An Overview of Behavioral Addiction

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Most people understand addiction when it comes to a dependence on substances, such as alcohol, nicotine, illicit drugs, or even prescription medications, but they have a hard time with the concept of addictive behaviors.

Yet, it's also possible to develop a behavioral addiction. In fact, people can get hooked on everything from gambling to sex to the internet.

Some activities are so normal that it's hard to believe people can become addicted to them. Yet the cycle of addiction can still take over, making everyday life a constant struggle. People may seek out more and more opportunities to engage in the behavior. The desire to experience a "high" from the behavior becomes so strong that the individual continues to engage in the activity despite negative consequences.

In some cases, people can also experience withdrawal, including negative emotions and other symptoms, when they aren't able to engage in the activity.

What Is a Behavioral Addiction?

Although even experts disagree about whether behavioral addictions are "real" addictions, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) explicitly included behaviors in the addictions category. But gambling disorder is the only officially recognized behavioral addiction.

Outside the world of professional psychiatry and psychology, the media has embraced the concepts of behavioral addictions, such as sex addiction and shopping addiction, and has also categorized other behaviors such as self-injury and self-harm and excessive plastic surgery as "addiction."

Behavioral addictions (also called process addictions) follow the same pattern as substance-based addictions, and they result in problems in many areas of a person's life.

Behavioral addictions have similar effects to substance addictions on relationships, which are often neglected in favor of the addictive behavior, undermining trust and putting pressure on partners and other family members to cover up and make up for difficulties arising from the addiction.

Even if you can't find a service specializing in behavioral addiction, a psychiatrist or psychologist will still be able to help you change your problematic behaviors, improve your relationships, and cope without the addiction.

Signs You Have a Behavioral Addiction

Understanding the addictive process and the danger signs can help you to tell the difference between addictive behavior, problematic behavior that's not an addiction, and normal behavior that's non-problematic.

Red flags include:

  • Spending the majority of your time engaging in the behavior, thinking about or arranging to engage in the behavior, or recovering from the effects
  • Becoming dependent on the behavior as a way to cope with emotions and to "feel normal"
  • Continuing despite physical and/or mental harm
  • Having trouble cutting back despite wanting to stop
  • Neglecting work, school, or family to engage in the behavior more often
  • Experiencing symptoms of withdrawal (for example, depression or irritability) when trying to stop
  • Minimizing or hiding the extent of the problem


Although most of these addictions are not recognized by the DSM-5, the leading diagnostic guide for mental health professionals, many healthcare providers believe these are disorders that can be treated.

Some common behavioral addictions include:


Even when not specifically labeled as addictions, compulsive behaviors can lead to real problems in a person's life, functioning, and relationships. These behaviors can also create considerable distress and be difficult to change, even when the person wants to stop.

Often people with behavioral addictions eventually tire of the toll their behavior takes on their lives and the lives of those around them. They may also suffer losses that seem too great to bear, such as money problems or relationship problems. What had at one time seemed exciting and fulfilling becomes an embarrassing burden.

If the behavior is causing distress and disrupting your life, talk to your doctor or mental health care professional.


Fortunately for those living with behavioral addictions, treatments that have been developed to treat substance dependencies have also been successfully used to treat behavioral addictions. Addiction professionals are developing competencies to treat a range of addictions, and clinics exist that specialize in treating behavioral addictions.

You can also benefit from seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist, who is skilled in helping people to overcome emotional difficulties and making changes in their lives.

Treatment may include:


It can be difficult to admit to yourself, let alone someone else, that you have a problem, and it can be even harder when the problem is poorly understood and may not be taken seriously by friends and family. Understanding the stages of change will help you to be gentler on yourself if you aren't ready to seek help.

If you feel you don't want to seek help in overcoming your behavioral addiction at this time, focus on ensuring that your behavior doesn't harm you or those around you. Even if you don't want to tell other people about your problem, try not to lie to those closest to you. 

Self-help can be an important first step. Consider finding out more about the behavior and some of the ways you can manage it.

A Word From Verywell 

Many people live with behavioral addictions, and although they can wreak havoc on your life, it is possible to recover. Talk to your doctor when you are ready to take the next step.

If you or a loved one are struggling with a behavioral addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Alavi SS, Ferdosi M, Jannatifard F, Eslami M, Alaghemandan H, Setare M. Behavioral addiction versus substance addiction: Correspondence of psychiatric and psychological viewsInt J Prev Med. 2012;3(4):290–294.

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By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.