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Much is misunderstood about addiction in general, but there is especially a stigma surrounding process addiction. While many may only consider substance addictions to be the “real” addictions, those with a serious process addiction will have similar issues to someone who is addicted to a substance. An alcoholic may encounter some of the same consequences as a compulsive gambler, for example.

While that might seem like a silly thing to say on the surface, the fact is that there is absolutely some overlap between substance addictions and process addictions, sometimes also referred to as behavioral addictions. While these similarities include some of the signs and symptoms of addiction in general, some may find it more surprising to learn substance addictions and process addictions also have a similar effect on a person’s brain.

If you’re not even sure what a process addiction is in the first place, then you need to read our previous post, “What is Process Addiction.” We’ll give you a brief overview below, but it helps to have a firm grasp on this umbrella term to understand which addictions fit underneath it, and how it can consume a person’s life, just as much a drug or alcohol addiction.

In this post, we’re going to discuss both process addictions and substance addictions and cover how process addiction is often closely related to substance abuse. But first, let’s talk a bit more about addiction in general.

Addiction: Defined

No matter the substance, activity, or behavior causing addiction, what remains constant is that the person will repeatedly engage in the activity — even in spite of any negative consequences, including how much of a financial hole the addiction can dig for them — because of an intense craving to continue. The addict will be aware of the negative effects of continuing their activity or behavior but will have lost control over their addiction, and be unable to stop themselves from continuing to satisfy their need. The addiction will become the driving force in their life and all other responsibilities, relationships, and work will often take a backseat.

While both process addiction and substance abuse fall under the general “addiction” umbrella, they also share many more similarities, in spite of their differences. But before you can truly understand the relationship between process addiction and substance abuse, we’re going to need to define them both.

What Is a Process Addiction?

Process addictions, also commonly referred to as behavioral addictions, are characterized by a compulsive need to repeat a rewarding behavior that does not involve an addictive substance. These addictions affect the brain’s reward system just like substance abuse, even though the person is not taking any illicit substance. Only recently has research in process addictions and the brain brought forth the fact that a process addiction can be addictive in the same way as an addictive substance.

Examples of process addictions include gambling, overeating, sex, the Internet, television, pornography, social media, online gaming, shopping, exercise, and more. When a person develops an addiction to any of these behaviors, they will be compelled to perform the given action even despite its negative consequences. They will become powerless against the pull of the “high” they get from the action, triggering the pleasure center of their brain.

Many people may even wonder “what does behavioral addiction mean? How can a person become addicted to a behavior, or process?” According to the American Psychological Association, addiction to a process is possible because any activity, whether it be gambling, sex addiction, or technology use, can be addictive when it involves repetition, excessive use, and high frequency.

Just like a person continues to use a drug despite its negative effects on their life, a person with a process addiction may not be able to stop their behavior even if they want to, because their cravings have become too great. In this way, despite the process addiction’s relative invisibility, it can lead to life problems that are just as serious as those caused by substance abuse.

While these are just a few of the most researched and common process addictions, a process addiction can actually occur with any process. Any addiction has set in whenever a person loses control over any process to the point that it has started to cause problems in their daily life. These problems can start small, such as showing up late to work because the person was up all night playing poker online, but the problem can grow to the point that the person’s work performance may suffer to the point that their job may be in jeopardy.

Those processes mentioned above are only some of the most common and researched process addictions, but a process addiction can occur when someone loses control over any process to the point where it causes problems in daily life.

The addict can then become dependent on these processes to feel pleasure. It will begin to consume their life and everything else will become less important. Often, they will struggle to resist performing their addictive behavior, and some will even have limited awareness of the problems that have emerged, or not relate their problems to their process addiction as the cause.

What is Substance Abuse?

Substance abuse can be defined as the inappropriate, consistent use of a substance that causes individuals negative consequences. These substances may include illicit drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, alcohol, or even over-the-counter medications.

The first instance of substance abuse, at the least, is voluntary. From there, a person may begin to crave more of the substance to achieve the same feelings of reward. Over time, they may even develop a tolerance to the substance and require a higher, more frequent dosage to continue the positive feelings, while staving off negative symptoms of withdrawal.

As the person develops a tolerance, they will become physically and psychologically dependent on the substance and exhibit drug-seeking behaviors. They will then continue to use the substance more and more, in spite of its risks and negative consequences.

Some of the many negative consequences of substance abuse may cause include:

  • A failure to maintain responsibilities at home, work, and/or school
  • Strained interpersonal relationships
  • Legal consequences as a result of illegal activity
  • A worsening financial situation
  • Physical deterioration and health problems
  • The development of a substance use disorder

Differences Between Process Addictions & Substance Abuse

The most major difference between a process addiction and substance abuse quite literally appears on the surface — meaning that individuals who do not have a substance abuse will not have any of the physical signs and symptoms that are associated with a substance use disorder.

