The Chains of Addictive Behaviors

This series about how organizations like Movember and No-Shave November “change the face” of men’s health issues continues with one more post. In Men and Addictions, and in this post, I describe the stimuli that typically cause our addictions, another major concern for men. My hope is that this series helps us understand how addictive behavior impact our relationships with both family and friends.

The Stimuli that Cause Addiction 

This post and the last one include information from The Addictive Brain, a Great Course taught by Thad A. Polk, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who has done significant research into addictions.

The CDC reports the COVID-19 pandemic is causing a rise in uncertainty, fear, anxiety, isolation & loneliness, and economic repercussions that will likely increase the reported cases of substance abuse, along with mental & physical abuse. 

Polk says addiction affects roughly 1 in 4 Americans. He describes several substances that lead to addictions. Some that are legal and many illegal. Most are widely available and used by billions of people on a daily basis. Some on the list will also surprise you, but Polk’s research shows that all work on a neural level so they need our close attention. 

Here is a quick overview of the stimuli that keep many men in chains.

Coffee and Cigarettes

Professor Polk indicates caffeine is by far the most used psychoactive drug in the world. Every day, 80-90% of American’s drink coffee and other caffeinated drinks. Except in severe cases, these drinks don’t pose significant health risks. Moderate caffeine use may actually have some health benefits like increasing alertness and improved concentration (isn’t that why we drink coffee or a Monster Energy drink anyway?!). Some say caffeine reduces the risk of Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancers.

Generally, men drink more coffee than women 50% of men compared to 32% of women). On average, men drink 2.4 cups of coffee per day compared to women at 1.9 cups. 

Photo by Jake Young on Unsplash

Nicotine, on the other hand, is one of the most addictive substances in the world with life-threatening consequences.

Roughly 1/3 of the world’s population smokes tobacco on a regular basis. Over 80% start before age 18 with some kids starting to use tobacco by age 11 and becoming addicted by age 14.

Men use tobacco products at higher rates than women (16.7% of adult males vs. 13.6% of adult females). 

Obviously, smoking is hazardous due to the toxic chemicals that get added to the already addictive nicotine and tar that causes lung diseases. 


Our society treats alcohol as a relatively harmless social lubricant rather than as a drug that is abused.

Germany, Hessen, Frankfurt, Drunk man lying on sofa with empty beer bottles  - Stock Photo - Dissolve

But alcohol has similar effects on the body as addictive drugs. It shares the same characteristic of binding our brain’s natural receptors which leads to physical dependence.

The World Health Organization estimated that approximately 140 million people are addicted to alcohol worldwide and men drink nearly 3 times more than women (19 liters/year vs 6.7).

Chronic use also affects the digestive system which allows the body to break down alcohol faster. Withdrawal symptoms are often worse than drugs and include high anxiety, elevated blood pressure, increased heart rate, and violent tremors, sweating, and nausea.

Alcohol causes more cirrhosis of the liver (19.7/100k vs 10.0), traffic fatalities (20.3 vs 7.9), and cancer (178.3 vs 133.9) in men than women. The CDC reports adult men binge drink twice as much as women with 22% of men binging an average of 5 times a month, consuming 8 drinks per binge.

Drugs (Marijuana to Cocaine to Ritalin)

Professor Polk’s course from 2015 was very insightful by separating chapters on marijuana from other psychostimulants like cocaine and Ritalin. 

Once known as the “gateway drug”, marijuana will soon become more mainstream like alcohol after Prohibition. Obviously, its legalization will change things dramatically over the next few years but it will also be abused so the statistics will become more dramatic. 

As their name suggests, these psychostimulants impact the nervous system. Some have positive effects like reducing fatigue, increasing alertness, and feelings of excitement and euphoria. However, the negative consequences include psychological effects such as constricting blood vessels to the vital organs like the brain and heart that result in strokes, heart attacks, and brain damage. Addicts often exhibit binging behavior and move up to crack cocaine and crystal meth, both highly refined & purified versions of the original drug.

But I believe the bigger issue is the overprescribing of stimulants for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in kids. 

Some reports show the use of ADHD drugs (like Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta) has increased to 11.0% of all U.S. children. The CDC reports in a national 2016 parent survey, that 6.1 million kids are diagnosed with ADHD, with 93% between ages 6–11 (2.4 million) and ages 12-17 (3.3 million).

Boys are diagnosed with ADHD more frequently than girls (12.9% compared to 5.6%). The rise is highest among young adults (age 26-34) with increases across all adult age groups.

These trends will continue since more adolescents will become dependent on these medications and find new ways to satisfy their need for stimulation. 


Polk wrote that the poppy seed plant produces some beautiful flowers and edible seeds. However, it also is the source for heroin, opium, and many effective pain medication drugs such as codeine and morphine, which are also very addictive. 

