Is ‘chaos addiction’ another term for ‘workaholism’ or something different?

Last year, three independent things happened that led me to writing this article. Firstly, I received an email from one of my blog readers who wrote:

“I’m a recovering addict. I still find that hard to admit even after time in therapy and the support of my loved ones, but to say it out loud can sometimes be a help. One part of my therapy, which really did strike a chord was something called ‘Chaos Addiction’. It was suggested to me that my addictive behaviors were fueled by a need to constantly have things in my life that were ‘in flux’ – to experience the ‘predictably unpredictable’. Looking back over my life, it hit home…I’d love it if you might think about sharing this with your site’s readership”.


Dr. Mark Griffiths is Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit in the Psychology Department at Nottingham Trent University (UK). He has published over 620 refereed research papers, five books, 150+ book chapters and over 1,500 other articles, and has won 18 national and international awards for his research.

Editor: Nadeem Noor


Secondly,  I was given a CD by one of my friends that included the song ‘Addicted to Chaos’ by the group Megadeth (from their 1994 album Youthanasia). Thirdly, I was watching the film Chasing Lanes where the lead character in the film Doyle Gipson (played by Samuel L Jackson) is told by his AA sponsor (played by William Hurt) that he was ‘addicted to chaos’ rather than alcohol.

I have never come across the term ‘chaos addiction’ prior to the email I was sent. As far as I am aware, there has never been any empirical research on the topic although Dr. Keith Lee did write a 2007 book (Addicted To Chaos: The Journey From Extreme To Serene) of his own experiences on the topic. Using case studies, the book examines individuals that have become “addicted to intensity out of the chaos and toward mind/body harmony, higher consciousness, and a deeply spiritual transformation”. More specifically:

“In a culture where the ‘extreme theme’ has become the norm, people are increasingly seduced into believing that intensity equals being alive. When that happens, the mind becomes wired for drama and the soul is starved of meaningful purpose. This type of life may produce heart-pounding excitement, but the absence of this addictive energy can bring about withdrawal, fear, and restlessness that is unbearable”.

In researching this article I came across a number of online articles dealing with ‘addiction to chaos’. The term has been applied to the actress Lindsay Lohan following a television interview with Oprah Winfrey (and the many articles that followed that honed in on her ‘addiction to chaos).

A short piece in Business Week by Clate Mask claimed that it is entrepreneurs that are frequently addicted to chaos (based on his “experiences and observations working with thousands and thousands of entrepreneurs over the years” along with his top three signs he sees as being addicted to chaos: (i) their business life revolves around the in-box, (ii) they can’t step away from the business, (ii) they are strangely proud they have so little free time. Clate then goes on to claim that:

“If you find yourself experiencing these symptoms, you are probably addicted to chaos. Get help. Business ownership should bring you more time, money, and control. If you’re not getting that, make some changes to your mindset and your business systems so you can find the freedom you were looking for when you started your business in the first place”.

However, to me, this appears to be more like addiction to work rather than addiction to chaos (see ‘Further reading’ below for some of my papers on workaholism).

An online article by Silvia Mordini discussed about her personal experiences and how she now uses yoga to provide grounding and stability in her life. (In fact, there are quite a few papers on treating addictions with yoga including a recent systematic review of randomized control trials by Paul Posadski and his colleagues in the journal Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies – see ‘Further reading’ below). As Mordini confessed:

“My past addiction to chaos simply hurt me too much. I got sick of the constant mental tug-o-war with myself.  I’m not interested in feeling impatient with one thought and having to pull or push at the next one. Impatience promotes chaos and doesn’t feel good. The antidote to this is patience. Patience feels good. It feels like a return to mental stability no matter the chaos around us or what other people are thinking or doing…[The grounding that yoga brings] serves us as a simplifying force in order to stabilize our minds.

When grounded, we plug back into our best selves and become fully present and balanced. Our energy stabilizes. Once centered, we are able to clearly see the circumstances of our lives. We no longer over-respond or over-worry because the static noise of chaos doesn’t pull us apart”.

