When you hear the word "addiction," your mind probably jumps to thoughts of drug or alcohol abuse. However, there are other types of addiction. A behavioral addiction, also known as a "process addiction," is the increasing reliance on a certain behavior or action to feel good.
When the idea first began to surface, many people thought it was a hoax. After all, how could someone be psychologically and physically dependent on something they don't put inside of their bodies like drugs or alcohol? In spite of the skepticism, it was increasingly clear that there was more to these behaviors than just someone who didn't want to stop. So scientists began to look at the brain's response to unhealthy behavioral impulses, and they discovered something that has changed the way people think about the brain and addiction.
What Is a Behavioral Addiction?
Recent scientific studies have begun to suggest that addiction can result from anything that causes your brain to crave more of it to feel good. Why? Because when a person feels pleasure over something, their brain releases significant amounts of dopamine and oxytocin, also known as "feel-good hormones." It wants to feel good so it can send a signal out looking for that same feeling again. And again. And again. Eventually, in some people, the brain begins to crave greater and greater amounts of the feel-good hormones, which it believes can only be achieved by performing the action that created them in the first place. This is when it can become a problem.
Because behaviors are not substances like drugs or alcohol, some people write off repetitive actions as just "bad habits." For example, someone who struggles with too much shopping just might be viewed by their friends and family as someone who is materialistic or enjoys the allure of a good sale. And, for some people, this might be true. But, the difference between a bad habit and an addiction is that a person can stop a bad habit if they want to. When something becomes an addiction, the individual loses their ability to successfully remove themselves from the action, thereby endangering themselves and potentially setting themselves up for serious problems as their actions continue.
Common Types of Behavioral and Process Addictions
Some of the most common behavioral addictions stem from everyday activities that are generally harmless to most people. The problem is that, for some people, these actions and interests have gone from a harmless hobby or interest to an activity that takes over their daily routine. While the field of behavioral addiction study adapting because it is such a new topic of discussion, certain addictions tend to be more common than others.
Shopping is often classified as an "impulse control," which is just a fancy way of saying that someone who is addicted to shopping does it because they can't resist the impulse to buy things and they get a "high" from doing so. Typically, people who struggle with an addiction to shopping are actually doing it to escape feelings of sadness, however, their sense of excitement is replaced by guilt after the fact. Women are more likely than men to struggle with this issue. On the surface, it might seem like a relatively harmless problem, but it is one that can have serious implications if left untreated. In fact, if someone is consumed with shopping, it can have serious consequences for their relationships and their finances.
The only behavioral disorder to be classified by the American Psychiatric Association, studies have shown that gambling stimulates the same parts of the brain as drugs do. What may start out as a harmless way to blow off steam and have fun with friends can spiral out of control as the addict seeks out the next great win. People who have a gambling addiction will continue to bet and risk money, often with serious financial implications.
3. Cell phones
Ninety-five percent of Americans own a cell phone, so a cell phone addiction can be particularly difficult to spot. After all, doesn't everyone rely on their phone these days? While it's true that everyone seems to be glued to their phones, someone with a cell phone addiction will not be able to cut down their usage on their own. In fact, they'll likely spend more and more time on their phone, relying on it as a solution to their boredom and becoming visibly anxious and distressed if they become separated from their phone.
Another sign of a cell phone addiction is when the person is unable to put their phone down when they're in the middle of a serious conversation with a spouse or family member. Besides potentially creating relationship problems, excessive cell phone use has been cited in a potential link to anxiety and depression, as well as sleep issues. This means that overuse can create serious health problems if it is not addressed.
Many people have heard the term "sex addiction" about a celebrity. But few people know what it is. Compulsive sexual behavior is identified by all-consuming thoughts about sex and the continuous drive to seek out sexual experiences, typically with multiple partners. It's hard to tell whether this is a problem with the biochemical makeup of the brain or if it stems from a misguided need to find love and acceptance, but it can wreak havoc on an individual's personal and professional life.
Someone with sex addiction will likely not be faithful to their partner or spouse because they are constantly seeking sexual encounters. They may miss work time acting on their impulses, resulting in poor professional performance as well.
