It’s fairly easy to understand how someone could experience addiction with an addictive substance like alcohol or nicotine. It’s much more challenging to see the complexity of addiction and understand how someone could be addicted to a behavior. Behavioral addiction is real, though, and can have just as devastating effects on a person’s life as any other addiction.
This article explains behavioral addiction, how it differs from substance addiction, signs to watch for, and what to do if you or someone you love has a behavioral addiction.
What Is Behavioral Addiction?
Behavioral addiction is also known as a process addiction. Behavior experts argue that anything that stimulates a person or impacts their dopamine center (the brain’s reward center) can become addictive. Like other addictions, behavioral addictions are less about the object of addiction and more about the function it serves to distract, numb, or soothe the person.
While many of us feel compelled to engage in feel-good behaviors like sex, shopping, and exercising, only some will develop an addiction. The difference is when a habit becomes an obligation, or you continue the activity at the expense of one or more aspects of your well-being, such as your work, family, or friendships.
To date, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) includes gambling disorder in its section on substance use disorders. Discussions on whether or not to classify behavioral addictions as mental disorders continue.
Behavioral Addiction vs Substance Addiction
Research suggests that behavioral addiction and substance use addiction work in the brain in similar ways. While they both have some overlapping diagnostic symptoms, such as continued use despite consequences or lack of any benefit, there are also differences. Behavioral addictions differ because they do not produce the same physical signs as drug addiction.
Signs You Have a Behavioral Addiction
Knowing the warning signs of a behavioral addiction can help you to tell the difference between a behavior you may feel particularly drawn towards, an increasingly problematic behavior, and a behavioral addiction.
Major warning signs include:
- Prioritizing time spent engaging in the behavior, thinking about or arranging to engage in the behavior, or recovering from the effects of the behavior
- Becoming increasingly dependent on the behavior as a way to cope with emotions and feel functional
- Having difficulty changing your behavior despite desire to do so
- Continuing the behavior despite attempts to stop
- Neglecting or avoiding work, school, or family to engage in the behavior or hide its effects on your life
- Denying, minimizing, or hiding the full truth about your addiction
- Experiencing unpleasant feelings or sensations when trying to stop (withdrawal symptoms)
Types of Behavioral Addictions
Aside from gambling addiction, the following types of behavioral addictions are not listed in the DSM-5.
Binge Eating Disorder/Food Addiction
Binge eating disorder (BED) and food addiction are when a person becomes addicted to the chemical reactions that occur after consuming highly palatable foods (often high in fat, sugar, and salt). Food activates the same reward center as drugs do, which is why some may use it in an attempt to self-medicate for other disorders like depression.
Like other addictions, exercise addiction involves:
- Tolerance to the activity (i.e., you need to up your physical activity to get the same “feel-good” effects as before)
- Withdrawal or negative emotions in the absence of the activity
- A lack of control around the activity (i.e., you have tried to cut back your workout minutes, but attempts have not been successful)
- A great amount of time is spent on the activity
- Other activities or people are being neglected
- Continuation of activity in the presence of negative effects, including injuries
- Purging with exercise (the euphoria and dopamine release of exercise, not the goal of decreasing weight or preventing weight gain)
Gambling addiction or gambling disorder is a clinical diagnosis with criteria that include signs of addiction, such as:
- The need to gamble more and more to feel desired effects
- Withdrawal symptoms like restlessness and irritability when trying to stop or avoid gambling
- Repeated efforts to stop or control behavior
- Lying to others about behavior
- Risking losing family, friends, career
When Can Gambling Addiction Start?
Symptoms of gambling addiction can begin as early as adolescence (especially for men) or as late as older adulthood (especially for women).
Problematic computer use or internet addiction has been discussed since the ’90s. It’s been defined in research by:
- Changes in mood
- Preoccupation with the internet and digital media
- The inability to control the amount of time spent using digital technology
- The need for more time scrolling or playing a new game to achieve a desired mood
- Withdrawal symptoms when not engaged
- Continuation of the behavior despite external conflict, a diminishing social life, and adverse work or academic consequences
Plastic Surgery Addiction
Plastic surgery addiction can happen to anyone, but it’s much more typical in people with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). People with BDD obsess over perceived flaws to the point of it negatively impacting their life. Whereas someone who gets plastic surgery once may be thrilled with the results, someone with an addiction will be already looking to the next surgery for their next “fix.”
