Breaking Down the Science of Behavioral Addictions

Behavioral addictions, a subset of addiction disorders, have recently become a subject of increasing interest and concern. Unlike substance-related addictions, behavioral addictions center on compulsive engagement in certain activities, leading to negative consequences in one’s life.

These addictions trigger the release of neurotransmitters, generating feelings of pleasure and reward, reinforcing the behavior. Gradually, individuals may find it challenging to control their impulses, negatively affecting their mental, emotional, and social well-being.

Understanding the nature of behavioral addictions is crucial to develop effective intervention strategies and support for those grappling with these complex disorders.

Key Takeaways

Co-occurring mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, or impulse control disorders, may increase the risk of developing behavioral addictions.

  • Despite negative consequences, behavioral addictions are non-substance-related compulsive behaviors that individuals cannot control.
  • Common behavioral addictions include gambling, the internet, gaming, shopping, exercise, and sex.
  • Identifying triggers and developing coping strategies are crucial in preventing relapses and managing behavioral addictions effectively.

Contact The Recovery Team  (800) 817-1247 for personalized treatment services to achieve long-term recovery and growth.

How Behavioral Addictions Develop

Behavioral or process addictions can develop gradually, and several factors contribute.

Here are some key factors and steps involved in the development of behavioral addictions:

Reward and Reinforcement: Behavioral addictions often start with engaging in a particular behavior that provides a pleasurable or rewarding experience. The brain’s reward system is activated, releasing neurotransmitters like dopamine, which creates a positive association with the behavior.

Escapism and Coping Mechanisms: People may use certain behaviors to escape stress, negative emotions, or life challenges. The temporary relief or distraction provided by the behavior can reinforce its repetition.

Tolerance and Escalation: Over time, individuals may need more of the behavior to achieve the same level of satisfaction or reward. This is known as tolerance, and it can lead to an escalation in the frequency or intensity of the behavior.

Cravings and Obsession: As the behavior becomes more ingrained, individuals may experience intense cravings or urges to engage in the activity. These cravings can lead to a preoccupation with the behavior, making it difficult for individuals to focus on other aspects of their lives.

Loss of Control: With continued engagement in the behavior, individuals may find it increasingly challenging to control their impulses. They may have unsuccessful attempts to cut down or stop the behavior.

Negative Consequences: Despite experiencing negative consequences, such as damaged relationships, financial problems, or declining physical or mental health, individuals may continue to engage in the behavior due to the powerful reinforcement and compulsive nature of the addiction.

Emotional Regulation: Behavioral addictions can serve as a way to cope with emotional distress or fill a void in one’s life. The behavior becomes a means of regulating emotions, further reinforcing its persistence.

Environmental and Social Factors: Environmental cues and social influences can also play a role in developing behavioral addictions. Peer pressure, cultural norms, and easy access to addictive behavior can contribute to its continuation.

Genetic and Biological Predisposition: Some individuals may have a genetic or biological predisposition to developing behavioral addictions. Certain personality traits, such as impulsivity or sensation-seeking tendencies, might also increase the risk.

Common Behavioral Addictions

Behavioral or non-substance addictions can be just as detrimental to a person’s life as substance addictions.

Here are some common types of behavioral addictions:

Gambling Addiction

Gambling addiction, also called pathological gambling or gambling disorder, is a condition where individuals struggle to control their urge to gamble. Whether it involves casinos, lotteries, sports betting, or online gambling, placing bets becomes compulsive, leading to significant personal, financial, and social problems.

Individuals suffering from gambling addiction may continue to gamble even when aware of the negative consequences, such as debt, relationship issues, and loss of employment.

Internet Addiction

With the increasing prevalence of the internet in modern society, internet addiction has become a significant concern. Internet addiction is characterized by excessive and compulsive Internet use, including social media, online gaming, online shopping, and browsing.

Individuals with internet addiction may neglect their responsibilities, relationships, and physical health due to their preoccupation with online activities. This addiction can lead to social isolation, anxiety, depression, and even physical health problems due to sedentary behaviors.

Sex Addiction

Sex addiction, hypersexuality, or compulsive sexual behavior is an intense obsession with sexual thoughts, fantasies, and behaviors. Individuals with sex addiction may engage in excessive pornography consumption, promiscuity, anonymous sexual encounters, or compulsive masturbation.

This addiction can lead to broken relationships, emotional distress, and risky sexual behaviors that increase the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or unwanted pregnancies.

Shopping Addiction

Shopping addiction, also called compulsive buying disorder, is characterized by an irresistible urge to shop excessively and impulsively. Individuals with this addiction often experience a rush of pleasure or relief when purchasing, followed by guilt, regret, or financial distress.

Shopping addiction can lead to financial difficulties, accumulating large debts, and hoarding behaviors as individuals struggle to control their impulses.

Food Addiction

Food addiction, sometimes called binge eating disorder or compulsive overeating, involves a problematic relationship with food. Individuals with this addiction may consume large amounts of food even when not physically hungry, often experiencing guilt, shame, and loss of control.

Research claims that food addiction can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other health complications, negatively impacting a person’s self-esteem and mental health.

Video Game Addiction

Video game addiction is a growing concern, particularly among young people. It involves an excessive and uncontrollable urge to play video games, often to the detriment of other important activities such as school, work, and social interactions.

Video game addicts may experience withdrawal symptoms, mood swings, and diminished interest in real-life activities. Long gaming hours can lead to sleep disturbances, academic or occupational underachievement, and physical health issues.

