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What is Behavioral Addiction?

Young woman with behavioral addiction

Behavioral addiction is a mental health condition in which a person engages in a particular behavior repeatedly; even if the behavior causes them harm—it may seem as if they simply cannot resist engaging in it. Common behavioral addictions—also known as process addictions—include gambling addiction, shopping addiction, hoarding, and kleptomania (impulsive stealing). While the compulsivity associated with behavioral addictions may seem uncontrollable, treatment options are available to those who suffer from them.

What Factors Contribute to a Behavioral Addiction?

A number of factors contribute to the development of behavioral addictions, including personality, substance abuse, and genetics. For example, you may have heard the term “addictive personality” in the context of addiction, treatment, and recovery. While no clinical criteria define an addictive personality, research has shown that people who suffer from substance abuse or behavioral addictions tend to share common personality traits.1 For instance, people who score high on personality and behavior assessments for impulsivity and sensation-seeking are more likely to suffer from a process addiction.1 Similarly, people who score low on harm-avoidance are also more likely to suffer from a behavioral addiction.1

Individual behavioral addictions are more common in people with a specific set of personality traits. For instance, a person who scores high in harm-avoidance and shows traits of psychoticism, interpersonal conflict, and self-directedness may be more likely to suffer from internet addiction.1 People who score high on impulsivity (an inhibition of motor activity) are more likely to suffer from active behavioral addictions, such as skin-picking or hair-pulling (trichotillomania).1

Another factor that may contribute to a behavioral addiction is substance abuse. Researchers have studied in depth the relationship between substance abuse and gambling disorder, showing that addictive gamblers are approximately 3.8 times more likely to have an alcohol use disorder.1 However, it is unclear whether a gambling addiction makes someone more likely to engage in substance abuse, if substance abuse increases the risk of developing a gambling addiction, or if the two conditions are caused by some other, unknown factor.

Genetics is another important factor that influences whether or not someone will develop a behavioral addiction. If you have a first-degree relative (such as a parent or sibling) who suffers from a process addiction, you are at increased risk of suffering from either a behavioral or substance addiction yourself.1 A study of identical and fraternal twins revealed that genes are responsible for 12–20% of the risk of gambling addiction, and environmental factors account for 3–8% of the risk.1 Further research has shown that 64% of the risk of developing both a gambling addiction and an alcohol use disorder is attributable to genetics.1 More research is required to identify whether genes play a role in the risk of other behavioral addictions.

Research has shown that urge-driven disorders, such as gambling addiction and kleptomania, trigger the release of extra dopamine, which causes feelings of pleasure.The factors that contribute to the onset of a behavioral addiction are unique to each person, which makes predicting behavioral addiction nearly impossible. However, what is clear is that when you continue to engage in the maladaptive behaviors associated with behavioral addiction, your brain is rewarded each time, which makes the addiction increasingly more difficult to overcome.

Research has shown that urge-driven disorders, such as gambling addiction and kleptomania, trigger the release of extra dopamine, which causes feelings of pleasure.1 Therefore, every time you engage in that behavior, your brain receives a pleasurable jolt of dopamine.1 Unfortunately, the brain becomes reliant on the behavior in order to feel that heightened sense of reward.1 A relative decline in these dopamine surges can leave you with feelings that resemble depression, which might further compel you to engage in the addictive behavior once again to feel good, further reinforcing the cycle of addiction.

Signs of Behavioral Addiction

Young woman showing signs of behavioral addictionThe most recent version of the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists only one behavioral addiction (gambling disorder), three behavioral compulsions (hoarding disorder, trichotillomania, and excoriation), and one impulse-control disorder (kleptomania).2 However, all behavioral addictions have common traits, such as:1

  • Preoccupation with the behavior.
  • Diminished ability to control the behavior.
  • Building up a tolerance to the behavior so the behavior is needed more often or in greater intensity to get the desired gratification.
  • Experiencing withdrawal if the behavior is avoided or resisted.
  • Experiencing adverse psychological consequences, such as depression or anxiety symptoms, when the behavior is avoided or resisted.

Mental health professionals and addiction experts continue to debate the existence of and diagnostic criteria for other behavioral addictions such as sex, gaming, internet, and porn addiction, but evidence is mounting to support their validity as a diagnosable addiction.

