the right support as well as by educating myself on the topic I was able to turn things around and change my actions. I had a great support network of friends and family who were continuously there for me and helped me realise there was a lot more to life. I also hugely benefited from speaking to a behaviour change specialist who helped me to rationalise my thoughts and adapt my behaviour.
My passion for exercise still exists but I now practice exercising in moderation. I have since become a personal trainer and continue to further my education to be able to help others improve their own health in a sustainable and healthy way.
I know now that not every day has to be full on, rest is just as important in terms of performance and progression. Ensuring I am fuelling myself adequately for the work I am doing also plays a vital role in preventing symptoms of overtraining and recovering from exercise.
Dealing with stress and anxiety
If you or someone you know is using a substance or a behaviour to cope, to a point where it’s harming them, there is help available.
If you’re worried about someone, a place to start might be to ask them “does your level of drinking/exercising/online-shopping concern you?” If the answer is “Yes”, you might ask if they’d like help. You could then explore with them different routes they might feel they could choose such as self-education, talking to a listening friend, or contacting a GP, counsellor or specialised service such as recovery.org.uk. However, if the answer to “does your behaviour concern you?” is along the lines of “No…of course not…there’s no problem…” then it’s probably best not to persist. Perhaps find an opportunity for a more general conversation about what this individual might be struggling with in their life.
Counselling and Psychotherapy can be a great way to learn and develop ways to help you to relieve stress and anxiety without becoming dependent on a substance or behaviour. If you would like to speak to one of our therapists please fill out the enquiry form which can be found here.
 R.McGregor, Orthorexia, 2017.