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Five Behavioral Addictions Explained

“Gambling can turn into a dangerous two-way street when you least expect it. Weird things happen suddenly, and your life can go all to pieces.” ~ Hunter S. Thompson When someone writes or speaks about addiction, you most likely think of alcoholism or drug dependence rather than behavioral addictions. After all, these are the substances that have the most addictive properties and are likely to have a detrimental impact on your personal health and relationships. However, addiction is not limited to substances like drugs, alcohol or tobacco. In fact, it is not limited to substances at all. Behavioral addictions, otherwise known as process addictions, can be just as damaging to your personal and professional life if they go unchecked. Some process addictions are well known, like obsessive gambling or viewing pornography. Others are generally not thought of as addiction disorders at all – for instance, kleptomania or hoarding. However, the hallmarks of these behavioral disorders are quite similar to substance addictions, and from a diagnostic perspective, the two disorders are nearly identical. Like substance addictions, behavioral addictions have several traits in common, regardless of the behavior:

  • A distinct preoccupation with continuing the behavior
  • An inability to control or stop the behavior altogether
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms if you do not engage in the behavior
  • Experiencing depression or anxiety when you resist the behavior
  • Needing to engage in the behavior more often or with greater intensity

Does any of this sound familiar? You, or someone you love, may be suffering from a process addiction. The most common behavioral addictions include:

  • Gambling Addiction
  • Shopping Addiction
  • Sex & Love Addiction
  • Gaming Addiction
  • Eating Addiction

Just like any other form of addiction, behavioral addictions are not a result of moral failing or a character flaw. Instead, they are these addictions are primarily caused by a mental disorder. In many cases, people may deny that there is even a problem since behavioral addictions are usually seen as less detrimental than substance addictions. The truth is behavioral addictions can be just as detrimental as any other kind of addiction if they go untreated. Behavioral science experts believe that all entities capable of stimulating a person can be addictive; and whenever a habit changes into an obligation, it can be considered as an addiction. Researchers also believe that there are a number of similarities…between drug addiction and behavioral addiction diagnostic symptoms.” But what can be done about these behavioral addictions? The good news here is that addiction can be overcome with proper psychological and behavioral treatment. Consider the explanations of each of the major behavioral addictions outlined below, which show both the underlying factors of the addiction and how they can be treated.

Explaining Gambling Addiction

Perhaps one of the most common behavioral addictions, gambling has a very similar chemical response in the brain as any other form of pleasure and reward system. Very rarely is an addiction to gambling associated with a drive to gain more money in and of itself. Instead, the addiction stems from the emotional high that comes from making – and winning – bets. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association has now identified obsessive gambling as an addictive disorder. “The APA based its decision on numerous recent studies in psychology, neuroscience, and genetics demonstrating that gambling and drug addiction are far more similar than previously realized.” Some of the symptoms that may point to an addiction to gambling, rather than casual gambling, include:

  • Feeling the urge to take larger and larger risks
  • Spending increasing time gambling instead of other commitments (such as work or time with family)
  • Using gambling as a coping mechanism to deal with other social, personal or professional problems
  • Borrowing or even stealing money in order to continue placing bets

Treating a gambling addiction looks largely the same as rehabilitation for other forms of addiction. Intensive counseling and group-based recovery groups have been shown effective in helping individuals overcome their compulsive gambling. More specifically, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helps individuals work through the reasons behind their gambling and recognize the detrimental impact that their behavior has on their life. One way or another, many people find that they need outside help in order to successfully overcome their addiction to gambling.

