What are the key signs of behavioral addiction

Author and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Jose Toledo

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Behavioral addiction (sometimes referred to as process addiction) follows the same emotional and mental pathways as drug addiction, or any other substance use disorder.

The critical difference in behavioral addiction is that it’s classified as a non – substance-related addiction – sometimes referred to as a natural reward. Addiction is usually associated with substance use. 

However, someone does not have to engage in the behavior of alcoholism or drug abuse to have a problem with addiction.

What is the behavioral model of addiction?

There are several behavioral models of addiction all of which have a set of presuppositions attached.

Each of the models or belief systems have a (somewhat unempathetic) level of recognition – such as addiction is an illness or those with addictions are weak-willed.

Below are some of the models mentioned above of addiction:

  • The moral model upholds the belief that behavioral addictions and substance use disorders result from human weakness. This model does not accept that addictions could be down to biological factors; the moral model also holds little sympathy for addictions.
  • The temperance model of addictive behavior asserts at least some empathy for the moral model of addiction. Although the temperance model focuses on complete abstinence rather than moderate treatment – the temperance model upholds that a behavior or substance must be completely cut off for recovery to succeed in the long term.
  • The opponent-process model of addictions states that for every action, there is an opposing reaction. For instance, when someone goes on a drinking binge – and then abstains from alcohol, there will be a period of sobriety and withdrawal.
  • The disease model believes that behavioral addictions, drug addiction and any other addictions are illnesses in their own right. The disease model movement believes addiction to be a disease in itself.
  • The genetic model presupposes that addiction is down to genetic factors. These risk factors include that certain habits ”run in the family” while some research data explores the genetic link between certain addictions.

Other addiction models

Other addiction models include; the personality, social education, cultural, blended, and the habit models of addiction.

What are some examples of behavioral addiction?

As mentioned earlier, the word ”addiction” usually conjures up images of someone engaging in addictive behaviors such as drugs and alcohol.

Addiction statistics

All this is hardly surprising as the American population alone has a significant problem with substance-related addictions.

 According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), up to 21.5 million Americans aged 12 years and older -suffer some form of addiction.

These addictions usually take the form of substance abuse. 

Although substance abuses negative consequences are limitless, the results are just as dire with process addiction or behavioral addiction.

Behavioral addiction

Whether it’s sex addiction, internet or gambling addiction – process or behavioral addictive behaviors are a set of actions that cause a person to engage in risky behaviors.

All this is regardless of the negative consequences toward themselves, friends and family.

Types of behavioral addiction

The following get classed as process addictions:

  • Shopping addiction
  • Gambling addiction
  • Video games or gaming addiction
  • Sex addiction
  • Plastic surgery addiction
  • Internet addiction
  • Risky activities or risky-behavior addiction
  • Porn addiction
  • Food addiction
  • Love addiction

Some mental health experts strongly disagree with some of the data – and question what qualifies a particular behavior as an addiction.  

Therefore, the only process addiction that is currently classified under the Diagnostic Statistical Manual – DSM5, is gambling disorder.

Substance use disorder, as unpleasant as the signs and symptoms may be – is a lot easier to diagnose and treat.

What are the critical signs of behavioral addiction?

The signs and symptoms associated with process addiction are similar to those in drug and alcohol addiction – although the long-term implications may differ – the symptoms present in a similar way.

The behavior observed in process addiction follows the same pattern or ”high” that someone experiences with substance dependence issues.


Symptoms of behavioral addiction include:

  • Becoming dependent on a specific behavior as a way of coping with emotions 
  • Continuing the action regardless of the negative consequences
  • Going through symptoms of withdrawal – this involves feeling irritable or depressed
  • Spending most of your time engaging in a specific behavior, thinking about the action (such as gambling or internet addiction), or arranging your life around the behavior
  • Having trouble moderating the amount of time spent engaging in the behavior despite wanting to give it up
  • Becoming neglectful of family members, friends, work, and no longer engaging in activities you once enjoyed
  • Experiencing low self-esteem and self-worth
  • Disturbed sleep patterns
  • Poor physical health

How do addictive behaviors start?

Behavioral addictions emerge for a multitude of reasons.

Nature vs nurture

The infamous nature vs nurture discussion both debate two sides of the coin: does addiction get created in childhood through one’s environment? Or is addiction determined by someone’s DNA?

The problem with this argument is that it remains inconclusive.

And while people need to understand how an addiction got started in the first place; it’s equally crucial to focus on treating behavioral habits and other addictive behaviors.

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)

Some of the data suggest that people with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are more prone to addiction than those who do not score high in ACEs and previously enjoyed a content childhood.

Alcohol or drug problems in the family make a person more likely to develop a mental health condition such an addiction.

Early experimentation

Other research suggests that addiction starts from the early experimentation of drugs and alcohol -after the experimentation phase begins to fade, the cycle of addiction spirals, which involves:

  • Social or regular use
  • Physical dependence or addiction
  • Risky or problem use

What is the most effective treatment for behavioral addiction?

Treatment options available for behavioral addictions can be challenging to come by. Since most process addictions remain unclassified in mental health, it is challenging for people who seek treatment to find a suitable treatment plan.

Rehabilitation facilities

Treatment centres offering 10/12-step programs are invaluable when it comes to treating symptoms of addiction and the root cause.

Support groups and 12 step programs are incredibly beneficial – whether someone requires help and support in abstaining from:

  • A gambling disorder
  • A video games addiction
  • Alcohol abuse

Getting help for an addiction disorder is the first of many steps to recovery. Therefore, choosing a suitable service such as a rehabilitation facility is imperative.


Addiction treatment may involve therapy of some kind.
Therapy is invaluable in addiction treatment as it gets to the underlying cause of addiction.

If a user understands why they turn to a specific behavior like sex addiction or substance abuse such as drugs or alcohol, they are more likely to abstain.

Trauma is usually at the heart of most addictions. 

Therefore, treatment centres and recovery programs must understand the root cause of addictive patterns of behavior. 

The most common forms of therapy used to treat addiction involve:

  • EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) – this type of treatment focuses on traumatic experiences and aims to change a person’s perception of a specific traumatic event through precise eye movements guided by a therapist
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) challenges any destructive thoughts, beliefs and behaviors that may have led someone down the path of addiction
  • Psychotherapy or ‘talk therapy’ is another effective method of treating process addiction as patient and therapist explore a person’s past – and based on mutual agreement, suggest ways that any negative behavior that got learned in childhood – can be unlearned for the greater good of the individual, and their family members

Other treatment methods

Many rehabilitation programs offer services such as holistic wellness programs, detox management and aftercare support.

Treatment options get individualized to suit each person and their needs.

Addiction is a family disease – it affects the whole system rather than just a single person. 

Therefore, specialists should customize treatment options to each individual seeking help and recovery from addiction.

Recovery from addiction and any other mental health disorder is a rollercoaster of ups and downs, but with the right support and care, addiction doesn’t have to be a way of life.

Contact a specialist at Tikvah Lake Recovery today to find out how we can help treat your addiction.

About Adam Nesenoff

Adam Nesenoff has been working in recovery for over ten years.

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