Behavioral addictions occur when someone becomes addicted to a rewarding behavior that does not involve an addictive substance per se, such as gambling, sex, shopping or eating. Sometimes referred to as compulsive behaviors, behavioral addictions involve compulsion to perform an action despite negative consequences. In this way people can suffer from dependence on certain actions, they are reliant upon and/or controlled by these behaviors as their primary way of dealing with life.
The difference between behavioral and substance addiction is that behaviors affect the brain indirectly, while substances physically change neurotransmitters. As part of our ability to survive, we naturally experience pleasure from sex and eating. Drugs such as heroin provide a shortcut to the brain’s reward system by flooding it with dopamine, which is what makes them extremely addictive.
Addiction is a disease that is present in the brain’s reward system before an individual ever begins using drugs or repeatedly engaging in an addictive behavior. Just as most people can drink alcohol without becoming addicted, most of us engage in gambling, sex, and eating without ever developing an addiction to these behaviors. However, these behavioral addictions are more common than the public currently believes.
Some of the most common behavioral addictions are socially acceptable, and can even include necessary behaviors such as sex and eating. This contributes to a lack of awareness that a problem is developing while negative consequences keep piling up. Gambling is the most researched and talked about of process addictions. Consequences faced by compulsive gamblers are severe, such as financial and relationship difficulties which can frequently lead to death by suicide. Rates of suicide by compulsive gamblers is higher than that of alcohol or drug addicts.
Sexual compulsivity has also recently received the attention of researchers and practitioners. Addiction may occur when people become preoccupied with sex and act on sexual compulsions without concern for the negative consequences. Eating disorders can be behavioral addictions in which someone becomes addicted to the act of eating and the feelings they get from eating certain foods. A food addiction is emotionally, physically and socially detrimental as it can cause extreme guilt, health problems, and interfere with relationships.
While most of us use the internet daily, there is a certain point in which the process is considered addiction. When internet use is more important than real life relationships or activities, or causes problems in a person’s ability to function in daily life, they are likely suffering from internet addiction. Compulsive spending is a form of behavioral addiction that is serious and results in similar feelings of guilt and shame, loss of control, and financial, social, and emotional consequences as other addictions.
The preceding examples are only some of the most common and researched behavioral addictions, but behavior addictions can occur when someone loses control over any process to the point where it causes problems in daily life. Compulsive behaviors lack the physical attributes that often alert people to problems with drug and alcohol abuse, such as visible intoxication, which makes them fly under the radar more easily. However, despite their relative invisibility, behavioral addictions can lead to serious problems in a person’s life and well-being.