While you may think of substance use when talking about addiction, there are some common behavioral addictions that people can experience.
What is a Behavioral Addiction?
We tend to think of addiction as a physical dependence with withdrawal symptoms when that substance is removed from the person’s life. While they don’t involve physical issues, behavioral addictions have consequences that can negatively affect a person’s life.
Understanding Behavioral Addiction and Compulsion
Compulsions are insatiable urges to perform a behavior. They are usually associated with fear or anxiety and do not typically result in pleasure. The action is performed to relieve the fear and anxiety.
When a person becomes dependent on and craves a specific behavior, they may have a behavioral addiction.
There is a compulsion to engage in the behavior even though it has a negative effect on the person’s life.
Giving in to the compulsion creates feelings of calm, and even euphoric feelings once the person has behaved this way. Addictions involve pleasure and removing discomfort.
Similarities and Differences: Behavioral Addiction and Substance Use Disorder
Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain, and some can make you feel good especially dopamine. When a person uses a substance or performs a behavior that makes them feel good, dopamine floods their brain, targeting the reward centers. This makes them more likely to repeat the behavior or substance use to feel the high again. Many people engage in these behaviors without becoming addicted, but some begin to crave the way they feel when dopamine is released in the brain.
With substance use disorder, the person is physically and psychologically dependent on alcohol, a drug, or another substance. In a behavioral addiction, they are psychologically dependent on the way performing the behavior makes them feel. Both types of addiction are difficult to recover from without help.
Signs of Behavioral Addiction
Behavioral addictions have similar psychological and emotional symptoms to those found in substance use disorders, including:
- Feelings of guilt and shame
- Lying about the behaviors
- Denial that there is a problem
- Fighting with family and friends
- Missing important events or not attending work or school to participate in the behavior
- Sleep issues
- Lack of self-care
- Cravings to perform the behavior
- Anxiety when they don’t perform the behavior
- Inability to resist impulses
- Loss of interest in other things
- Irritability when the action can’t be performed
Common Behavioral Addictions
There are several different common behavioral addictions, although a person may be addicted to a wide range of different things. Some common behavioral addictions are gambling, sex, gaming, the internet, shopping, eating, exercise, and risky behaviors like unprotected sex and stealing.
Behavioral Addiction Examples
The following are a few in-depth examples of behavioral addictions.
People with a gambling disorder tend to make choices related to gambling that endanger their life, job, or family.
Signs of this disorder include:
- Being preoccupied with gambling,
- Placing bets more frequently than usual,
- Betting more money than intended
- Inability to pay gambling debts
- Feeling irritable when unable to gamble or when losing.
Internet gambling has made it more accessible than ever, resulting in more young people developing a gambling disorder than previously.
Anyone can develop a sex addiction, in which sex becomes a coping mechanism to deal with loneliness, boredom, or depression.
Signs of this disorder are:
- A constant craving for sex that interferes with professional and personal obligations
- Compulsive masturbation or affairs
- Excessively visiting pornographic websites or searching for sex partners
- Engaging in risky sexual behavior despite wanting to stop
- Needing sex more often, and in more intense and risky ways to achieve the same effects
Treatment involves healing the issues that caused them to begin using sex as a coping mechanism in the first place and learning healthier ways to cope.
An addiction to pornography can interfere with daily life and relationships.
Signs of this disorder include:
- Being dissatisfied with their sex life
- Engaging in risky behaviors to view pornography such as looking at porn at work
- Feeling shame for viewing porn but continuing to do so
- Using pornography to cope with sadness, anxiety, insomnia, and other mental health issues
People with food addiction can’t control their compulsive eating behaviors. They crave junk foods and may report feeling high while eating them. People with this addiction may even build a tolerance like a person with substance use disorder does, requiring more of these foods to make them feel good. They may or may not be obese, and can struggle with relationship issues, low self-esteem, and health issues.
How to Treat Behavioral Addictions
If the person has underlying mental health issues related to behavioral addiction such as depression or anxiety, part of their treatment may include medications. A person may be prescribed an antidepressant medication to help them feel less depressed while also receiving psychotherapy.
Holistic Therapy Approach
The most successful way to treat a behavioral addiction is with a holistic approach that includes medications (if needed), psychotherapy, and any necessary medical care. There are many different therapeutic techniques that can be used, and some can be used together to create the best results. It is critical to use a treatment modality that best suits your needs.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
CBT can be used to address faulty thinking and distorted beliefs. The person will be taught to challenge these beliefs and adopt new, healthier ones.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
DBT promotes radical acceptance of yourself without judgment. Skills are taught in the areas of distress tolerance, emotion regulation, mindfulness, and interpersonal effectiveness.
Exposure and Response Prevention
ERP exposes the person to situations that provoke their obsessions. This creates distress and a person is unable to use their compulsive response. It is impossible to get used to feeling and coping with distress when the behavior is performed because it relieves the distress.
While this modality is commonly used for persons experiencing obsessive-compulsive disorder it is also very helpful for recovering from behavioral addictions.
The intention behind mindfulness is to learn how to be present in the moment. With a behavioral addiction, the person is always thinking about the behavior instead of experiencing the present. Learning mindfulness skills can help them to focus on right now instead of thinking about future actions.
Participating in yoga therapy combines gentle movements, breathing, and meditation. Yoga therapy can help a person gain control over their thoughts and feelings. It is often used to treat substance use disorder and can also help with behavioral addictions.
Breathwork can help release tension and trauma that is stored in the body, bring about self-awareness, and increase the capacity for self-healing. It is a component of both mindfulness and yoga therapy.
Getting Help at Integrative Life Center
At ILC there are different options to help you recover from a behavioral addiction. Medications (if needed) combined with psychotherapy are recommended. CBT and ERP are the most successful therapeutic modalities for treating behavioral addictions. ILC also has a variety of different therapies proven successful with treating addictions and mental health disorders, like mindfulness, equine therapy, and adventure therapy.
Different therapies may be used depending on the type of behavioral addiction. A person with a food addiction will receive nutritional support and may prefer techniques such as art therapy and music therapy. A person with a sex addiction may benefit more from motivational interviewing, DBT, or Yoga therapy.
Please contact us to discuss the best treatment for a successful recovery if you are experiencing a behavioral addiction.
American Addiction Centers. What Is Process Addiction & Types of Addictive Behaviors? 2020.
Addiction Center. Behavioral Addictions, What Are They? 2018.
Mission Harbor Behavioral Health. What are Behavioral Addictions and How To Treat Them? 2021.