If you smoke or vape, you’ve likely heard the term “oral fixation”. Often you’ll hear people casually refer to their smoking habits as oral fixations, I have done it myself. But what exactly does it mean to have one? How do they develop, and is it a treatable condition? Is it even real? Let’s take a closer look.
What is an oral fixation?
An oral fixation is defined as a mental condition in which a person has an unconscious obsession, or fixation, with their mouth. The condition manifests in a constant need to keep the mouth busy, usually by sucking or chewing on something. It’s a nervous habit that help to self-soothe and relax a person when they’re feeling anxious.
Although often disputed in the medical world, the idea of oral fixations has existed for a long time. The term was first coined in the early 1900s by neurologist and psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud. He introduced it as a way to describe a child’s development during the first 18 months of life, during which an infant’s pleasure is derived from oral activities such as eating and thumb sucking.
Freudian psychology states that if there is any type of “conflict or if a considerable amount of energy is expended” at this stage of development, there could be long lasting implications for a person’s habits and overall personality. If there are any hangups during the infant oral stage, there is a “residual need throughout life to try to fix it”. This is often achieved by smoking, snacking, nail biting, or chewing on non-edible items such as ice, straws, or the ends of pens.
Based on Freudian psychology, the oral stage is the first of five stages of psychosexual development, each of which is focused on a particular erogenous zone. The oral stage, in which a child is most stimulated by the mouth, lasts from birth to 18 months. During this stage, a child consciously uses their mouth more than most anything else, which is why babies are so quick to put random toys and other items in their mouths; it’s how they explore the world around them since all they do otherwise is sleep and eat.
The second developmental stage is the anal stage, from 18 months to 3 years old, at which point a child begins to focus on controlling their feces. It’s believed that if potty training is either too lax or too strict, they could develop issues with control and organization in adulthood. Next is the phallic stage, where the attention shifts toward the genitals. According to Freud, this is when children begin to develop a subconscious attraction to the opposite sex, often a parental figure. It’s been referred to as Oedipus complex in boys and Electra complex in girls.
Between the ages of 5 to 12 years old is the latency period, when a child’s interest in the opposite sex is dormant and they’re more interested in friendships with children of the same gender, prior to hitting puberty. From 12 to adulthood is the genital stage, which is also known as the start of puberty. This is when adolescents and adults are most interested in relations with the opposite sex.
Some experts question the validity of these developmental stages, and many believe that Freud’s theories are unfalsifiable, meaning they can neither be proven true or refuted, but based on his ideas, the oral stage, being the very first psychosexual developmental phases, is arguably the most important. At this age, an infant will put about anything within arm’s reach into their mouths, including pacifiers, clothing, blankets, toys, fingers, and any other object they can get their hands on. According to Dr. Freud, weaning is the time that most oral fixations develop. “The oral character is formed when nursing is neglected or overprovided, or weaned too early or too late, causing an adult maladaptive oral fixation,” say Freud.
“According to the original theories of psychoanalysis, a personality fixed emotionally in the oral stage of development, whose sexual and aggressive drives are satisfied by putting things in his or her mouth. Depending on when the fixation occurs, oral personalities tend to be either optimistic, generous, and gregarious or aggressive, ambitious, and selfish.” Oral dependent qualities are considered to contribute to overeating, being overly talkative, smoking addictions, and alcoholism, as well as sarcasm and a “biting personality”. Smoking and snacking/overeating are the two most common demonstrations of an oral fixation.
Adults with oral fixations are more likely to smoke or vape than other adults. This is true for me personally, and what I’ve noticed lately is that my need to smoke seems less related to the actual product that I’m smoking (although I do have preferences), and more about the act of smoking itself. For example, I quit smoking cigarettes about 5 years ago and prefer to only use cannabis products. However, if I don’t have any weed to smoke or vape, I may smoke the occasional cigarette, depending on the situation. This often happens if I’m on a long drive and my passenger lights up a cigarette. Even though I never buy them anymore, I’ll ask to get a couple drags off theirs just to satisfy that oral fixation.
Snacking, munching, or overeating is seen as a a possible result of oral fixation. Freud believed it was associated with being under- or overfed early in life, leading to emotional conflicts during the oral stage – but that theory has been challenged many times over the years. Regardless, snacking constantly (which can also include the need for different beverages all the time like coffees, shakes, etc.), is most definitely a type of oral fixation.
Although rarer, a condition called pica also falls into this category. Pica is considered an eating disorder, and it refers to the consumption of nonedible items. Some commonly listed substances that people with pica have reported eating include ice, dirt, cornstarch, soap, chalk, paper, and lip balm.
One question that I haven’t answered in this article, is whether oral fixations are even real or if this this some pseudo-psychological theory. Honestly, it’s hard to say. I can understand that the need to try to define certain behaviors like excessive smoking and munching, but honestly, I feel like the psychosocial development issues linked to oral fixations, doesn’t hold much weight. It’s very likely that people who didn’t have any significant hangups during the oral stage of development, will end up with an “oral fixation”. Either way, it’s an interesting idea and a phrase I’ve heard quite often as a longtime stoner; whether it’s true or not.
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