Behavioral Addictions: Causes, Signs, And Treatment Options

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on July 5, 2021

People can become addicted to just about any behavior, including shopping, playing video games, gambling, or social media. Similar to drugs or alcohol, behavioral addictions can be treatable with behavioral therapy, self-help groups, and medication.

Causes And Treatment Of Behavioral Addictions

The term ‘addiction’ is most often used to refer to an addiction to drugs or alcohol—both of which are substances that can have measurable effects on the brain and physical health.

But people can also become addicted to certain objects and behaviors, according to some research. This phenomenon is referred to as a behavioral addiction or process addiction.

Behavioral addictions can co-occur with drug or alcohol addiction, or develop separately.

To overcome a behavioral addiction, experts have identified several types of treatment that can help people conquer behavioral addictions for good.

What Are Behavioral Addictions?

A behavioral addiction can be defined as a compulsion to repeatedly engage in a certain behavior, despite negative effects on physical health, mental health, or general way of life.

This is similar to substance use disorders, which are also identified by compulsive, repetitive behaviors that continue despite negative consequences.

Research shows that, like drugs and alcohol, some behaviors can affect the brain’s reward system and produce strong reinforcement to continue engaging in those behaviors.

People with behavioral addictions may feel unable to stop engaging in a behavior, and may even experience symptoms of withdrawal—such as anxiety—if they try to stop.

Types Of Behavioral Addictions

Addiction can come in many different forms. People can become psychologically addicted to nearly any behavior.

Common types of behavioral addictions include:

  • internet addiction
  • shopping addiction
  • exercise addiction
  • social media addiction
  • cell phone addiction
  • gambling addiction
  • video game addiction
  • sex addiction
  • porn addiction

Most behavioral addictions aren’t officially recognized as mental health disorders. However, they are understood to be distressing and can become mild to severe in nature.

Internet Addiction

Many people jokingly refer to themselves as ‘addicted’ to the internet at some point. But for some, it can become a clinical problem.

A percentage of people who use the internet often develop a compulsive pattern of internet use that is severe enough to negatively affect a person’s health or general way of life.

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According to some research, internet addiction may have significant effects on mood, social relationships, and negatively affect one’s work or academic performance.

Shopping Addiction

Shopping online or in-store very often is one thing, especially when purchasing necessities. However, this can be taken to the extreme, to the point that it becomes something akin to addiction.

People who develop a shopping addiction may compulsively shop as a way to cope, numb, or fill a space left behind by something or someone else.

Exercise Addiction

Compulsive exercise is a sign of some mental health disorders, including eating disorders like bulimia. However, for some, it can also be its own separate, addictive habit.

People with exercise addiction may:

  • compulsively exercise for excessive amounts of time
  • become highly inflexible with their exercise
  • continue exercising despite negative effects on health

Social Media Addiction

Social media, like the internet, can also become addictive for some people—to the point that it causes disruptions to their relationships, health, or daily routine.

People who become addicted to social media may:

  • compulsively check social media
  • be unable to go a certain time without doing so
  • base their self-worth upon how much attention they receive through social media interactions

Cell Phone Addiction

Cell phone addiction, sometimes called smartphone addiction, can refer to the obsessive use of one’s phone, excessive phone use, and an inability to control one’s phone use.

People with a cell phone addiction may neglect their own needs or those of others as a result of their mobile phone use. This can also affect mood, self-esteem, and cause interpersonal conflicts.

Gambling Addiction

Gambling addiction is a type of addiction that can develop as a result of excessive and frequent gambling.

This behavioral addiction is believed to most closely resemble an addiction to drugs or alcohol.

People with a gambling addiction often report feeling a “high” from their gambling. This can cause severe financial problems and may lead to legal problems, depending on the nature of one’s gambling habits.

Online Gambling Addiction

While gambling at casinos remains very popular, the rise of mobile technology has changed the way many people are placing their bets. Online betting has become increasingly popular.

Unlike gambling in a casino, a person can gamble online from the comfort of their own home and may not be restricted by casino closures or mobility requirements.

Video Game Addiction

Billions of people are estimated to play video games worldwide. While for many, it can be a fun pastime, for others, it can become a compulsive habit.

People may become addicted to video games as a way to cope with stress, depression, or escape reality.

People who become addicted may feel unable to curb or cut down on how much or how often they game.

Sex Addiction

Sex is natural. Deriving pleasure from sex is natural. But when sex becomes compulsive, or becomes something you don’t necessarily enjoy but feel compelled to do, this can become a sign of addiction.

Sex addiction, also known as compulsive sexual behavior, can involve:

  • engaging in unsafe sex
  • being unable to control how often you seek sex
  • having your self-worth and self-esteem closely tied to your sexual behavior

Porn Addiction

Porn addiction is a compulsive behavior that can hurt relationships, cause social withdrawal, and generally disrupt a person’s daily life—including their work or academics.

