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Behavioral Addictions: An Overview

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Have you heard of behavioral addictions? If you haven’t, they might not be what you expect, especially if you’re thinking in a literal sense.

Most often, people associate addiction with drugs and alcohol, and with good reason, given our country’s current opioid epidemic and ongoing prevalence of alcohol abuse. However, addiction can spread much further beyond alcohol, illicit substances, and prescription drugs, and even into our behavior. Yes, certain behaviors can indeed become addictive.

In this post, we’re going to go over some of the more common behavioral addictions to help uncover the mystery surrounding them, and show that they are indeed very real addictions that can cause serious consequences for those involved.

What is a Behavioral Addiction?

A behavioral addiction, also commonly known as a process addiction, involves a person becoming addicted to a specific action, activity, or yes, behavior. While this set of addictions is clearly more complex than say, becoming addicted to heroin, the addiction actually occurs in nearly the same way.

To break things down simply, you can just replace “substance” with “behavior.” For instance, a person develops an addiction to a substance when they take it, enjoy the effects it produces, and continue to take more to achieve the same feelings of pleasure. With a behavioral or process addiction, a person will do an activity, enjoy the “high” it produces for them, and crave more.

While that may not sound like a legitimate addiction, an opinion some experts would even agree with, others would argue that a behavioral addiction can stimulate the brain in the same way that substance abuse can. And although the behavior won’t be chemical, physically altering the reward center of the brain, it does have an indirect effect, and can absolutely lead to the person becoming obsessed with that certain behavior.

Some of the behaviors associated with addiction, including gambling, sex, the Internet, of thrill-seeking, can offer a person a strong outlet from the stresses of their daily life. They will channel all of their efforts into achieving a continued “high” from their activity of choice and will become obsessed to the point that it is the only thing that can make them happy. Just like with a substance abuse problem, all other aspects of their life will become less important thus affecting their mental well-being.

They will exist solely to satisfy their cravings and have no control over their urges. Eventually, their behavioral addiction will consume their life, and they may not be able to stop on their own. They will continue to seek out their activity in spite of its negative consequences.

Types of Common Behavioral Addictions

Rather than continue to discuss behavioral addiction in broad terms, let’s go over some of the more researched and common behavioral addictions.

Gambling Addiction

A gambling addiction, or gambling disorder, is the most recognized behavioral addiction, and the only one classified by the American Psychiatric Association as an addictive disorder. Also, gambling addiction is the one behavioral addiction that most closely resembles drug and alcohol addiction. The high produced by gambling stimulates the same areas of the brain as a drug addiction, and the treatment for a gambling addiction closely resembles that of drug and alcohol abuse.

One interesting study on gambling addiction by MIT found the surprising result that those who are addicted to gambling don’t actually gamble because they expect to win money and become instantly rich. They actually gamble because they are addicted to the associated feelings that come from the thrill of the gambling itself. Winning doesn’t even factor in, as a person with an addiction to gambling will keep betting even as their losses mount and they find themselves in a precarious financial situation.

Sex Addiction

Sex addiction has gained some unfortunate time in the spotlight due to celebrity scandals and reality TV, but still, many don’t consider an obsessive craving for sex to be a real addiction. Sex addiction is not formally classified as an addiction by the APA, although there are treatments available for it. Sex addiction does seem to have symptoms similar to those of other addictions, such as the loss of control and a general disregard for risks and consequences to one’s health. A person with a sex addiction may go to great lengths to satisfy their needs, and may even be more risky with their health by having unprotected sex with strangers.

Some may also have an associated addiction to pornography, in which their obsession with sex and fantasy will cause harm to their real-life relationships. Just as with other addictions, there are 12-step programs available for sex addicts.

Internet Addiction

Internet addiction has several subcategories of its own, including social media, pornography, online gaming, and more, but all involve a person being all-consumed by their activity online. In fact, being online may take up the majority of an addict’s day, causing harm to their relationships and responsibilities as it becomes their primary focus. An Internet addict can become obsessed with checking their social media feed, reading blogs, participating in forums, and even checking their email.

Shopping Addiction

Compulsive shopping is considered an impulse control disorder rather than a true addiction, but things can quickly spiral out of control when a person becomes obsessed with the thrill of shopping and spending money. These people will make purchases to avoid feeling sad, but then be consumed by guilt afterward. The euphoria of making a purchase will be the small temporary action in the middle, which leads the person to repeat the behavior, even as they put themselves into a dire financial situation and even harm relationships.

