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Behavioral Addiction Overview

When you hear the word “addiction,” you might automatically think of alcohol or some other type of substance. But did you know that it is also possible to be addicted to behaviors? Behavioral addictions can also be called “process” addictions. This is because it is a specific behavior or process that produces pleasure or some type of reward for a person. What is especially telling about these types of addictions is that they activate the very same pleasure pathways in the brain as substance addiction, even though no chemicals are being added into the body. These addictions can be every bit as powerful as chemical-based addictions, and they are often used as replacement behaviors/addictions when someone stops using drugs or alcohol. Though it is impossible to do all the behavioral addictions justice in one blog post, we will discuss some of the common behavioral addictions below.  

First, it’s important to recognize the common hallmarks of addiction. These include:
  • perceived loss of control over the behavior
  • obsessing about the behavior
  • continuing to do it despite negative consequences
  • experiencing some type of tolerance/withdrawal.

The last point might look like having to engage in the behavior more and more often to get the desired effect/using it for emotional regulation and feeling extremely uncomfortable/panicky when you can’t engage in the behavior. While withdrawal from drugs/alcohol is extensively researched and known to be dangerous, less is known about withdrawal effects from behavioral addictions in terms of danger—but it is also extremely uncomfortable for the individual.

Gambling Addiction

Gambling is even more accessible than it used to be due to the ability now to gamble right from your smart phone.

How a gambling addiction might manifest as:
  • Spending more money than intended 
  • Spending long amounts of time gambling 
  • Trying to “get back” what you’ve lost and obsessing about it 
  • Becoming angry/distraught when you can’t gamble or when you think about your losses

One thing to consider if you are struggling with a gambling addiction is to “blacklist” yourself, essentially not allowing yourself to go into casinos. This is called voluntary “self-exclusion.” To learn more about it, click here. And here are some instructions about the self-exclusion list in Pennsylvania. Please note, that this is a tool and is in no way a substitute for treatment and counseling. Gambling addiction can leave people in dire financial circumstances very quickly. Seek help.

Shopping Addiction

Similar to gambling addiction, shopping addiction has been enabled by smart phone and Internet use. It may look like:

  • Buying things you don’t need (well outside of reason or your means to do so)
  • Obsessing about whether you should buy something
  • Justifying an unneeded purchase because it was on sale
  • Hiding your purchases
  • Having financial difficulties due to shopping but being unable to stop
  • Shopping online for hours 

If you are struggling with this type of behavior, it may be helpful for you to limit your access to funding at least temporarily and have a spouse or other trusted person handle your money as you seek help. Treatment will help you uncover what the extreme shopping serves for you, likely having something to do with stress management and emotional regulation.

Food Addiction

Ever find yourself reaching for sweets/carbs after a stressful day? Some people take this to the extreme. Food is a powerful comfort and coping strategy, and a lot of people use it to forget. You don’t necessarily have to weight 600 pounds to be suffering from a food addiction. Many people actually end up throwing up what they eat.  A food addiction can include:

Symptoms of a food addiction
  • Always thinking about food
  • Eating more than intended
  • Eating in private
  • Hiding food
  • Rewarding yourself with food
  • Not knowing the difference between true and emotional hunger
  • Exercising to “undo” what you just ate
  • Becoming irate/defensive if someone tries to talk to you about your eating habits

This is certainly a tough one. You can’t abstain from food, but you can absolutely get to a place of peace with it.

Love/Sex Addiction

A lot of stigma is attached with this one, particularly with sexually acting out. But a lot of times people deal with their problems/emotions by diving into relationships and putting all of their energy and headspace into them so they don’t have to think about anything else. Sometimes simply sex is an escape. 

What Sex/Love addiction can entail: 
  • Compulsive cheating
  • Chronic string of unsuccessful relationships
  • Always blaming a partner for a relationships failure
  • Anonymous hookups as escapes
  • Risky sex then immense guilt afterward
  • Porn addiction/losing a lot of time during the day to porn/masturbation

With help, you can redefine what a health sexuality may look like for you and have a plan for safe sexual expression that you’re comfortable with.

A Word on “Cross-Addiction”

You need more than will power to change. One major thing to remember about all addictions is that they serve as a coping strategy. They temporarily decrease stress, provide an escape (dissociation), and a REWARD (feel good chemicals in the brain). This is why they are particularly difficult to stop and are often replaced with other addictive tendencies. People can go back and forth from behavior to substance addictions and oftentimes the two coincide (ex: gambling and drinking simultaneously). Uncovering what the addictive behaviors serve for a person and replacing the behavior with healthier coping strategies are needed elements of treatment.

Ongoing Help 

Any type of addiction is rarely sufficiently addressed without help. Seeing a counselor can help you to unpack what has contributed to your addiction and what you can do about it to get yourself some peace. It is possible to be free from whatever addiction you are suffering from, but it takes work. Make an appointment today with Angelus to start on your journey to physical AND mental sobriety.

William Mclachlan, LPC CAC

Natalie Drozda, LPC

Blog Credit: Natalie Drozda, MA, LPC is a PH.D student in Counseling Education and Supervision at Duquesne University & therapist at Angelus Therapeutic Services