5. The Internet
While this one hasn't been classified as a "true addiction" by experts, it's estimated that somewhere between six and 14 percent of Internet users display signs of compulsive Internet use, immersing themselves in the information superhighway for upwards of 11 hours a day. This behavior has the potential to result in issues at home and work as these individuals become consumed with their online activities, ultimately ignoring their relationships and daily tasks.
6. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) / Behavioral Compulsions
While it can take many different forms, compulsive behaviors can become "addictive" in the sense that the person doing them is unable to stop repeating them over and over again. OCD can take many forms, but some of the most common ones include contamination OCD, symmetry OCD, checking OCD and hoarding OCD.
Similar to someone with OCD, a person with a behavioral compulsion spends a lot of time on that compulsion. It may lead to emotional suffering and distress, especially in the case of people who are experiencing compulsions like hoarding, trichotillomania — an obsessive need to pull out one's own hair — or excoriation — the compulsive picking of one's skin.
Causes of Behavioral Addiction and Factors to Consider
The hard thing about identifying and treating a behavioral addiction is that scholars and professionals still disagree about how to classify them. Many believe that the presence of the addiction is the result of a combination of hereditary and environmental factors. Their causes and treatment methods continue to be subject to much discussion as researchers attempt to dig deeper and come to a better understanding of them. However, what is clear is that the individuals who move from engaging in an occasional habitual behavior to being addicted to a certain behavior might not have as much control over it as researchers once claimed.
More recently, scientists have begun to uncover evidence that the brain is capable of reacting to certain behaviors much in the same way it reacts to the presence of drugs or alcohol in the body. This is the "feel-good hormone" response mentioned earlier. That doesn't mean that any action can become addicting if it's done enough, but, in the case of certain behaviors, such as the ones listed above, the feelings of pleasure that they create can stimulate the brain and lead it to want to experience that "high" again and again. So, it signals the individual that the best thing they can do is to repeat the action that caused the feelings of pleasure.
Similar to substance abuse, over time, it takes more and more to achieve those feelings, which leads to an increase in the behavior to the point where it can become disruptive and have potentially serious consequences for the individual performing the behaviors.
Some of the skepticism over the idea of behavioral addiction comes from the fact that these behaviors are not always as dangerous as abusing drugs or alcohol. For example, someone with a shopping addiction isn't actually doing anything to harm their body. However, the problem is that it can create serious issues in other areas of their life if they are unable to control their impulses. They can experience severe financial hardship such as credit card debt and bankruptcy, as well as do damage to relationships with people they care about, especially if their financial troubles impact a spouse or other close family member. And, while it may sound extreme, sometimes a behavioral addiction can even lead to trouble with the law.
Symptoms of Behavioral Addictions
A person who is caught in the grip of a behavioral addiction is likely to display certain behaviors over time, as they continue to seek out the good feelings that their behaviors create in their brains.
The hard part of behavioral addictions is that they aren't always obvious to the individual or their loved ones in the beginning. For example, most Americans pick up their phone on average of 110 times a day. But, someone who is addicted to their phone might take this a step farther, by displaying signs of anxiety when they don't have their phone or using their phone to escape real-world encounters with coworkers or loved ones.
When it comes to a behavioral addiction, there are a few key signs that an individual has moved from simply enjoying a certain behavior to being addicted to it.
- An inability to stay away from the behavior: In other words, they can't stop thinking about it or doing it. The average person is able to limit their activity if they sense they are starting to go too far. But someone who has become addicted to the behavior relies on it to feel good and "normal." For example, someone without a shopping addiction will be able to recognize that they are spending too much money and they will simply stay away from the mall. But, for a person who is addicted to shopping, they won't be able to simply make the decision to stay away. In fact, they will most likely increase the frequency of their action because, over time, it takes more and more to get the same "high" from doing it.
- Lack of self-control: A person who is not suffering from a behavioral addiction can recognize that there is a time and a place for certain behaviors and limit their actions accordingly. For example, the average person knows that they need to put their phone down during a business meeting or an important conversation with a loved one. If someone is addicted, however, they won't be able to limit their cell phone usage to focus on what's going on around them. They also generally won't be able or willing to stop even when their action is causing distress to themselves or others, as in the case of addictions like hoarding or excoriation.
