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How To Spot The Signs of Behavioral Addiction

How to spot the signs of behavioural addiction image

When it comes to substance misuse, the signs are often quite obvious to family members particularly when someone they love has an addiction problem. 

For instance, if someone suffers from alcohol addiction, their behavior might be very different when under the influence (or perhaps their alcohol-infused breath gives them away).

Behavioral addiction is markedly different in how it manifests. Experts define behavioral addiction as: 

A form of addiction that involves engaging in rewarding (albeit) non-substance related behaviors, sometimes referred to as ‘natural reward.’ Similar to substance addiction, the person has little regard for the consequences of their behavior be it mental, physical, social or financial.

Behavioral addiction, sometimes referred to as ‘process’ addiction tends to be quite difficult to spot since there are no mind alterers involved. The body is usually substance-free. And yet the brain’s reward centre responds in much the same way as it does when a person is abusing drugs or alcohol.

What are the various types of behavioral addiction?

There are many different types of behavioral addiction including:

  • Gaming Addiction
  • Love Addiction
  • Exercise Addiction
  • Internet and Social Media Addiction
  • Shopping Addiction
  • Porn Addiction
  • Tanning Addiction
  • Gambling
  • Sex Addiction


How behavioral addiction works

Over the years, psychologists and researchers have become increasingly aware that the brain can react to behaviors identical to how it does drugs and alcohol.

Particular behaviors (like the ones mentioned above) can trigger a powerful reinforcement in the brain which encourages a person to want to engage in that behavior more and more.

The same ‘’high’’ that one gets when they ingest drugs is similar to when a person engages in say gambling or porn addiction. Equally, when a person quits a particular behavior, they also experience the same withdrawal as a drug addict does when deciding to go cold turkey.

A person who has given up exercise addiction, for example, might experience:

  • Agitation
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Social withdrawal
  • Changes in their personality
  • Irritability


The difference between substance and behavioral addiction

The brain cannot differentiate between drugs, sex, gambling and booze, explains neuroscientist and developmental psychologist Marc Lewis. 

Lewis also explains just how alike heroin addicts, gaming addicts, sex addicts and codependent partners are.

Essentially, any behavior that signals a reward to the brain and results in reckless behavior that is hard (if not impossible) to control is an addiction. 

Spending eighteen hours a day on the internet might seem harmless enough, but when the bills start racking up, personal hygiene goes out the window and the wife or husband is preparing to leave, that’s a huge signal that a particular type of behavior has spiralled way out of control. 

Marc Lewis further explains that:

‘’You don’t have to be a heroin addict or an alcoholic to wreck your life.’’

Perhaps another helpful explanation when it comes to understanding the difference between behavioral disorder and substance addiction is that those with substance addiction rely on the intake of a physical substance to get that ‘’high’’ they so desperately crave while a behavioral addict relies on behavior or action.

The science behind behavioral addiction

Due to scientific research, we know addiction to be a medical disorder that leads to changes in the brain and behavior. Biological and environmental factors along with genetic variations often contribute to the development and progression of addiction disorder.

Active changes found in the brain when it comes to addiction-related disorders have been the motivation behind many scientific research studies, something that has revolutionised the way that medical professionals conceptualize and treat addiction.

Centuries ago, ideas surrounding excessive alcohol and drug intake (and other habit-forming substances) provided limited data and concepts about addiction. Addicts were stigmatized and thought of as having a ‘weakness of will.’

Thanks to modern science, this stigma is no longer valid as health professionals have since developed structural and scientific concepts surrounding addiction and the many pathways leading up to it.

Furthermore, due to increased knowledge about behavioral and process addiction, it’s likely that many of us are at risk of falling prey to at least some form of addiction due to its many forms and manifestations (such as social media and internet addiction).

In this way, science has not only provided professionals with a way to understand and treat addiction but has inadvertently helped to reduce the stigma surrounding addictive-related disorders.

Spotting the signs

There are many warning signs related to behavioral abuse. Some of which are categorised as being either ‘mental’ or ‘physical’ and can often occur together (as described below).

Mental signs of behavioral abuse include:

  • Depression and anxiety symptoms when resisting or stopping a behavior
  • Inability to control a specific behavior 
  • Preoccupation: Unable to concentrate on tasks without thinking or obsessing over a behavior (such as gaming)
  • Developing a strong tolerance to a particular behavior and experiencing a high-level craving, resulting in a person ‘raising the bar’ to maintain the same ‘’high’’ as before


Physical signs of behavioral abuse include:

  • Under (or over) active repetitive speech patterns
  • Bloodshot eyes and/or dilated pupils
  • Weight loss
  • Excessive snorting or sniffing and/or runny nose


Treatment for Behavioral Addiction

Similar to substance abuse, treatment often involves a highly structured environment such as 12 step programs and residential treatment. 

The type of treatment individuals are offered will depend on the severity of the addiction and whether or not a person has other comorbid mental health conditions (such as depression, anxiety and other addiction disorders). Typically, the type of therapy offered to those with behavioral addiction disorders are:

  • Talk Therapy and Group Therapy
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Relapse Prevention


Other treatments include:

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR)

Since trauma often lies at the heart of addiction, treatment involves working through and addressing the trauma. EMDR therapy consists of eight steps which involve focusing on traumatic memory, the person’s current circumstance due to that memory, and the development of healthy coping mechanisms to help move the person forward.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)

Similar to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, DBT is designed to help people adopt healthier ways of coping with difficult life circumstances and the processing of past memories and disturbing events. 

DBT therapy involves:

  • Individual therapy
  • A classroom environment and behavioral lessons and assignments
  • Telephone coaching options


Person-Centred Therapy (PCT)

PCT is a type of talk therapy where the client can talk freely about what they find most distressing while the therapist does the listening. 

This type of therapy allows a person to come to their own conclusions about the decisions that need to be made to improve their current circumstances.

Residential Treatment

Attending behavioral rehab programs can be extremely helpful in combating process addiction as it entails being in a structured environment away from external triggers. 

There are several different types of residential treatment rehabs such as:

  • Outpatient Rehabilitation: (usually for milder addiction issues) helpful for those who require flexible schedules. These programs are also quite affordable
  • Intensive Outpatient Rehabilitation (IOP): Designed for people with more severe addiction problems but who do not require hospitalisation
  • Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP): This program offers more treatment options to those who are outpatients, but the person is not required to fully stay at the facility as they do with inpatient programs


As mentioned earlier, the type of therapy offered to individuals will depend largely on the severity of addiction and whether they have other co-occurring disorders.

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David Hurst

David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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