Addiction can occur in many forms. Often, it is assumed that physical dependence characterized by withdrawal symptoms is required in order for someone to be diagnosed with an addiction disorder, but the fact is that behavioral addiction can occur with all the negative consequences in a person’s life minus the physical issues faced by people who compulsively engage in drug and alcohol abuse.
It is the compulsive nature of the behavior that is often indicative of a behavioral addiction, or process addiction, in an individual. The compulsion to continually engage in an activity or behavior despite the negative impact on the person’s ability to remain mentally and/or physically healthy and functional in the home and community defines behavioral addiction. The person may find the behavior rewarding psychologically or get a “high” while engaged in the activity but may later feel guilt, remorse, or even overwhelmed by the consequences of that continued choice. Unfortunately, as is common for all who struggle with addiction, people living with behavioral addictions are unable to stop engaging in the behavior for any length of time without treatment and intervention.
Though almost everyone engages in all of the activities listed above – shopping, gambling, and certainly eating and exercise – to a certain degree and may even enjoy the behavior very much, it is not termed an addiction until the following is true:
- The person struggles with mental health or physical health issues as a consequence of the behavior and/or the inability to stop.
- The person has difficulties in significant relationships at home and, in some cases, at work because the behavior is so disruptive.
- The person experiences other negative consequences that are directly caused by continued, extreme, or chronic engagement in the behavior. For example, a person with a gambling addiction may gamble away the house, lose a job, and be forced into bankruptcy due to the extreme nature of the gambling.
- The person is unable to stop engaging in the behavior despite these consequences.
If you believe that you, or someone you love, are struggling with a behavioral addiction, the good news is that treatment is a powerful tool. Learning how to manage the behavior and begin to address the issues caused by the long-term behaviors begins with intensive and integrated treatment.
Why Are Certain Behaviors Considered Addictions?
Most people engage in hundreds of different behaviors throughout the day, each one with its own set of consequences. In general, people make choices about which behavior to engage in next relatively thoughtfully and with the intent to improve their experience. For example, if you are hungry, you may choose to get a healthy snack that will not only satisfy your hunger but also give you energy to continue your day. However, someone who is living with a food addiction may choose to eat even when not hungry and may binge eat unhealthy foods in large amounts. Though this is an unhealthy choice, many people can and will overeat, or eat when they aren’t hungry, and do not struggle with a food addiction. When the behavior becomes impulsive in nature and begins to contribute to the development of a range of physical and mental health problems and the person is unable to stop, it is termed an addiction. Does this mean that you can be addicted to any behavior? It is a question that fuels an ongoing debate. Many do not feel that characterizing a behavior as an “addiction” is correct; they believe that a little self-control is all that is needed. Unfortunately, the fact is that if a little self-control were the only issue, then people struggling with behavioral addictions would certainly stop engaging in their behavior of choice long before it harmed their physical health, ended primary relationships, and caused a host of financial, legal, and mental health problems.
Whether or not any behavior can become an addiction that is harmful to a person’s ability to function is still open to debate. What we do know is that there are several behaviors that are commonly reported as occurring at an addiction level, wreaking havoc and destroying lives for as long as they remain untreated.
8 Common Behavioral Addictions
While experts don't agree on whether they're all true addictions, here are eight habits that people get hooked on.
Constantly bucking your odds? Of all behavioral addictions, an addiction to gambling is the one that most closely resembles drug and alcohol addiction. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) classifies gambling disorder as an addictive disorder. Studies show that gambling addictions light up the same areas of the brain as drug addictions — and treatment for gambling disorder is usually included in the same type of therapy settings as drug and alcohol abuse.
You occasionally hear about a celebrity going into rehab for sex addiction, but is an obsessive craving for sex a real addiction? Perhaps: Though it's not formally classified as an addiction, there are treatments for it, and the APA did consider, but reject, the idea of adding addictive sexual behavior to the fifth edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders under the heading "hypersexual behavior disorder." In addition, the symptoms of sex addiction — including loss of control and disregard for risks and consequences — are very similar to those of traditional addictions. What's a sex addict to do? As with drugs, alcohol, and even gambling, hypersexual activity seems to respond best to 12-step programs, such as Sex Addicts Anonymous.
Shopping: It's yet another behavior that, when it spins out of control, is considered to be an impulse control disorder (rather than a true addiction). Do you purchase items to avoid feeling sad — but then feel guilty afterwards? Do you have a closet full of clothes that still have the price tags on them? You could be a shopaholic. Studies show that compulsive shopping affects more women than men, and that it can result in big problems, both financially and personally. How can you get help? Treatment for a shopping addiction usually involves counseling and behavioral therapy.
Video Game Addiction
Can't get your hands off that game console? Research shows that video game addiction is most common in boys and men — and one study even found that as many as 1 in 10 video players between the ages of 8 and 18 are "out-of-control gamers" (and games begin to feel more like reality than fantasy). If you're addicted to your video games, treatments include counseling and behavior modification.
Plastic Surgery Addiction
To improve the way they look, some people go under the knife again and again…and again. In fact, people with a propensity for plastic surgery may obsessively go from doctor to doctor until they find a plastic surgeon or dermatologist who agrees to treat them. The truth is, these people are more likely to have body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) than a cosmetic surgery addiction. About 1 to 2 percent of the population has body dysmorphic disorder, according to the International OCD Foundation, and the disorder is thought to be many times more prevalent among plastic surgery patients. People with this disorder are preoccupied with their appearance and believe that they are ugly or deformed.
Binge Eating Disorder: Food Addiction
For years, Americans have argued over whether food obsessions can actually be food addictions — or whether this "disorder" is more of an excuse. In truth, binge eating disorder is a real problem that affects about 3 percent of adults in the United States. Symptoms include eating to ease emotions, overdoing it on food while alone, and feeling guilty after the binge. The cause of eating disorders is not known, but it is probably linked more to depression than addiction.
Risky Behavior Addiction
Thrill seekers share many of the same symptoms as drug addicts; they get a rush from skydiving or rock climbing, but after a while, they seek out even more dangerous adventures to feel that same level of excitement. And studies show that these thrills flood the brain with the same chemicals released by addictive drugs.
The bottom line: Not all behavioral addictions meet the classic definition of physical addiction, but they do share many of the psychological and social hallmarks — and they will respond well to traditional types of addiction treatment.