Are Process Addictions Genetic?

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Addiction devastates the lives of millions of Americans each year. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, up to 43.7 million Americans suffer from an addiction, yet only a minute portion of them receive any assistance in overcoming their addiction.

Unfortunately, many people continue to see non-substance addictions, such as impulsive gambling, shopping, stealing, or failure of sexual impulse control, as theories, and not actual addictions.

However, psychological associations, mental health facilities, and researchers have compiled a massive database defining how and why these non-substances, more widely known as process or behavioral addictions, occur. In fact, the results of research studies and findings draw conclusions similar to risk factors for developing substance abuse addictions. Before you embark on a journey to help a loved one or yourself with a process addiction, you need to know how process addictions arise, especially from a genetic standpoint.

Process Addictions versus Substance Addictions

According to the Mayo Clinic, an addiction is an overwhelming physiological need to engage in a specific behavior, commonly alcohol or illicit drugs, to produce a rewarding response within the central nervous system. The risk factors for developing an addiction include environmental, psychological, and genetic factors, and process addictions are no exception.

In addition, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders dictates the criteria for diagnosis of an addiction. In the DSM-V, a new category of addictive disorders was created to address concerns over impulse-control disorders, specifically pathological and impulsive gambling. However, clinicians have the option of diagnosing an “Impulse Control Disorder- Not Otherwise Specified”, addressing other behavioral addictions.

Risk Factors for Process Addiction

Mara Tyler’s publication, “Risk Factors for Addiction”, revealed that 40% – 60% of all adults have a genetic predisposition to addictive behaviors. Furthermore, a child who has witnessed a parent’s addiction is more likely to engage in the same or similar addiction as he/she ages. This provides an additional environmental exposure component to process addiction’s development.

Study Findings

A team of researchers, including Jon E. Grant, Marc N. Potenza, Aviv Weinstein, and David A. Gorelick, conducted an extensive study and reported strong evidence to support a genetic claim to process addictions. According to the publication, serotonin and dopamine—neurotransmitters within the brain—affect the formation of an addiction.

Serotonin provides a means of logic to inhibit irrational behaviors while dopamine enables learning and recognition of specific actions, such as a rewarding feeling following application of an action or substance.

During family studies, researchers found that immediate family members of those with a process addiction had significantly higher rates of alcohol use disorder or illicit substance abuse disorders. Since the biologic stimuli for a reward producing activity or behavior remains the same amongst non-substance and substance addictions, the correlation equates to a genetic link.

Taking Action

If you or a family member is suffering from a behavioral addiction, then you need to take action. Addiction problems can evolve into additional psychological conditions, including depression and anxiety.

The addiction you face is not something that comes from a bottle. Influenced by genetics, process addiction comes from the repeated actions that produce a temporary reward, which inhibits your loved one’s ability to engage in daily activities, such as work, school, or family responsibilities. You are not alone in this battle.


(1) Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, US Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration,  and RTI International, National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, December 2013,

(2) Mayo Clinic Staff, Drug Addiction, Mayo Clinic, December 5, 2014,

(3) American Psychiatric Association, Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders, DSM-5 Development, 2013,

(4) Mara Tyler, Risk Factors for Addiction, Healthline, September 12, 2014,

(5) Jon E. Grant, Marc N. Potenza, Aviv Weinstein, and David A. Gorelick, Introduction to Behavioral Addictions, US National Library of Medicine, September 1, 2011,

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