Treating a shopping addiction will typically involve counseling and behavioral therapies.

Gaming Addiction

Gaming can also have a negative effect on mental health when done without moderation. More common in boys and men, gaming addicts can become consumed by the need to exist in their fantasy gaming realm rather than in the real world. This often results in, or stems from, social issues, making the games and the addict’s personality in the gaming world start to feel more like their reality. At the very least, they will prefer the feelings they get when they are gaming, and keep playing to achieve them, avoiding the actual real world and its problems.

Food Addiction (Binge Eating Disorder)

While there is still argument over whether a food obsession is a real addiction or just more of an excuse for a person’s problems with weight gain, the truth is that binge eating disorder is a real problem affecting roughly 3 percent of adults in the United States. Eating disorders are thought to be linked to depression more than actual addiction, but involve the person eating to calm their emotions, overeating when alone, and often feeling guilty after a food binge.

Risky Behavior Addiction

Thrill-seeking shares many of the same symptoms of a drug addiction, particularly seeking the rush they get from their chosen activity. Whether it be rock climbing, skydiving, bungee jumping, or whatever else, the person does the activity to feel the rush they get from it, and over time will often turn to more dangerous activities to get the same level of excitement. Studies have shown that the rush these “adrenaline junkies” get from their thrills flood the brain with the same chemicals that are released by addictive substances.

Plastic Surgery Addiction

It’s probably not too difficult to think of someone you know who is obsessed with their appearance, but some people can take things to a different level. People often turn to plastic surgery to improve their looks or restore features to the way they once were, and often, they can become infatuated with having procedures done, and go under the knife more and more. Some may consider this to be a cosmetic surgery addiction, while others would point to body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), but either way, many people do become obsessed with turning to plastic surgery as a way to improve their looks and feel better about themselves, achieving a release and a sort of “high” in their own way.

While not all of these behavioral addictions are classified as an actual, physical addiction, they do share many psychological traits with other addictions and can cause some real problems for the people that have them.

How Does a Person Develop a Behavioral Addiction?

There are many factors at play when it comes to how a person develops an addiction of any kind, let alone a behavioral addiction. These include the person’s psychological constitution, their biological makeup and genetics, their social environment, availability and access to the activity they have become addicted, and the nature of the activity itself. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

There is such a complex mix of individual differences and situations that can result in addictive behavior that it is best viewed on a case-by-case basis. Many people also do seem to be predisposed, or more susceptible, to addictive behavior than others. They may have thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes that make them more open to a certain addictive behavior or have personal circumstances that lead them to an activity.

Some people may even have a family history of addiction or pre-existing psychological conditions that can lead to other issues. Other things like depression, loneliness, low self-esteem, high anxiety, and stress are all common in people who have behavioral addictions.

Signs of Behavioral Addictions

There’s a big difference between normal behavior that’s not an issue and is actually healthy, slightly problematic behavior that doesn’t signify an addiction, and actual addictive behavior. In order to know those differences, however, you need to understand the process and signs of addiction.

A person with a behavioral or process addiction may exhibit some of the following symptoms:

  • They spend the majority of their time planning to engage in the behavior, thinking about it, or actually engaging in it, or even recovering from its effects
  • They become dependent upon the behavior as a way to deal with the stresses of their life, or to “feel normal”
  • They continue the behavior despite its negative consequences
  • They are unable to cut back on the behavior or stop even if they want to
  • They engage in the behavior more often and begin to neglect work, school, or family responsibilities
  • They try to minimize or hide the extent of their problem
  • They experience symptoms of withdrawal, including depression and irritability, when they try to stop the behavior

Getting Treatment for a Behavioral Addiction

It’s cliche, but the most difficult part of an addiction is admitting to yourself and others that you have a problem. Having a problem like a behavioral addiction that is poorly understood and even debated makes it all the more difficult, for the fear that friends and family may not take your problem seriously.

However, if you are having trouble stopping the behavior on your own, you most likely need to seek help to overcome your addiction and avoid a relapse. This can help you ensure that your behavioral addiction does not cause any further harm to you or those around you.

As more becomes known about behavioral addictions, more process addiction treatments will emerge as well, and most clinics already offer programs that specialize in treating behavioral addictions. Getting therapy from a psychiatrist or psychologist may also help you overcome the emotional difficulties involved in making such a big change in your life.

There may also be counseling options, cognitive behavioral therapy, group therapy, self-help groups, and medications available to help in your recovery.

If you have questions on behavioral addictions or would like to seek treatment, contact the team at Haven House today.

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