Drugs and alcohol are powerful chemicals that can quickly become addictive, but you don’t have to ingest chemical substances to be an addict. A behavioral addiction, like the name suggests, is an addiction to a behavior instead of a substance. Though any pleasurable behavior can become addictive, some behaviors, such as shopping, gambling, and sex, are more addictive than others.
How Behaviors Are Like Drugs
Though people have struggled with behavioral addictions for generations, behavioral addictions have only recently become the subject of psychological study. Consequently, some people – including some mental health and addiction experts – still deny the powerful draw of behavioral addictions. These addictions, though, are just as strong as addiction to chemical substances.
Behavioral addictions, like drugs and alcohol, act on the brain’s reward centers, encouraging dopamine production and making it feel “right” to engage in the problem behavior. In some people, though, a behavior can excessively activate these reward centers. This leads to an increasing dependence on the behavior that can ultimately give rise to addiction. Behavioral addictions, like substance abuse, fundamentally alter brain chemistry. Thus a man who engages in compulsive sex experiences a high very similar to that which is traditionally associated with drug use.
Researchers aren’t sure why some behaviors are more addictive than others. People don’t typically develop addictions to household chores or to writing poetry, for example. Most theories center around human evolutionary history and the inherently rewarding nature of some behaviors.
The evolution argument emphasizes that some behaviors were inherently beneficial to nascent humans. People interested in sex, for example, would have a better chance of successfully reproducing. In modern living conditions, though, excessive opportunities to fulfill these evolutionary drives can cause things to go haywire, leading to addictions.
A separate theory argues that some behaviors are simply more rewarding than others. Writing a symphony can take years, with little day-to-day reward. Shopping, though, offers the quick reward of a new electronic or piece of clothing. This rapid reward conditions the brain to seek out similar rewards, thus increasing the likelihood of compulsive behavior.
It’s likely that a variety of factors conspire to yield behavioral addictions. People are more likely to become addicts when someone else in their family is an addict, when they’re under stress, when they have a previous history of addiction, or when they’ve suffered a recent loss.
Signs of a Behavioral Addiction
Many behavioral addictions involve behaviors that are impossible or impractical to avoid, such as shopping or having sex. Unlike people who use illegal drugs, then, people with behavioral addictions can make a compelling case that their behavior is normal and that they’re not addicts. This challenge is further compounded by the fact that there’s no universal line that draws the boundaries between a healthy behavior and an addictive one.
The best way to determine whether you’re an addict is to evaluate the impact your behavior has on your life. If you’ve experienced serious negative consequences – such as going into debt due to shopping or getting an STD after having unprotected sex with a stranger – but persist with the problematic behavior, you likely have a behavioral addiction. Some other signs of a behavioral addiction include:
- Only being able to enjoy yourself when you’re engaged in the addictive behavior.
- Needing bigger and more frequent fixes. A sex addict, for example, might gradually escalate until he’s having sex many times every day.
- Feeling anxious when you can’t indulge your addiction.
- Lying to others about your addiction. For example, you might lie about how frequently you gamble or hide purchases from your spouse.
- Using your addiction to cope with mental or physical pain. People under immense stress, as well as those with mental and physical illnesses, may develop behavioral addictions to cope.
- Breaking the law or endangering yourself to indulge your addiction.
- Experiencing financial problems because of your addiction. Going into debt to shop or gamble, or an unplanned pregnancy due to ill-advised sex, can indicate you have an addiction.
Treatment for Behavioral Addictions
Once you’re addicted to a behavior, the addiction functions in almost exactly the same way as a drug or alcohol addiction. The only difference is that behavioral addicts do not experience traditional withdrawal. They may, however, experience psychological withdrawal – intense emotional distress when they can no longer indulge their addiction.
There are several treatment options for behavioral addiction, including:
- Sometimes depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions play contributing roles in the development of behavioral addictions; treating these underlying conditions can help.
- Through therapy you can gain an understanding of why you have an addiction, devise strategies for resisting temptation, and address any precipitating causes of the addiction.
- Inpatient or outpatient rehab. These programs offer comprehensive treatment, including group and individual therapy, peer support, and medical care. For addicts who have previously relapsed or who doubt their ability to quit, rehab is often the best option.
- Support groups. 12-step programs such as Overeaters Anonymous have effectively helped many people kick behavioral addictions. While the 12-step model is the most popular one, some programs offer a different approach.
Behavioral addictions are true addictions, and will not get better on their own. For most addicts, trying to avoid the addictive behavior gives rise to intense distress, and can even cause the addict to start abusing drugs or alcohol. With professional help, support groups, or a combination of the two, though, behavioral addicts can kick the habit for good. Even when the addiction is something you have to do sometimes, like shopping, proper treatment makes it possible to resist temptation.