What Is a Behavioural Addiction?
Addiction isn’t limited to substances such as drugs or alcohol. The concept of addiction has changed, showing that it’s not just about physical substances but also other strong urges.
This article explores behavioural addiction, a term used to describe lesser-known yet equally powerful forms of dependency, that have steadily gained recognition and impact in our lives.
What is a Behavioural Addiction?
Behavioural addiction can be defined as a pattern of repetitive and compulsive engagement in specific activities or behaviours. Despite negative consequences, to the extent that it significantly impairs an individual’s daily life, functioning, and well-being.
Unlike substance addiction, which involves physical dependence on drugs or alcohol, behavioural addictions revolve around a particular action or experience that results in psychological or emotional dependence. For many, attempting to stop behaving in this way can lead to severe side effects similar to what we know as a withdrawal from substance addiction.
The concept of behavioural addictions has gained some traction in the scientific community over the past few years but is still somewhat controversial. For a long time, members of the psychiatry community refused to recognise these behaviours as true addictions, but many experts are now realising that many of these bear the same hallmarks as substance addictions.
Recently, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) included behaviours in the ‘addictions’ category, and gambling disorder is now officially recognised as an addiction as well.
What Causes a Behavioural Addiction?
Behavioural addictions (also known as process addictions) arise from repeated engagement in activities that provide immediate pleasure or relief from discomfort.
The brain’s reward system plays a pivotal role in developing such addictions. When an individual engages in a behaviour that they find somewhat pleasurable, the brain releases neurotransmitters, notably dopamine, which create feelings of pleasure and satisfaction.
Over time, with repeated exposure to the rewarding behaviour, the brain begins associating the activity with these pleasurable feelings, leading the individual to seek the behaviour more frequently. This process reinforces the neural pathways related to the behaviour, making resisting increasingly chronic and more challenging.
Numerous factors can predispose an individual to develop behavioural addictions. These can include a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors.
For example, individuals with a family history of addiction, those who have experienced trauma, or those with certain personality traits who are prone to engaging in addictive behaviour may be more vulnerable. Environmental triggers, such as frequent exposure to stress, can also contribute to initiating and progressing behavioural addictions.
Over time, as the behaviour becomes an essential coping mechanism for the individual, it can become harder to stop engaging. This is what we typically see with substance or alcohol addiction, too.
Common Types of Behavioural Addictions
There are many different behavioural addictions, from compulsive hair-pulling to risk-taking behaviour. Below are some of the most common addictions seen by psychiatrists.
As the only behavioural addiction officially recognised by the scientific community, gambling addiction is also one of the most common and severe. Studies have shown that those who are addicted to gambling present with similar brain patterns to those addicted to substances, and treatment options are often the same as for drug and alcohol abuse.
Sex addiction is defined as a compulsive engagement in sexual activity despite negative consequences.
This condition is a topic of debate within the scientific community. While it is not formally recognised as an addiction, it was proposed for inclusion in the DSM-5 under the term ‘hypersexual behaviour disorder’. Despite the absence of definitive research on its neurological manifestations, the symptoms closely resemble those of drug and alcohol addictions, particularly an indifference to the potential consequences and risks. Significantly, those experiencing sex addiction have found benefit from the 12-step programme traditionally used to address substance addiction.
Internet Addiction & Social Media Addiction
One of the world’s latest addictions, owing to the relative newness of the Internet and general access to it. This addiction is still growing fast, even though a large proportion of psychologists do not consider Internet addiction to be a real addiction. Research has, however, shown that the ‘addicted’ brain responds to the Internet in similar ways to those suffering from other recognised addictions, meaning that there is some scientific proof to back it up.
Social media addiction refers to a compulsive use of social media platforms that negatively impacts an individual’s life. People with social media addiction often feel compelled to check their social media accounts frequently, sometimes multiple times per hour. They may also become anxious or agitated if they cannot access their accounts.
