Addiction Where You Least Expect It Aspects of addiction found in rock climbers

When you hear the word “addiction,” what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of someone going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, or a television portrayal of a coke addict. But what about gamblers? What about people who spend all their time shopping? What about skydivers and other “adrenaline junkies?” Is it possible to be addicted to a behavior or sport?

The label “adrenaline junkie” is often used to describe thrill seekers, people who participate in extreme sports or activities. And these people often describe their sport as their addiction, or say that they get a “rush” or “high” by participating.

How deep does this metaphor run?

In the DSM-5, gambling disorder is the only example of a “Non-substance-related disorder,” also referred to as behavioral addiction, under the category of “Substance-related and Addictive Disorders.”

Internet gaming disorder was also included in the DSM-5 as a condition requiring further research.

This indicates that behavioral addictions are a growing field of study and a new classification for diagnosis. Other non-substance-related disorders that were considered for the DSM-5 included: sex, exercise, shopping, and food.

But what about rock climbing?

Rock climbers practicing top rope and bouldering techniques.

In a recent study by Heirene and colleagues at the University of South Wales, they interviewed eight rock climbers––four high-ability climbers and four average-ability climbers––about their experiences with withdrawal (Heirene, Shearer, Roderique-Davies, & Mellalieu, 2016). They investigated three major categories of withdrawal: craving, losing interest in other activities, and experiencing negative moods during periods without rock climbing. They found significant evidence of all three categories of withdrawal in all eight participants. They also found that the greater the person’s ability, the more intense their experiences of craving and negative affect.

One issue with this study, however, is their use of “ability.” Does a person who is naturally talented at rock climbing, but only climbs once a month, experience the same amount of withdrawal from climbing as a climber with poor “ability” who goes rock climbing everyday? Is ability determinant in addiction?

This study sparks some questions about how we define addiction. Is withdrawal even necessary for a diagnosis of addiction?

Some definitions of behavioral addictions, such as the one used by Potenza and colleagues in their 2006 paper, include “continued behavioral engagement despite adverse consequences” as a component. In a behavioral addiction like gambling, this could manifest as a person continuing to gamble, even when they don’t have any money.

But how would this look for rock climbing? Would a rock climber really continue to rock climb if they had, for example, broken their leg? The prospect seems absurd.

Absurd, maybe, but this female rock climber snapped a tendon in her leg and was wearing a cast. Not only did she continue to climb, she made a video to encourage others to do the same.

In response to this video, one person commented: "Incredibly inspired after watching this, thank you for sharing a glimpse into your recovery Courtney! I'm in the midst of recovery from the same injury and was feeling discouraged after having to take time off."

In a recent movie called Free Solo, about a rock climber who completes long climbs without any safety ropes, there was a scene in which he was climbing (albeit roped in) with a boot on after he sprained his ankle. This was after he had asked his doctor if he could make the injury worse with activity and she said, “You could probably do too much too soon.”

So, one study has shown aspects of withdrawal in rock climbers. And there's online evidence of some rock climbers continuing to climb while injured––or, continuing their activity despite adverse consequences.

Maybe this will set rock climbing on its way to being considered a behavioral addiction.


Created with images by Daniela Araya - "untitled image" • Jakob Owens - "untitled image" • Hans - "pizza boxes boxes pizza service" • aatlas - "climber mountaineer mountaineering" • Mike Kotsch - "untitled image" • Tommy Lisbin - "untitled image" • Bru-nO - "casino arcade slot machines"

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