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, as they 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 any negative consequences. They can also experience withdrawal, or negative emotions and other symptoms when they aren't able to engage in the activity.

What You Should Know About Behavioral Addictions

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. Gambling disorder is the only officially recognized behavioral addiction.

Outside the world of professional psychiatry and psychology, the media has taken on and embraced the concepts of behavioral addictions, such as sex addiction and shopping addiction, as well as activities that are not included in the discussion about addiction, such as self-injury (cutting), and multiple plastic surgeries.

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

Types of Addictive Behavior

Although not all of these addictions are recognized by the DSM-5, the leading diagnostic guide for the mental health profession, many healthcare providers believe these are "real" addictions. And some behavioral addictions are more common than others, including:

Signs of Behavioral Addictions

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 or healthy.

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, irritability) when trying to stop
  • Minimizing or hiding the extent of the problem

Living With a Behavioral Addiction

It can be difficult to admit to yourself, let alone anyone 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 those around you, or yourself. 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.

Next Steps to Consider

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.

Fortunately for those suffering from behavioral addictions, treatments that have been developed to treat substance dependencies have 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 are skilled in helping people to overcome emotional difficulties and making changes in their lives.

Treatment May Include...

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.

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