She then goes on to provide her readers with five practical ways to promote stability and overcome addiction to chaos: (i) practice yoga, (ii) meditate, (iii) use a mantra (she suggests “I will let go of the need to be needed/I will let go of the need to be accepted/I will let go of the need to be accomplished”), unplug from technology, and (v) get your hands and feet dirty (do some gardening, go for a walk on the beach, etc.). Obviously there is no clinical research confirming that these strategies would help overcome ‘chaos addiction’ but engaging in them certainly won’t do anyone any harm.

Another online article (‘Addicted to Chaos’) by addiction counselor Rita Barsky notes that many addicts grew up within dysfunctional families and noted:

“We never felt safe in our family of origin and the only thing we knew for sure was that nothing was for sure. Life was totally unpredictable and we became conditioned to living in chaos. When I talk about chaos in our lives, it was often not the kind that can be seen. In fact, many alcoholic/addict mothers were also super controllers and on the surface, our lives appeared to be perfect.

The unsafe and chaotic living conditions of our lives were not visible or obvious to the outside world. Despite the appearance of everything being under control, we experienced continued chaos, developed a tolerance for chaos and I believe became addicted to chaos. I think it is important to say I have never done a scientific experiment to investigate this theory. It is based on observation of numerous alcoholic/addicts and their behavior”.

This was clearly written from experience and appears to have some face validity. Interestingly, Barsky then goes on to say:

“During the recovery process life becomes more manageable and less chaotic. The alcoholic/addict begins to feel a sense of autonomy and safety. A feeling of calm settles over their life. The paradox for the alcoholic/addict is that feeling calm is so unfamiliar it induces anxiety. There is a sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop. When there is a crisis, whether real or perceived, we actually experience a physical exhilaration and it feels remarkably like being active. From there it can be a very short distance to a relapse. Even if we don’t pick up we are not in a sober frame of mind. Addiction to chaos can be very damaging.

Once engaged in someone else’s crisis we abandon ourselves and often develop resentments, especially if it is someone we love or are close to. Family chaos is the ‘best’ because it’s so familiar and we can really get off on it. When there is a crisis with family or friends we feel compelled to listen to every sordid detail and/or take action. We are unable to let go, we need to be in the mix even though it is painful and upsetting. It requires tremendous effort to detach and not jump in with both feet to the detriment to our well being”.

I find this account compelling because it’s written by someone that appears to have gone through this herself, and has now applied her therapeutic expertise retrospectively to understand the underlying psychology of what was occurring at the height of the addiction. Another compelling account is at Molly Field’s Yoga Blog.

“My object of desire is Chaos. My therapist told me at the end of my first session ever that I have a Chaos addiction…I’m not kidding: this stuff’s insidious. If it weren’t for my awareness of my ability to lose my temper over little-seeming things (aka scars from my past), I’d never know about the Addiction to Chaos. It’s because I grew up with it, was surrounded by it and trained by some of the world’s finest Chaos foments that I became one myself…My relationship with Chaos had become so much a part of my fabric of being that if I didn’t sense it, I would make it”.

Finally, I’ll leave you with the only tool that I have come across that claims to provide a diagnostic indication of whether someone is addicted to chaos. I need to point out that this came from the website of former psychologist Phil McGraw, the US television host of Dr. Phil. I have reproduced everything below verbatim (so when it says that “you are addicted to chaos” if you endorsed five or more of the ten items, that is the view of Dr. Phil – whenever I have co-developed a scale, I at least add the words “You may have a problem” rather than “You have got a problem”).

“While most people try to avoid drama, research shows that others have figured out how to trigger the body’s stress response, just for the rush. Take the test and find out if you’re creating chaos in your everyday life!

Directions: Answer the following questions ‘True’ or ‘False’

* Do you usually yell and scream to make your point?
* Do you ramp things up to win every argument?
* If you get sick, do you feel that EVERYONE should know about it?
* When you argue, do you ever break things or knock them over?
* Does being calm or bored sound like the worst thing to you?
* Do you ever yell at strangers if you feel that they are in your way?
* Do you hate it when you are not the center of attention?
* Is there usually a crisis to solve in your life?
* Do you break up or threaten a break up with a mate often?
* Are you usually the one who starts fights?

Results: If you answered ‘True’ to five or more of the questions above, you are addicted to chaos”

Courtesy: PsychologyToday

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