What’s more, those who are addicted to social media may rely on likes, comments, and shares for validation and self-esteem. The absence of positive feedback can lead to feelings of inadequacy or depression. Some individuals may also frequently overshare personal information on social media, often driven by exposure to curated images and lifestyles on social media. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy, jealousy, and low self-esteem as individuals compare themselves to others.
Otherwise known as binge eating, this disorder has long been closely linked to eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. The problem affects around 3% of people in the US alone, meaning that it is an important issue and one which requires further research. Food addiction is characterised by a compulsion to eat, eating to ease emotions and doing so alone and in secret. This type of addiction is often linked to depression, so it remains unclear whether or not it can truly be called an addiction, or if it is simply a side effect of mental illness.
Video Game Addiction
Video game addiction, also known as gaming disorder, is a behavioural addiction characterised by excessive and compulsive engagement in video games to the point where it disrupts an individual’s daily life, relationships, and responsibilities.
People with video game addiction often use this behaviour to escape from real-life problems, stress, or negative emotions. The immersive nature of many games can make them particularly appealing for this purpose.
Additionally, addicted individuals may find it difficult to control the amount of time they spend gaming. They might lose track of time, play for extended periods, and neglect important obligations. Similar to substance addiction, video game addicts can experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to cut down or quit gaming. These symptoms can include irritability, restlessness, sadness, loneliness and a strong craving to play.
Although not discussed as often, excoriation disorder affects approximately 5% of the population. This behavioural addiction can be defined as being more closely linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it involves chronic picking on the skin. It typically begins with a trigger, such as stress, anxiety, or boredom, which prompts the person to engage in skin-picking as a coping mechanism.
This behaviour provides temporary relief and a sense of control, reinforcing the urge to pick the skin again when faced with triggers in the future. This cycle can become so ingrained that individuals find it increasingly challenging to resist the urge.
The Warning Signs of Behavioural Addictions
The signs of behavioural addictions are much the same as those of any type of substance addiction. There may be fewer physical signs, which can make it harder for friends and family to find out what is going on, or even for the sufferer to realise that they are struggling with an addiction. Some of the signs include (but are not limited to):
- Spending almost all of the time engaging in the behaviour, thinking about engaging in the behaviour or dealing with the consequences of the behaviour.
- Dealing with lots of negative consequences but not changing the behaviour as a result.
- Not being able to stop or cut back.
- Becoming dependent on the behaviour as a way of coping with emotions, problems and anxiety.
- Suffering from withdrawal symptoms when not able to feed the addiction.
- Lying about the extent of the problem or performing the behaviour in secret.
What Can You Do About Your Behavioural Addiction?
The first step in curing any addiction is to admit to yourself that you have a problem. With behavioural addictions, there are often no physical signs of what is going on. So, your family and friends start to notice and question you about it. This means that you are entirely accountable for your recovery and must take the lead.
It can be hard to get help if your problem is not widely known or understood, and it can take time to find a medical professional who will take you seriously. This can seriously impede your options when it comes to recovery.
Getting help is critical if you want to overcome your problem, so the first thing to do is to bring someone you trust into your confidence and tell them what is happening. This will help you to continue on the right path, as it will no longer be your issue to deal with alone. You may then choose to go to a doctor, but it may be easier to contact a rehabilitation centre.
Find Help Today
Ocean Recovery Centre is a dedicated rehab and detox centre, which is there to help you to get through any addiction. We are a no-judgement facility where you can work with trained professionals to get the help that you need and get over your addiction. You’ll be able to take part in individual, group and family sessions to help you understand the root of the problem and get help talking to your loved ones about the situation you find yourself in.
At the end of your rehab, you’ll get a personalised aftercare plan to help you adjust to the outside world, without using your addiction as a crutch.
John Gillen - Author - Last updated: October 17, 2023
John is one UK’s leading professionals in the addiction recovery industry. Pioneering new treatment techniques such as NAD+ and ongoing research into new therapy techniques such as systematic laser therapy, John is committed to providing the very best treatment for people throughout the UK and Europe. During his extremely busy schedule, John likes to regularly update our blog section with the latest news and trends in the industry to keep visitors to our site as well informed as possible on everything related to addiction treatment.
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