People who are addicted to porn may feel unable to control or limit how often they watch it, and may increase how much they watch over time.

How Common Are Behavioral Addictions?

Although research on the prevalence of behavioral addictions is limited, evidence suggests that behavioral addictions are fairly common.

What research shows:

  • Some studies suggest that compulsive or excessive internet use affects an estimated six to 14 percent of people who use the internet.
  • Up to six percent of adults have a clinical gambling problem, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
  • Internet gambling, or online gambling, is especially common among young and college-aged adults, who may be at higher risk for compulsive gambling habits.
  • Compulsive sexual behaviors (CSB), or sex addiction, reportedly affects an estimated three to six percent of the U.S. adult population.
  • About five percent of adults report compulsive shopping or buying behaviors.
  • An estimated 34 to 71 percent of adults with compulsive sexual behaviors develop a substance use disorder at some point in their lives.

Signs Of Behavioral Addiction

Behavioral addictions are largely identified by a pattern of repetitive behaviors that a person feels compelled to engage in despite harm to themselves or others.

While specific signs of a behavioral addiction may vary according to the behavior, researchers have identified several common signs.

Signs of behavioral addiction may include:

  • having the majority of your life revolve around the behavior (e.g. sex, social media use, exercise)
  • feeling a ‘buzz’ or ‘high’ after engaging in the behavior
  • feeling a need to engage in the behavior more often over time
  • continuing to engage in a behavior despite negative consequences to health, social life, relationships, or other personal conflicts
  • neglecting work or school to engage in the behavior
  • feeling unable to cut down on or stop the behavior
  • denying you have a problem or minimizing its harms
  • becoming hostile or angry when confronted about the compulsive behavior
  • experiencing signs of withdrawal (e.g. anxiety, depression, fatigue) if you try to stop engaging in the compulsive behavior

What Causes Behavioral Addictions?

Like substance addictions, behavioral addictions can be traced back to a number of contributing factors, including childhood experiences, one’s environment, and interpersonal factors.

Several types of behavioral addictions, including internet addiction, have been associated with changes in neurotransmitter activity—that is, changes in brain chemicals that can reinforce compulsive behaviors.

Some behavioral addictions have also been associated with:

  • a history of trauma
  • sexual abuse
  • lack of social support
  • a family history of drug or alcohol addiction or mental illness

Diagnosing Behavioral Addictions

According to the DSM-V, a manual used to diagnose mental health disorders in the United States, there is only one recognized behavioral addiction: gambling addiction.

Even so, many behavioral health professionals recognize that behavioral addictions, even without a formal diagnosis, can be distressing and debilitating.

In addition, behavioral disorders like kleptomania (compulsive stealing) and pyromania (impulsive fire-setting) are included in the DSM. These are similar to behavioral addictions but are classified as impulse control disorders.

Dual Diagnosis: Co-Occurring Behavioral Addiction And Substance Abuse

Behavioral addictions are like drug and alcohol addiction in several ways. And research shows that some will co-occur, creating compounding issues.

Co-occurring drug addictions may include:

People who have a behavioral addiction may be more likely to develop a substance use disorder and vice versa. Together, they can both be treated through an addiction treatment program.

What Is The Difference Between Drug Addiction And Behavioral Addictions?

Research suggests that drugs, alcohol, and even certain behaviors can have reinforcing effects on the brain. However, there are some differences—largely in their effects on the body.

For instance:

  • Tolerance: Behavioral addictions aren’t physiologically habit-forming in the way that alcohol and some drugs can be.
  • Physical dependence: While a person can become psychologically reliant on a behavior, they’re unlikely to develop severe, physical dependence.
  • Withdrawal: Symptoms of withdrawal have been observed in people with behavioral addictions, but these symptoms are unlikely to be medically dangerous.

While behavioral addictions can function in similar ways to that of substance addictions, they are unlikely to cause serious withdrawal symptoms associated with some types of drug addiction.

When they co-occur, however, a person may experience symptoms of drug or alcohol withdrawal if they try to stop drinking or quit drugs all at once.

Treatment For Behavioral Addictions

Treatment for behavioral addictions is similar to the types of treatment a person might receive for certain mental health conditions and substance use disorders.

Treatment for behavioral addiction might include:

The type of treatment for a behavioral addiction may vary from person to person. This can depend on the type of addiction, its severity, and other co-occurring issues.

For instance, if someone has both a gambling addiction and drug addiction, intensive treatment within an inpatient or residential rehab program may be recommended.

If someone has additional mental health issues—such as an anxiety disorder or depression—mental health counseling may also be incorporated into the treatment plan.

Finding Treatment For A Behavioral Addiction

Admitting you have a problem is the first step towards overcoming an addiction. The second step is reaching out for help.

If you or a loved one is struggling with a behavioral addiction or substance addiction, we can help you find a suitable treatment program.

Call us today to learn more about addiction treatment options and how to find the best behavioral addiction treatment program for you.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D. on July 5, 2021
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