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With each passing month technological advances increase our ability to stay connected. We can now check emails and message between friends, family and work peers, anywhere and at any time - and although technology for most means freedom, for some, it becomes an anchor of compulsion.

A significant number of people check email, either on the computer or through PDA's often enough to cause real harm to their quality of life. No one is quite sure how many people suffer an "email addiction" but researchers speculate that as many as 6% of internet users would meet the criteria for an impulsive-compulsive disorder, through their online and emailing behaviors.

For these people, thoughts of email communication become a pervasive obsession, and it can be very difficult to resist the urge to check for messages, again and again and again – hundreds of times per day.

These email addicts suffer a legitimate mental health disorder, which is treatable, but rarely goes away on its own.

An Impulsive-Compulsive Disorder

Psychiatrists classify email addiction as a form of impulsive-compulsive disorder. It is compulsive in the way that sufferers are rarely free from thoughts of checking messages (often even in the middle of the night) and impulsive in that email addicts are unable to resist their impulses to check their email with incredible frequency, even though they know it to be a harmful habit.

Although it seems far less serious than comparative impulsive disorders, such as impulsive hair pulling or fire starting, the negative effects of an email addiction can be profound.

Family members describe living with loved ones, who although present in body, are always absent in spirit – forever lost to email messaging. Parents with email addictions can't spend quality time focused on their children, and spouses of email addicts almost never get quality time with their partner.

Email addiction is progressive. Patients complaining of email addiction will find that they eventually become anxious and depressed unless they are checking their messages, and the only way to alleviate this dysphoric mood is to again check their messages.

Email addiction can lead to social isolation. Social isolation within the family – as loved one's lose interest in attempting meaningful communication, and literal social isolation, as loved ones eventually get so discouraged as to leave.

What Causes Email Addiction?

Impulsive disorders often emerge out of once pleasurable acts. The act of checking email, and sporadically finding enjoyable communication therein, is pleasurable, and reinforcing in itself. It feels good to get an email, so we check for emails more often.

Eventually, email addicts don’t check their emails as a way to feel pleasure, but as a way to alleviate the negative feelings associated with not checking email.

Scientists speculate that there are neurological underpinnings to the disorder, in the cortex and limbic systems in the brain (the areas that regulate impulse control and pleasure) and suspect that email addicts will show altered brains from their pathology.

Anyone seems at risk for the disorder, but we do know that those with a co-occurring mental health condition are more susceptible to technological compulsions, as are people with other addictions.

Email Addiction Treatment

Some email addicts are able to self regulate their behavior through a determined and structured program of access. Most people will need some professional therapy.

Cognitive behavioral therapy seems most beneficial to technology and internet communication addicts. Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches clients to recognize the erroneous thought patterns and beliefs they have associated with their problematic behavior, and to change how they think about it – thereby changing how they act.

Family therapy can help to educate the whole family on the underpinnings of the disorder, and help to create a family support system against relapse.

In many cases, where there is a co-occurring mental health condition, medication management can lead to significant symptoms relief. For those clients with a single diagnosis of impulsive-compulsive internet addiction, SSRI's may be helpful.

Getting Help for an Email Addiction

Email addiction is a real and recognized subset of impulsive compulsive disorder. Although we have a tendency to belittle the seriousness of addictions to technology and to the internet, these addictions can be very harmful, do reduce quality of life, and are quite responsive to therapies.

Admitting to the problem and getting help can be difficult, but life is better free from compulsion.

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Page last updated Sep 10, 2010

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