- Lack of awareness of the problems they are creating or an unwillingness to admit to it: Someone who is addicted to a certain behavior is not likely to admit they have a problem. They may not be able to see that their behavior is potentially dangerous to them or others around them, or they may blame it on someone else. This can make it harder to convince someone to ask for help — after all, why would someone ask for help if they don't think they need it? Sometimes, certain behavioral addictions can also be associated with anxiety and depression, although the cause/effect relationship remains unclear, which means that many symptoms related to those conditions may be present as well. Because of this, there may be such a complex set of issues surrounding their behavioral addiction that the person is unable to figure out how to change, or they may not want to because they just want to keep feeling "good."
- Lack of emotional response: Because of an addict's lack of awareness, there is often a lack of emotion over their activity. They may neglect their family or friends to engage in the behavior without thought to how they may hurt them. They may miss work or struggle to perform professionally because of the amount of time they are devoting to thinking about and acting on their impulses. For example, someone with a gambling addiction may skip work to participate in gambling, reducing their productivity at the office and jeopardizing their employment. Or someone who suffers from an addiction to sex may seek sexual encounters with other partners even if they are in a committed relationship, which can hurt their loved ones and create significant relationship problems as well.
Treatment Options for Behavioral Addictions
Treatment options for behavioral addictions can vary, depending on the individual and their needs. Because it can be hard to "cure" a behavioral disorder, so to speak, most treatment options center around various kinds of therapy designed to help the individual manage their impulses. To date, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been proven to be the most effective strategy for combatting behavioral addiction and helping individuals suffering from them to return to a "normal" life.
CBT centers around the idea that many psychological problems stem largely from unhealthy patterns of thought and behavior. This type of therapy has been shown to be helpful in teaching individuals how to cope with the issues they are facing by learning new thought patterns and healthy coping skills. Some people believe that CBT involves psychoanalysis and digging deep into past "hurts," but it is actually geared toward managing symptoms and learning how to modify their behavior so that they are no longer doing the destructive behaviors they have become addicted to.
Ultimately, the goal of CBT is to teach people to be their own counselor in a sense — as they develop coping skills, they can adapt their thinking and behaviors on their own outside of the therapy setting.
CBT can be used in either a group or individual setting. Individual counseling is exactly what it sounds like — one-on-one sessions between a counselor and the individual dealing with a behavioral addiction. These can be helpful because the focus is solely on the person and their specific situation. Many find that they feel safer sharing their thoughts when they aren't in a setting with other people. When they feel safer sharing, people tend to be more likely to keep their appointments and continue their therapy.
People are also typically more honest about their struggles when they are in individual counseling sessions. This can be a huge benefit to their treatment because honesty helps the counselor to have a better understanding of the issues they are facing so that they can develop a treatment plan that is the most effective option for the individual.
While there are a lot of benefits to individual counseling, group therapy has also been shown to be a very effective option, especially when it's done in conjunction with individual therapy. While it can initially be overwhelming to share very personal information with a group of unfamiliar people, often people with a behavioral addiction find that it's comforting to be in a group setting.
Some people prefer the group setting because it takes away the pressure of being the only one who has to share. It can also be comforting to spend time with other people who share similar struggles. Many people often find that group therapy provides a level of support and accountability that is instrumental in making significant and positive changes in their lives.
Don't Be Afraid to Ask for Help
Many people feel embarrassed or ashamed to be struggling with a behavioral addiction. Some don't even want to admit there is a problem because it can be embarrassing to admit that they are struggling with a behavior that is so normal to other people, such as shopping or using their cell phones compulsively. Asking for help can be especially hard for women because they tend to be viewed as their family's support system.
The truth is, functioning as a wife and mother while juggling a career, or as a busy professional, along with personal and family obligations can be hard. And sometimes women turn to unhealthy ways of coping with the stress or develop compulsive behaviors that they can't fix on their own.
Brookhaven Retreat is a women-only treatment facility designed to offer help and support when things get rough. Our compassionate and helpful staff understand the struggle that behavioral addictions can present, and we are ready to help walk with you through your journey to reclaim your life.
If you or a loved one are struggling with a behavioral addiction, please contact us today.