Behavioral Addictions, Emotions, And The Brain

According to Science Direct, behavioral addictions are defined as, “an intense desire to repeat some action that is pleasurable or perceived to improve wellbeing or capable of alleviating some personal distress.” What classifies some behaviors as addictive is the difficultly those affected have with stopping or reducing their participation in it. Some motivating factors for behavioral addictions include the perception of temporary decreased depression and anxiety, making it a seemingly logical way to achieve calm or happiness. For example, gambling addiction lights up similar parts of the brain as some drugs, providing a dopamine rush to the user or player.

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Sex addiction impacts the brain in similar ways to gambling addictions, and much like substance abuse treatment, joining a 12-step program can be a useful method for treatment. Sex, pornography, or masturbation-based addictions can endanger the individual by complicating relationships, or possibly bringing unwanted pregnancies or STIs. They may struggle to gain control of their sexual behavior, followed by shame or regret. The inability to stop compulsions associated with behavioral addiction often signals a possible addiction.

Behavioral Addictions

Dr. Ashish Bhatt, MD discusses the link between behavioral addictions and substance use disorders.

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Behavioral Addiction: Types And Examples

Individuals can form behavioral addictions similar to a dependence on drugs and alcohol to combat anxiety, depression, or other mental health disorders. Increases in drug and alcohol use have signaled that many people are abusing harmful chemicals; however, some don’t factor in non-substance addictions like food, sex, phone, video game, or gambling addiction, which often manifest as a behavioral addiction due to underlying mental health challenges. Those who become addicted to specific activities seek out feelings of comfort, happiness, and chemical releases (dopamine and serotonin) or can form behavioral addictions to escape reality or painful emotions. Some of the most common types of behavioral addictions are:

  • Sex
  • Gambling
  • Internet
  • Shopping
  • Video games
  • Plastic surgery
  • Binge eating/food addiction
  • Thrill-seeking activities

Although these are the most common types of behavioral addictions, compulsive stealing (kleptomania), love and relationship addiction, overworking, compulsive skin and hair picking, and excessive television use and exercise are also listed as behavioral addictions.

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Are Behavioral Addictions Serious?

According to the US National Library of Medicine, behavioral addictions, “resemble substance abuse addictions,” in reference to the impact on the brain and their response to treatment. Individuals often struggle to resist urges or temptations to reduce or stop behaviors that may be addictive to them, elicit arousal before completing them, and bring pleasure while doing them. Areas of concern can include the feelings of guilt or embarrassment after completing the activity. This is similar in individuals abusing harmful chemicals. Individuals abusing substances have extreme difficulty resisting the urge or temptation to use the drug and may feel pleasure from using the drug. Consequently, he or she may feel shame after completing the activity, and may lie about it or hide it.

Because behavioral addictions impact the part of the brain responsible for rewards, individuals can experience similar effects one would feel if they were abusing a substance. This can translate to troubled relationships, challenges with impulse control, obsessions, distractions, and financial challenges. Treatment methods used for substance abuse can be helpful in treating behavioral addictions. Twelve step groups may be of use, along with anxiety or depression medications if these are at the root of the behavioral addiction. Additional treatment methods like meditation, SMART Recovery™ strategies, and counseling can potentially benefit those who may struggle with a behavioral addiction.

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Signs Of Behavioral Addiction

Someone engaging in activities like gambling and video games doesn’t necessarily signal an addiction. However, if it impacts their everyday life and becomes a crutch for underlying mental and emotional problems, it may need closer examination. Addictions occur when someone needs large amounts or constant exposure to the stimuli. Those with a behavioral addiction will constantly seek the thrill or rush of endorphins by frequent and increased activity. Secondly, behavioral addictions become serious if the individual cannot control or stop the activity. Signs of behavioral addiction include, but are not limited to:

  • The inability to stop or control behavior.
  • Feeling shame or embarrassment after doing the activity.
  • The inability to stop addictive behaviors despite knowing how they impact the body and mind.
  • Doing more risk-taking and increasing risky activities to thrill seek.
  • Needing more exposure to feel the highs one used to feel while doing the activity.
  • Experiencing cravings for doing the activity.
  • Using a certain activity in conjunction with drugs and alcohol.
  • Using the activity and justifying it to deal with trauma or poor mental health versus getting professional help.

For gambling or shopping addiction, individuals can suffer severe financial consequences. This can become a problem if they try to use loved ones for extra financial support. Additionally, they can max out credit cards and incur debt because of their addiction. For cases of video game and phone addiction, addictive patterns can get in the way of close relationships. The individuals can become distracted, using it as an escape from the challenges of daily life to fix loneliness, stress, or fill other voids. Individuals with concerns can seek treatment by contacting a treatment provider.

There Is Hope For Recovery

While controlling compulsions can seem impossible, there are several options for recovery. The first step is to acknowledge the challenges behavioral addictions can cause, along with the need for help. This can help one to take control of their life. There is support available after taking the first step toward recovery. Contact a treatment provider today and start your journey.



Krystina Murray

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  • Krystina Murray has received a B.A. in English at Georgia State University, has over 5 years of professional writing and editing experience, and over 15 years of overall writing experience. She enjoys traveling, fitness, crafting, and spreading awareness of addiction recovery to help people transform their lives.

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Reviewed by Certified Addiction Professional:

David Hampton

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  • David embarked on his journey into sobriety in June of 2005, which led him to his current career path as a Certified Professional Addiction Recovery Coach in private practice in Greater Nashville. David is also a public speaker and the author of two books. David is cohost of the weekly Positive Sobriety Podcast, as well as being a frequent contributor to various articles and recovery based materials. As a member of the National Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors (NAADAC), David works closely with area treatment centers, recovery orientated nonprofit organizations, as well as being a keynote speaker for various recovery-focused events.

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