What You Need to Know About Behavioral Addictions

food and exercise during treatment

Modern science puts a new spin on the word addiction. This term is traditionally reserved for dependence on a substance like heroin or alcohol, but, today, medical professionals know that certain behaviors trigger a similar brain response. The medical community now also applies the word addiction to a range of compulsive behaviors that follow a cycle.

When one behavior becomes a focus of your loved one’s life, the pattern may indicate an addiction that requires professional treatment. To understand why someone you care about may have a behavioral addiction, you must know more about the brain.

The Reward Center of the Brain

Drug addicts begin the addiction cycle with a small dose of a chemical that makes them feel good. The pleasurable experience gets imprinted on the brain and haunts them. They start looking for ways to recreate that feeling, usually by taking the drug again.

Over time, the feeling of pleasure dulls, so they take more and more until the need for a fix becomes more important than anything else in their life.

What is a Behavioral Addiction?

Addiction, by definition, is a chronic disease that affects the brain1. Behavioral addicts develop patterns of activities that have the same effect on the brain as a drug. A person with a behavioral addiction like porn or gaming begins by looking for a way to relieve stress or boredom.

The behavior creates a feeling of pleasure that gets imprinted on the brain. The compulsive need to feel that pleasure again takes over this person’s life and the addiction cycle starts. A person with a behavioral addiction loses control as the compulsive need to repeat this activity takes over his or her life despite negative consequences like missing work or school.

There is clinical evidence that behavioral and substance addictions have similar features2. The following details could apply to a person addicted to a drug or a behavior.

  • Natural history
  • Genetic prevalence
  • Tolerance
  • Comorbidity
  • Neurobiological responses
  • Response to treatment

Examples of Behavioral Addictions

Technically, anything that creates compulsive behavior fits this pattern.

  • Shopping
  • Gambling
  • Sex
  • Watching porn
  • Binge eating
  • Online games
  • Exercise
  • Internet use

These are just examples of repeated behaviors that can become addicting. When a person starts calling in absent every day to work just to play games or avoids sleep to exercise, there is evidence of an addiction.

Symptoms of a Behavioral Addiction

Addicts don’t always recognize a problem exists, so it is the family that often sees the signs first. Symptoms of a behavioral addiction include:

  • Increasing frequency of the behavior
  • Constant need to engage in the activity
  • Failed efforts to stop
  • Majority of time spent doing this activity
  • Preoccupation with the behavior
  • Neglecting responsibilities
  • Isolation

Getting Help for Behavioral Addictions

In many ways, beating a behavioral addiction is more challenging than coming off drugs, so rehabilitation is important. You can walk away and detox from heroin, but a binge eater cannot just stop eating. Behavioral addiction programs, both in and outpatient plans, involve cognitive-behavioral therapy to replace the compulsive behavior with more positive coping mechanisms.

An addict learns to find stress relief or pleasure in other things to break the compulsive cycle.

Assessing the Needs of the Client

Behavioral addictions generally come with other mental health problems like depression. A rehabilitation program will assess the needs of the client to treat the whole person, not just the compulsion. A person who suffers depression gets treatment for that problem, as well as the addiction.

If someone you care about has a behavior addiction, there are treatment options available that can break the compulsion and improve his or her quality of life.


  1. “Addiction Science: From Molecules to Managed Care,” National Institute on Drug Abuse, June 2008, http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/addiction-science/what-addiction/addiction-similar-to-other-chronic-diseases
  2. JE Grant, et al, “Introduction to Behavioral Addictions,” American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, Sept. 2010, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20560821

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