Pornography addiction is defined as a person continuing to watch or listen to pornographic content despite negative consequences. The person may be:
- Watching porn in inappropriate spaces like work
- Keeping it secret from their partner
- Feeling guilty, ashamed, or depressed after viewing
- Having difficulty moderating usage
- Continuing watching despite risks and consequences to career, family, and community
Sex addiction is considered an addiction to engaging in sexual acts, but the sexual activity itself may also be seen as a form of escapism. Like other compulsions, it’s highly distressing and can lead a person into risky situations that can threaten their relationships, career, and physical, mental, and sexual health.
Shopping addiction, sometimes called “retail therapy,” may sound harmless, but the lack of control that accompanies the compulsion can be seriously detrimental to a person’s livelihood and relationships. A person will continue purchasing items in an attempt to feel OK or connected to others and avoid feeling negative emotions like depression or low self-esteem.
Social Media Addiction
Social media was designed as the ultimate distraction to keep us engaged and scrolling, so it’s no surprise some people can develop an addiction to it. While hard to spot in our highly digital world, signs of problematic behavior to watch for include reaching for social media for a mood boost, to “zone out,” to feel less lonely, or because you feel scared you’re missing out.
While the effects of social media use are not fully known yet as it’s relatively new, research has shown a clear association between social media use and increased depression.
Video Game Addiction
Video game addiction is similarly about the absence of control or compulsive use of video games despite it causing problems. While the research is still inconclusive, there is mounting evidence to suggest video games can be harmful, increase aggression, and be addictive. Anywhere from 1% to 16% of video gamers have met the criteria for addiction in studies. These criteria vary across organizations, so the most important takeaway is to ask how the behavior affects the person’s life.
Treatment for Behavioral Addiction
Treatment for behavioral addictions may involve one or more of the following.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy: This type of psychotherapy is used for addiction to help a person understand and change the relationship between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Identifying false beliefs and triggers and coming up with alternative, healthier behaviors as a way of coping with feelings are central to the process.
- Group therapy: Group therapy for behavioral addictions offers peer support that helps a person feel less alone and connected to a community. There are 12-step recovery groups for addictions like shopping (Spenders Anonymous) and non-12-step groups including Shopping Addiction Support Group which has nearly 39,000 virtual members. Twelve-step groups for behavioral addictions like gambling have been as successful as 12-step groups for substance use disorders.
- Medications: There are no approved medications for treating specific behavioral addictions, but some research suggests SSRI antidepressants may have some benefits for addressing addictive behaviors.
- Other treatments: Other methods, including couples or family counseling, may be additionally helpful to address and resolve problems contributing to or enabling certain behaviors. You may also consider talking to your healthcare provider about the potential benefits of lifestyle changes for behavioral addiction.
Always consult your healthcare provider before beginning a new treatment method.
Coping With Behavioral Addiction
Coping with behavioral addiction is a daily pursuit. Some days will be more challenging than others, but every day is a recovery day. You can recover from behavioral addiction. Honesty with yourself about how you feel, what you need, and what you want from recovery are of utmost importance.
It is possible to experience addictions to behaviors such as shopping, eating, gambling, playing video games, sex, watching porn, and going on social media. People with behavioral addictions will spend increasing amounts of time thinking about and engaging in the behavior to the detriment of their well-being and their relationships, finances, and future goals.
A compulsion to continue the behavior despite consequences and efforts to stop makes behavioral change difficult, but not impossible. Treatments are available, including different types of therapy and lifestyle changes.
A Word From Verywell
Behavioral addiction is a lot like substance use addiction, except there’s less understanding of its seriousness. If you know someone who may have a behavioral addiction, it’s best to treat it like any other addiction and encourage the person to seek professional treatment.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is an addictive behavior?
Addictive behavior is any behavior that a person compulsively engages in and has difficulty controlling or stopping despite negative consequences. Addictive behaviors cause problems to a person’s life as their brain’s prioritize their addiction over people, places, and thing that need them.
What are the most common forms of behavioral addictions?
A person can have more than one behavioral addiction. The most common forms of behavioral addictions include:
- Binge eating disorder/food addiction
- Exercise addiction
- Gambling addiction
- Internet addiction
- Plastic surgery addiction
- Porn addiction
- Sex addiction
- Shopping addiction
- Social media addiction
- Video game addiction
Is addictive behavior genetic?
At least half of a person’s susceptibility to addiction can be linked to genetic factors. This means that addictive behavior is genetic, but there’s more at play than genetics (nature) alone. For example, your environment (nurture) plays a role, too.