Behavioral addictions, like substance addictions, are real and wreak havoc in the lives of sufferers. These types of addictions develop from compulsive and unhealthy preoccupations with such things as gambling, relationships, love, sex, food, technology (games/cell phones/computers), shopping, and debt. The term behavioral addiction can be broadly applied to any chronic, compulsive behavior that causes distress but that does not involve the taking of a chemical substance. As with addiction to substances, behavioral addiction is a family disease, affecting those close to the addict. Behavioral addictions are beginning to be recognized by the scientific community as prevalent and as destructive as substance addictions.
Difference between habit and addiction Everyone has habits. Some are good, some are not, but it’s important to distinguish between even bad habits and addictions. Simply because a person persists in an activity does not necessarily mean that person is in the grip of addictive behavior. For instance, a person might have a very legitimate reason for working on the computer for hours at a time. On the other hand, if that same person stays up late playing online video games and is unable to get up in the morning for work, then that’s a problem. Even then, though, the behavior may not be genuinely addictive. Most of us go overboard at one time or another on some activity or other. For instance, after gaining weight, we might decide we must get back into shape – and quickly! So we jump into an overly ambitious exercise regimen that wears us out and maybe even results in injury. The non-addict recognizes they have overdone it, and they scale back or stop. But the person for whom exercise has become an addiction doesn’t slow down. They keep pounding away at their bodies despite signs they are doing themselves harm. In the same way, people go on diets all the time, but the addict takes it to the extreme, to the point that they are hurting themselves. A person can — though often with some difficulty — stop a habit using their own willpower. These non-addicts have the ability to make a choice. But the person in the grip of addiction loses the ability to choose or to control. It is not longer within their power to stop.
A habit is a repeated action or behavior, and often is unconscious. It is something an individual does over and over again to the point it becomes logged in the brain. Yet even though the behavior may become automatic, if the person can exert control over it, then it’s not yet an addiction. An addiction, on the other hand, is a mental disease that is characterized by continued involvement with an activity, chemical or substance despite ongoing negative consequences. When someone suffers from an addiction, they cannot control their compulsion, no matter how hard they try or how determined they are to stop. An addiction is a physical and mental condition. Even though the person may recognize the devastating effects of their addiction, they do not have it in their power to stop.
Addictive process An addictive behavior enhances a person’s mood or emotional state, creating a euphoric feeling, similar to what a drug addict experiences. And as with the drug addict, this euphoria has a physical basis, the result of serotonin or Adrenalin released in the brain when the behavior addict engages in an addictive activity. A behavior addict can experience the same type of obsession with food or sex as a drug addict does with heroin. Like the drug addict, the behavior addict may become so preoccupied – so obsessed — with this activity that it will begin to take over the person’s life, pushing to the side concerns for family and work, for instance. What is notable too is that the activity is pursued in the face of evidence that it is causing repeated harm to the person and to those around them. No one – including those in the medical profession — knows for sure what causes a person to become an addict. There are influencing factors such as a person’s mental state, social status, and upbringing. It is widely accepted that there is a genetic component to addiction. Having one or both parents as addicts statistically predisposes a person to addiction. Of course, in many families where one or both parents suffer the disease of addiction, there are children who never develop into addicts. The point is that the process of addiction, whether for substances or behaviors, is complex. Yet in both categories of addiction, the person’s brain reward center is stimulated each time they repeat the behavior or use the chemical. When stimulated, the brain releases feel-good chemicals into the system. Seeking to experience these same feelings leads the addict to the activity again and again, regardless of consequences. This compulsion is so overwhelming that it overrides a person’s best instincts, even the instinct of survival. Even sufferers who have reached the point where they recognize they have a problem and want to stop find they have lost control. Meanwhile, those around them are baffled by behavior that is so clearly destructive and self-defeating. In anonymous fellowships this is called “chasing the high,” whether the pursuit of that feeling of euphoria comes from hitting the roulette table or having a hit of heroin.
Most behaviors that turn into compulsions are integral parts of the human experience. We eat to sustain ourselves; we go to work to earn money to support our families and ourselves. Meanwhile, being in a relationship with another and engaging in sex are normal parts of life. All these activities, in their proper place, bring us pleasure and satisfaction. But with behavior addicts these activities become compulsions, something they are driven to do repeatedly. The behavior takes over their lives. The job or the relationship becomes all consuming, pushing out other interests. The addict submerges himself in the activity. It dominates his thoughts and takes up his time and energy. For a behavior like gambling, the consequences can come fast and furious. The gambling addict can bankrupt himself, of course, but may also lose his job and thus any chance of digging himself out of the financial hole he’s put himself and his family in. Yet despite the mayhem and destruction, he will continue gambling because his mad obsession has him in its grip and tells him that the next time his bet will pay off. In 12 Step programs, diseases of addiction are properly labeled as forms of insanity, with insanity defined as repeating the same behavior and each time expecting different results. Any activity, object, or behavior that has become the major focus of a person’s life to the exclusion of other activities, or that has begun to harm the individual or others physically, mentally, or socially is considered an addictive behavior. A person can become addicted, dependent, or compulsively obsessed with just about anything. Some researchers note similarities between physical addiction to various chemicals, such as alcohol and heroin, and psychological dependence to activities such as compulsive gambling, sex, work, exercise, shopping, or eating disorders. It is thought that these behavior activities may produce beta-endorphins in the brain, which make the person feel “high.” Some experts suggest that if a person continues to engage in the activity to achieve this feeling of well-being and euphoria, that person may be entering into an addictive cycle. If this is the case, the person becomes physically addicted to the brain chemicals, to the beta-endorphins. In one example, people commonly refer to the feeling of well-being that follows exercise as a “runner’s high.” This is a natural benefit of doing something that benefits a person’s health. But for those predisposed to addictive behavior, a positive activity like exercise can become obsessive and self-destructive. The behavior addict doesn’t know when to stop, and then they reach a point where they can’t stop.
Addictions to substances such as alcohol, heroin, or barbiturates have a psychological component. Everyone has heard of the heroin addict who searches for the next hit as the previous one wears off, and who suffers terrible physical withdrawal symptoms when unable to get it. It’s the same with the alcoholic who craves a drink the morning after the end of a binge. Yet these same addicts can crave a drug or a drink after years of abstinence. The idea of the substance still has a hold on them. This is the psychological dependence of addiction, and it underlies the strength of behavioral addictions to take over a person’s life. For this reason, some researchers argue we need to look at both physical and psychological dependencies upon a variety of substances, activities, and behaviors as an addictive process and as addictive behaviors. The contention of these researchers is that substance addictions and behavioral addictions have a host of commonalities, and that they shouldn’t be segregated from each other.
If you are in crisis, please call the Crisis Connections line at 866-427-4747. If this is a medical emergency call 911 immediately or go to the nearest hospital Emergency Room.