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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

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Internet to Sex: Defining Addiction

Addiction is used to describe everything from the Internet to shopping to sex. So how do you tell when something really becomes an addiction?

The Root of Addiction continued...

Her decision to stick with the same unfaithful boyfriend magnified the problem. She would habitually comb through his wallet, address book, and receipts, recording the information so that she would know where to look for him on nights he was missing.

Rachel describes regularly searching bars and his friends' apartments in her pajamas, pounding on people's doors, harassing them on the phone, sometimes wearing dark clothes in order to better stalk houses, and having car chases with her boyfriend once she found him.

Her all-night pursuits and seduction schemes lasted nearly two decades before she was diagnosed with a sex addiction. By that time, she had contracted a number of sexually transmitted diseases from her boyfriend to the point that she may be infertile. She alienated family and friends and became extremely depressed and suicidal.

How could things get so bad? Experts say people like Rachel have a medical illness; much like high blood pressure or diabetes is an illness.

In addiction, something is wrong with the brain, explains Brody. Parts of the brain may become stimulated with some behaviors, he says, while at the same time, people's habits may change pathways in the brain.

It's the classic chicken-and-the-egg question. Which came first: the brain chemistry making people susceptible to addiction, or the compulsive behavior changing brain structures? Scientists are still trying to figure out the answer.

Nonetheless, biology may play a role in making people feel good, encouraging the emotionally vulnerable to act out in order to self-medicate, says Angie Moore, a licensed counselor in the treatment of alcohol, drug, and gambling addiction, and a spokeswoman for the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery.

Because there is an explosion of dopamine (a neurochemical that make people feel good) with an enjoyable experience, "the depressed or anxious may feel relief as a result of engaging in an addicting behavior," says Moore. The problem with addicts is that there is some dysfunction in the part of the brain responsible for controlling behavior.

Biology doesn't work alone, however. Specialists say environmental factors also have a big role in promoting addictive behavior. People may follow their parents' or peers' examples. Plus, the availability of certain substances or the ease in which a person can act out and get away with it may also encourage addiction.

In Rachel's case, she eventually realized that sex became a weapon for her, not only because it gave her a high, but it also reinforced the idea learned from her family life -- that there were no boundaries with sex. As a child, she was molested by her father.

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