Because process addictions lack these physical signs and symptoms that often alert people to someone they know has a problem with drug and alcohol abuse, process addictions tend to fly under the radar.

Symptoms of process addictions and substance abuse can also vary widely depending on the process or substance, as well as the individual’s characteristics. There are also generally more risks involved in a substance addiction versus a process addiction. Behavioral addictions can be harmful to a person’s health, but do not carry the risk of serious health problems or overdose and death. Substance abuse can cause lasting harmful effects to a person’s brain and body, potentially leaving them with physical and psychological problems for the rest of their life.

Similarities Between Process Addictions & Substance Abuse

Recently, industry professionals have begun to change the way we look at behaviors that can be damaging to our lives. The reason why is that there are so many similarities between the way that those who have a substance abuse disorder or process addictions behave, as well as how their brains react to and interact with the process or substance to which they are addicted.

A study by MIT found that individuals who are addicted to gambling do not gamble because they expect to win big and become instantly wealthy. They gamble because they are addicted to the associated feelings of gambling itself. They will use online poker or slot machines and table games as an escape from the stress of their life in the same way that a person with a substance abuse turns to drugs.

Both the person with a process addiction and the one with a substance abuse don’t go on the occasional binge — they are consumed by their addiction and continue their behavior despite the effects it has on their daily life, responsibilities, and relationships with family members and friends.

Individuals who repeatedly abuse drugs are generally unconcerned with what happens after they have taken the drug — their goal is just to achieve the high they get from the substance. Likewise, a person with a process addiction won’t be concerned with what happens after they have a one-night stand with a stranger, or go out for a long night of gambling at the tables. They just want the feeling of pleasure they get from the activity.

Here are a few other signs and outcomes that are shared by process addictions and substance abuse:

  • Both a person with a substance abuse problem and a process addiction can build a tolerance to their drug or behavior. The person using drugs may need to take more to achieve the desired effects, while the person with the process addiction may have to increase the frequency of their behavior for the same reason.
  • Process addictions can also cause withdrawal symptoms, although they will not be in the intense physical form that those who abuse a substance experience. A person with a process addiction may encounter intense anxiety if they are not able to engage in their addictive behavior.
  • The inability to stop the behavior is another shared characteristic, and one found in all addictions. Both the person with the substance use disorder and the one with the behavioral addiction may want to cease their addiction but will be unable to do so on their own.
  • Their addiction becomes their primary focus: A person with a substance abuse problem and one with a process addiction may dedicate large amounts of time to planning, engaging in, and recovering from their addictive actions and behaviors.

Turning to a process may be preceded by anxiety or depression just like using drugs can help to alleviate these feelings. These compulsive behaviors can even trigger the same kind of physical response in the brain, whether there is a chemical involved or not. But how can that be? Let’s take a look.

Process Addictions & Substance Abuse: How The Brain is Affected

Whether a person becomes addicted to a process or a substance, the effect on the brain is quite similar. The addictive behavior or substance will stimulate the brain’s reward system in a similar manner by releasing neurotransmitters like dopamine. The addict will look to repeat the pleasurable experience caused by the substance or behavior and will repeat the process more and more. Some will begin to compulsively seek the feeling and lose the ability to gain pleasure from anything else.

Addiction, in general, is defined as a primary and chronic disease that affects the brain circuitry that is responsible for modulating motivation, reward, and memory. This shows that the development of addiction involves more than just the brain’s reward center. Some studies have shown that the areas of the brain that regulate the control of impulses and judgment operate differently in those individuals who are suffering from an addiction.

While there is still much work to be done to understand how addiction occurs in the brain, the main difference between how a process addiction and substance abuse affects the brain, is that a behavioral addiction affects the brain indirectly, while substances actually physically change the brain’s neurotransmitters. For example, we naturally feel pleasure from eating or sex, but a drug like cocaine can shortcut the brain’s reward system by giving it an intense jolt of dopamine. This is what makes substances so highly addictive.

Simultaneous Process Addiction & Substance Abuse

It is also not uncommon for an individual with a process addiction to also abuse a substance, and vice versa. Drug abuse and drug addiction at the same time as going through a process addiction will only make matters worse, and the same can be said for the reverse. Having any kind of addiction or inherently addictive personality makes a person more open to developing further compulsions and attachments.

When process addiction and substance abuse occur together in the same person, treatment programs and behavioral therapies will be the best option to help a person recover from a process addiction or substance abuse. Both addictions will need to be addressed separately in order for the person to achieve full recovery.

If you or someone you know needs help with a process addiction, substance abuse, or both, consider getting process addiction treatment at a professional recovery center like Haven House.