In 2019, reported deaths from a drug overdose in the U.S. reached an all-time high of almost 72,000 people with opioids involved in more than two-thirds of the total deaths. As of July 2020, deaths from overdose during the COVID-19 pandemic has increased by 13%. In some states, drug-related deaths climbed by over 30%. 

Ironically, the common treatment for opioid addiction is the use of a slower, longer-acting opioid such as methadone. There is still much work needed on alternative treatments for opioid addiction. 


Polk describes how gambling addiction is different from drugs and alcohol since it’s tied to a behavior rather than a substance. He surmises that any addiction to an activity that hyperstimulates the brain’s reward circuit is potentially addictive. 

Psychiatrists consider pathological gambling an issue about impulse control. Evidence suggests compulsive gamblers will actually experience a tolerance to the rush of adrenaline from gambling so they increase their risk and amounts of money. 

Men gamble twice as much as women (69% vs 36 %) with male gamblers having addiction problems more than female (20.1 % vs 7.8 %).

I suspect gambling addiction will also rise with the recent increase in online gambling sites, and now, sports betting apps. One could also say that day-trading of stocks is a form of addiction to gambling. 

Junk Food

Professor Polk lumps junk food, pornography, and video games into one chapter since those addictions are an exaggerated form of stimuli that humans were designed to find rewarding. 

For instance, food is needed to survive but junkfood contributes to obesity.

According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, 69% of American adults are overweight, with more than 78 million considered obese (very overweight). In the past 30 years, childhood obesity has more than doubled among children ages 2 to 5, tripled among youth ages 6 to 11, and more than tripled among adolescents ages 12 to 19. 

For the vast majority of individuals, being overweight and obese comes from excess calorie consumption and/or inadequate physical activity. Studies continually show the link between weight loss and reduced disease or death but food addiction is rising as a stress reliever.


Polk suggests pornography is as stimulating as junk food since it uses the same neural circuits that motivate us to eat high-calorie foods.

Of course, God designed man & women to be fruitful and multiply when we engage in sex (Genesis 1:28). But the modern world contains images of naked or near-naked people everywhere. Today, 2 of every 3 shows either depict or include significant sexual content.

Some experts say the pornography industry is currently worth as much as $97 billion a year. They also project this will increase due to 24/7 access to sexual content on our mobile device. Upcoming technologies like virtual reality sex will also be a concern. 

As I wrote in Winning the Battle for Sexual Purity, we can beat sexual addiction by learning to bounce our eyes (Job 31:1), starving our mind (Philippians 4:8), and guarding our heart (Proverbs 4:23). We also need accountability to another man.


Based on a 2018 forecast, worldwide video game sales were nearly $105 billion but is expected to grow to almost $140 billion by 2021. Yes, you read that right. Videogaming is now a larger industry than pornography! 

Violent video games promote aggression, reduce pro-social behavior, increased impulsivity, and interfere with cognition and interpersonal skills.

But video games no longer just contain casual sex or nudity. They promote sexual harassment and assault, including “pressured sexual relationships” and “abusive marriages”.

There has been a noticeable shift to purposefully pornographic content in video games in the last few years.

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation reports that the number of new games with sexual violence has skyrocketed. This means young kids have easier access to pornographic content.

Despite being cartoons, this animated porn also fuels sexual addiction and shapes sexual palettes just like regular porn.

Beating Our Addictions 

Of course, the best way to become unchained from addictions is to get professional help from a doctor or physiatrist who can help with prescription medication and behavior modification. Groups like Alcohol Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or Gamblers Anonymous also offer 12-Step programs to recovery. 

I also believe that men could use a “heart transformation”, which comes from a life of following Christ.  As we learn how to become godly men, we begin to transform our minds and change our behaviors to stay away from these stimuli that cause addictions.

Through God’s grace and forgiveness, we can break away from our chains and win the battle against addiction.


Leave a Comment

Recent Posts

Wisdom for Men

Great Friendships Require Trust and Confidentiality

This quote from Scottish author, poet, minister, and pioneer of modern fantasy literature, George MacDonald (1824-1905) reminds us about an important aspect of all relationships: trust. In many ways, trust is key to any meaningful or serious relationship — whether it’s in marriage, a close friendship, or even a professional

Read More »
Basic Training

Missing My GodBuddy

Today is the 10th anniversary of the unexpected passing of one of my earliest GodBuddies, Christopher J. Davolos, who died on April 1, 2014, after exercising during his lunch break at work. Chris’ influence on me and his friendship embodied the GodBuddy concept, which is why my website is dedicated

Read More »
Basic Training

Rich’s C21 Magazine Article

I’m excited to hit a new milestone in my emerging writing career. I probably should have posted earlier that my article about the friendship between President Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil appeared in C21 Resources, a magazine from Boston College. It’s a humbling accomplishment to get published by this prestigious

Read More »