Explaining Shopping Addiction

Sometimes addictions take the form of apparently harmless behaviors that can turn obsessive and harmful in the long run. Shopping is one of these behaviors; while not detrimental in and of itself, it can become addictive when matched with an addiction-prone personality. The root of shopping addiction is in the emotional reward that purchases usually give an individual. More specifically, buying things can give a person a sense of control and wellbeing. These feelings are often sought out when someone is feeling anxious or depressed, which is what leads to compulsive purchases over the long run. This is what characterizes actual addiction to shopping. As with other addictions, shopaholics will shop not for items they need or even want, but as a pick-me-up when they are feeling a range of negative emotions. Seeking out counseling or group support can be a great way to keep your shopping and compulsive purchases in the track. In addition to this support, consider using some of the following tips to prevent shopping binges:

  • Do not use credit cards to make purchases, only cash or debit card
  • Make a specific list of needs before you go shopping, and only buy items on the list
  • Avoid window shopping – or only do so after stores have closed
  • When you feel the urge to buy something, try to get outside for a walk or jog
  • If you feel your shopping behavior is completely out of control, seek out either a support group or counseling

Explaining Sex & Love Addiction

Having sex and experiencing love are normal parts of human life – but even good things can become detrimental if abused. Some people may scoff at the idea of sex addiction, but it is a very real compulsive behavior with many of the same harmful impact as other drug addictions. The best way to understand sex addiction is to compare it to alcoholism. Many adults drink alcohol, and even sometimes drink too much alcohol. However, a small minority of the adult population are alcoholics. Someone is only considered an alcoholic if they have completely lost control of their drinking habits, think about drinking, and drink even when they don’t really want to. Sex addiction is similar – it becomes problematic when people begin to experience issues in their relationships, at work, or with their finances because of their sexual activity. Love addiction is associated with similar harmful effects and with the same underlying motivation but is characterized primarily by unhealthy relationships rather than sexual activity. Counseling for sex and love addiction can help individuals recognize the impact that their behaviors have had on their lives and why they have so much trouble controlling their impulses in the first place. Individual therapy also helps those struggling with this addiction to creating strategies for dealing with their impulses and ultimately overcome their detrimental impact.

Explaining Gaming Addiction

Gaming is another behavior that has only recently been identified as an addictive process. Given the way that video and Internet games have developed over the past few decades, it is likely that these games have become only more addictive in recent years. Today, gaming is an immersive and even social experience, giving gamers much of the psychological satisfaction that they could receive from other real-life sources. As with the other behavioral addictions discussed here, gaming itself is not necessarily an unhealthy habit. It is only when playing video games interferes with other areas of life, such as relationships and even physical health, and gameplay continues that the behavior should be considered an addiction. If you see these negative effects in yourself or someone you love, consider taking a break from the gaming and reaching out to get the help you need.

Explaining Eating Addiction

An eating addiction can have detrimental physical and psychological effects for the one struggling with the disorder. But why is this considered an addiction to eating rather than an addiction to food? This is an important distinction: as with gambling, an eating addiction has very little to do with the object of the addiction (food, in this case) and much more to do with the psychological impulse to eat and the emotional reward from eating. Compulsive overeating has the same effect on the pleasure centers of the brain as other behavioral highs, like gambling or exercise. Some experiments have even shown that some people’s brains react the same to food as they do to addictive substances, such as cocaine and heroin. This is particularly true for food that is high in fat, sugar, or salty – junk food, in other words. Some of the symptoms of an eating addiction include:

  • Habitual overeating (taking in more than can be tolerated)
  • Continued eating after getting full
  • Eating either in secret or in isolation
  • Experiencing chronic fatigue
  • Sleep problems, including both oversleeping and insomnia
  • Trouble with digestion
  • Repeatedly avoiding relationships or social time to eat

Thankfully, eating addiction is treatable, and programs tend to address both the medical and psychological effects of the disorder. In addition to specialized treatment centers, there are several support groups that focus on eating addiction. The explanation of each of these behavioral addictions makes two things clear: behaviors and processes can be addicting just like substances, and this addiction can be just as detrimental to one’s personal and professional life as other forms of addiction. Not only that, but research has shown that people who struggle with behavioral addictions (like compulsive purchases, a gambling disorder, or a sexual addiction) are more likely to experience dependence on substances like drugs and alcohol. While process addictions may not have the physical impact that substance addictions do, the behaviors associated with addiction can be detrimental enough. If you think that behavioral addiction is affecting either you or someone you love, do not hesitate to reach out and get the help you need today. If you still have questions or have insight into process addictions, feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below.