A Brief Overview of Behavioral Addiction

credit cards and behavioral addiction

Mention the word ‘addiction’ and people will automatically associate it with drug and alcohol abuse. Though people often use the word in a casual way to describe anything a person might seem especially fond of, as in ‘addicted to love’ or ‘he/she is addicted to fudge sundaes’, they don’t really mean it seriously.

But psychologists and addiction experts are increasingly realizing that there are many types of addictive behaviors that follow the same patterns and are possibly caused by the same physical mechanisms as observed in drug and alcohol substance abuse.

How Can Behavioral Addiction Be Defined?

Behavioral addiction, also often called process addiction, can be defined as a compulsion to repeatedly engage in any type of non-drug related behavior that provides a reward of some type, usually a pleasurable feeling, without regard for any negative consequences the behavior might cause.

Behavioral addiction is still controversial in the mental health field, and the term isn’t included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), basically because the editors didn’t feel there was enough research to classify these behaviors as mental disorders. Nevertheless, the research has shown that there are similarities between behavioral addictions and those caused by substance abuse.

Types and Causes of Behavioral Addiction

As noted above, almost any type of behavior resulting in pleasure that an individual engages in to the point that it becomes a significant part of their life, often in spite of physical, mental, financial, or social consequences, can be classified as a behavioral addiction. However, some of the more common behaviors include:

  • Gambling
  • Overeating
  • Running and exercise
  • Sexual activity
  • Shopping
  • Computer gaming
  • Work

These behaviors are normal and a part of a normal lifestyle, but when a person starts feeling a compulsive need to engage in them, feels obsessed and unable to control themselves, and keeps engaging in the behavior even though it’s causing them harm, then it can be thought of as behavioral addiction.

For example, a person might feel a compulsion to gamble, even though they are going deep into debt and experiencing social difficulties because of it. Or the individual who can’t control their urge to eat, even though it’s causing serious health problems.

Why Do People Engage in Behavioral Addictions?

A person suffering from a behavioral addiction engages in the behavior because it produces some type of reward, whether pleasurable feelings or a relief from stress. Research has begun to show that there are similarities with drug and alcohol addiction, such as the production of beta-endorphins in the brain, which causes feelings of euphoria, or a so-called ‘natural high’.

Other changes in brain chemistry and the communications between different parts of the brain have been shown to be similar also. Many scientists believe the same processes are at work in any type of addiction, while others dismiss these behaviors as simply bad habits. But most agree research needs to continue.

Behavioral Addictions Can Be Treated Successfully

Whatever the ultimate cause of behavioral addiction, it’s important to understand that people suffering from the condition are in danger of serious negative consequences. They will engage in the behavior in spite of the fact that it’s causing problems with their family life or employment, with their health or finances, or harm to those around them. They are prone to the same things as a substance abuser, including depression, low self-esteem, denial, and withdrawal.

Fortunately, the same types of therapies and treatments that have been so successful with drug and alcohol addictions are also effective for behavioral addictions. If you know someone who is engaging in destructive behavior, it’s important to seek professional guidance. Avalon Malibu is always available for a completely confidential assessment. Contact them today for more information.


  1. Ruth C. Engs, RN, EdD., What Are Addictive Behaviors?, Indiana University, 1987-2012, http://www.indiana.edu/~engs/hints/addictiveb.html
  2. J.Grant, M. Potenza, A. Weinstein, D.Gorlick, Introduction to Behavioral Addictions, NCBI PubMed, 9/2010, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20560821

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