Difference Between Substance Abuse Addictions And Behavioral Addictions

Substance abuse addictions and behavioral addictions are two distinct types of addiction, but they share some similarities. The main difference between the two lies in the object of addiction and how it affects the brain and behavior.

Substance Abuse Addictions

Substance abuse addiction is when a person becomes dependent on and compulsively uses a substance, which has significant negative consequences on their physical, mental, and social well-being.

The most common substances involved in substance abuse addictions include illicit drugs like opioids, cocaine, heroin, and alcohol. These substances have psychoactive properties, directly affecting the brain’s chemistry, leading to altered perceptions, feelings of euphoria, and dependence.

Key characteristics of substance abuse addictions are:

  • Physical dependence: The body becomes tolerant to the substance, requiring higher doses to achieve the desired effect, and withdrawal symptoms occur when the substance is discontinued.
  • Psychological dependence: The individual experiences intense cravings and psychological reliance on the substance to cope with emotions or situations.
  • Neurochemical changes: Substance abuse alters the brain’s reward system, reinforcing addictive behavior.
  • Health risks: Prolonged substance abuse can lead to severe health issues, organ damage, and overdose.

Behavioral Addictions

Despite negative consequences, behavioral or process addictions involve compulsive engagement in certain activities or behaviors. Unlike substance abuse addictions, behavioral addictions do not involve ingesting substances, but they still affect the brain’s reward and pleasure centers similarly.

Key characteristics of behavioral addictions are:

Compulsive behavior: The individual is driven to engage in the behavior to obtain a “reward” or relief, even when it negatively impacts their life.

Neurobiological changes: Behavioral addictions can lead to changes in brain activity and neurochemicals, similar to substance addictions.

Psychological dependence: Like substance addictions, behavioral addictions can create strong cravings and a sense of dependence on the behavior.

Negative consequences: Behavioral addictions can harm relationships, careers, and overall well-being, similar to substance abuse addictions.

In both substance use disorder and behavioral addictions, seeking professional help from mental health professionals and support is crucial for recovery.

Addressing Behavioral Addictions

Addressing behavioral addictions requires a comprehensive approach focusing on the underlying psychological factors and behavioral patterns.

Here are some effective treatment methods:


Psychotherapy, or talk therapy or counseling, is vital in treating behavioral addictions. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most common therapeutic approaches. CBT helps individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns contributing to addictive behaviors.

It also teaches coping strategies and alternative behaviors to replace harmful habits. Therapists may also employ motivational interviewing techniques to increase an individual’s motivation to change and maintain progress.


In some cases, medications can help treat behavioral addictions. While no specific medications are approved for all behavioral addictions, some drugs used for other mental health conditions may be prescribed off-label.

For example, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have shown promise in reducing symptoms of compulsive gambling and other addictive behaviors. However, medication should always be combined with psychotherapy for optimal results.


For severe cases of behavioral addiction, residential rehabilitation or inpatient treatment programs may be necessary. These facilities offer a structured and supportive environment where clients can focus on their recovery without external triggers.

Rehabilitation programs often incorporate various therapeutic approaches, counseling sessions, group therapy, and skill-building workshops to help individuals and family members develop healthier coping mechanisms and build a strong support network.

Support Groups

Support groups play a crucial role in the recovery process for those struggling with behavioral addictions. These groups, such as Gamblers Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, provide a safe space for individuals to share their experiences, challenges, and successes.

Through mutual support and understanding, participants can find comfort and encouragement to overcome their addictive behaviors. Support groups offer a sense of belonging and help individuals realize they are not alone in their struggles.

What are the three main addictions?

The three main addictions are alcohol addiction, substance abuse (e.g., drugs), and nicotine addiction (smoking). These addictions can lead to severe physical and psychological dependency, negatively impacting an individual’s health, relationships, and overall well-being.

Seeking professional help and support is essential for those struggling with behavioral or drug addiction to break free from its grip and lead healthier lives.

What is one example of a behavioral addiction?

One example of a behavioral addiction is internet gaming disorder, characterized by excessive and compulsive gaming that interferes with daily responsibilities and activities. Individuals with this addiction may have difficulty controlling their gaming habits, negatively impacting their physical, mental, and social well-being.

How does a behavioral addiction differ from a substance addiction?

Behavioral addiction and substance addiction differ in their nature. While substance addiction involves the compulsive use of drugs or alcohol, behavioral addiction refers to compulsive engagement in certain activities or behaviors, such as gambling, gaming, shopping, or internet use.

Unlike substance addiction, behavioral addictions do not involve ingesting chemicals but still lead to similar negative consequences and disruptions in daily life. Both types of addiction can be debilitating and require intervention and treatment.

Reclaim Your Life With The Recovery Team

Embrace change and rediscover your true self with The Recovery Team. We offer residential programs and evidence-based approaches that equip you with the tools to conquer behavioral disorders and regain control of your life.

Our specialized gambling therapy addresses the root causes of gambling addiction, helping you break free from destructive patterns. Our CBT therapy unravels the intricate connections between thoughts, feelings, and actions, identifying false beliefs and triggers and guiding clients toward alternative, healthier coping mechanisms.

Furthermore, our group therapy session creates a supportive community, eliminating isolation and fostering a strong sense of belonging to a healthier and happier life. Take the first step toward freedom and sobriety. Contact us at (800) 817-1247 today.