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Sabrina Byrne bought bitcoin for the first time in January and quickly became hooked. Soon the 26-year-old was canceling social plans and staying up until 5 a.m. to compulsively check her cryptocurrency apps, as often as 100 times a day. “It was stopping me from sleeping, impacting my work and taking over my whole life,” the data analyst from England said.

Mohammad Kakar didn’t actually lose any money from the roughly $6,000 investment he made in a new meme coin last fall. But he began waking up in the middle of the night for weeks anyway, drenched in sweat and plagued by regret over selling all of his woof holdings right before the token tripled in value. His appetite waned, and he began spending long stretches of time in bed. “I was really down,” said Kakar, 26, who lives in Montreal. “My mother, she knew something was wrong.”

Seven months ago, Luis Taveras quit his job as an intake receptionist at a medical clinic to invest in crypto full time. The 47-year-old from the Bronx has shoveled $50,000 — his entire savings — into the market. “It can be difficult to stop,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t take time to go see family; I stay away from friends.”

Bingeing on all things cryptocurrency has been a long-running joke in the community since the release of bitcoin in 2009. Investors boast on social media about being degens — degenerates — attached to their screens 24/7 as they follow every minuscule update in the cryptosphere and rush to buy the latest coins and NFTs.

But many say they’ve begun to privately worry that their crypto habits have morphed into full-blown dependency. On Twitter, YouTube, Discord and other online platforms, investors are now using the word “addiction” in all seriousness.

“I’ve been in long-term recovery for alcohol and drug addiction, so I know when the addictive behavior takes over,” said Taveras, who spends “all night, all day, around the clock” investing, reading about investing and talking to other investors about investing. “It doesn’t have to be a substance.”

Addiction specialists say they’re increasingly hearing from people reporting problems with cryptocurrency, prompting studies into the newly emerging field and even a treatment program at a $90,000-a-week Swiss rehab clinic.

“The majority of calls that I’m getting tend to be around crypto, sports betting and NFTs,” said therapist Dan Field, clinical supervisor of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program and co-founder of Stop Betting Sports. “It’s very much on the radar of treatment providers right now.”

Many struggle with the emotional swings they feel from trading in the highly volatile market — the thrill when prices skyrocket and then the sudden despair when things go south, as they have this week: On Thursday, bitcoin plummeted to below $26,000 for the first time since December 2020 before rebounding to around $29,000 by late afternoon; it is down more than 20% over the last seven days.

Another major cryptocurrency, terra luna, collapsed. Moderators on a Reddit forum dedicated to the currency considered the risk of self-harm by investors real enough to repost a list of national help line numbers.

The global crypto market cap is now $1.23 trillion after erasing more than $204 billion in value over a 24-hour period that ended Thursday, according to CoinMarketCap.

The closest analog to a diagnosable behavioral health condition is gambling disorder, mental health experts say, pointing to similarities in the dopamine rush that gets triggered by a win, the gamification aspects of digital currency apps, the potential to make a lot of money instantly and the overlap between risk-taking gamblers and impulsive crypto investors.

“Since the start of the pandemic, on average I’ll get two clients a month who’ve never stepped foot into a casino and have never placed a bet but now have a full-fledged gambling disorder because of this unhealthy relationship with online money,” said Timothy W. Fong, a professor of psychiatry and co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program.

“It’s like a bar without a bartender, and there’s all this new alcohol and people are pouring it themselves.”

Unlike with alcoholism or other clinically diagnosed addictions, a formal treatment infrastructure has yet to be established for people who say they are crypto trading in excess and can’t stop. “There’s no 1-800-gambler number for those apps,” Fong said. “There really isn’t any 12-step support group for people who fall into this world of digital finance addiction.”

Making matters worse, crypto is poorly understood among treatment providers and thus only a “very, very limited amount of research is available,” said Doug LaBelle, a social […]

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