Types of Behavioral Addictions

According to the DSM-5, gambling disorder is characterized by a persistent and recurrent gambling behavior that leads to personal distress and problems in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning.2 You may be suffering from a gambling disorder if you meet four or more of the following criteria during a 12-month period:2

  • A need to gamble with increasing amounts of money to feel excited
  • Restlessness or irritability when trying to restrict or cut back on gambling
  • Repeated unsuccessful attempts to control, stop, or reduce gambling behaviors
  • A mental preoccupation with gambling, such as thinking of ways to get gambling money or reliving past gambling experiences
  • Gambling to relieve stress
  • Returning to gambling after significant monetary losses, especially with the intention of gaining back losses
  • Lying to conceal gambling activity, involvement, or debts
  • Jeopardizing relationships, jobs, or education for the sake of gambling
  • Relying on others to get out of desperate financial situations caused by gambling

Hoarding disorder and trichotillomania are behavioral addictions that are classified in the DSM-5 as obsessive-compulsive disorders. Hoarding is a persistent difficulty in parting with physical possessions, regardless of its value, the space one has, the need for money, a safe living environment, or other resources.2  Hoarding is sometimes associated with a shopping addiction, though there is no official diagnosis for shopping addiction in the DSM-5.

Trichotillomania is another process addiction that is labeled as an obsessive-compulsive disorder.2  Trichotillomania is the compulsion to pull out your own hair, which often results in hair loss and significant social or occupational functioning.2 Similarly, excoriation is a skin-picking disorder in which you compulsively pick at your skin until lesions form.2 Excoriation causes significant impairment in day-to-day functioning because you are unable to stop the behavior.2

Kleptomania—the impulse to steal items—is classified in the DSM-5 as an impulse-control disorder and is defined as the recurrent failure to resist stealing objects, especially objects that are not necessary for use or monetary gain.2 If you suffer from kleptomania, you will experience tension right before stealing, followed by relief and pleasure immediate afterward.2

While gaming, internet, porn, sex, food, and shopping addictions are not officially APA-verified conditions, many experts believe that they should be included in the DSM. Researchers are continuing to work on developing standard criteria for identifying these other behavioral addictions. And, although these addictions are not included in the DSM-5, many reputable inpatient, outpatient, individual, and group treatment options for these behavioral addictions are available.

Treatment Programs for Behavioral Addiction

Man in therapy for behavioral addiction treatmentBehavioral addiction treatment and rehabilitation presents a challenge in many cases because, unlike treatment for drugs or alcohol, abstinence can be impossible. For example, a person who is addicted to overeating cannot cut food out of their life. For this reason, some types of behavioral addiction treatment programs focus primarily on rehabilitation and recovery rather than detoxification or abstinence.

  • Behavioral addiction residential treatment programs address the underlying psychological issues that led you to develop the process addiction. These programs often follow the same structure as substance abuse treatment programs, including 12-step programs, motivational enhancement, and cognitive behavioral therapies that have proven successful at treating behavioral addictions.1 These treatment programs focus on helping you develop healthier ways of dealing with life and daily stressors.
  • In addition to residential programs, outpatient behavioral addiction treatment is another option for those struggling with these conditions. Outpatient therapy involves visiting a treatment facility or medical professional on a daily or weekly basis during the beginning stages of treatment. As you begin to feel more control over your behavioral addiction, treatment may become less frequent. Outpatient treatment usually involves a maintenance period in which you visit twice monthly or once per month to receive supportive ongoing care.
  • During individual or one-on-one counseling, you meet privately with a behavioral health counselor who is trained in behavioral addiction therapy. Sessions focus on identifying the emotional issues and underlying causes of the behavioral addiction, which can include trauma therapy, if applicable. One-on-one counseling offers you a chance to privately voice concerns that may otherwise be uncomfortable to talk about with others in a group setting.
  • In many behavioral addiction treatment programs, therapy is based on the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) model. CBT focuses on eliminating unhealthy or negative behaviors by replacing them with positive, healthier options. This form of treatment teaches new behavioral patterns as well, but the focus is usually on the motivations behind the behavior rather than the physical actions themselves. One of the main goals of CBT is to change or modify the thought processes that led to the behavioral addiction.
  • Another treatment option is group therapy in which you attend a session that at least two other patients and one behavioral health counselor are present. Group therapy allows you to share common experiences and understand that you are not alone in the addiction and recovery process. During group therapy sessions, the therapist may lead your group in a focused topic or leave the topic of discussion up to the group members. Common topics in group sessions include denial, legal problems, relationship problems, work problems, health issues, financial struggles, identity crises, and stress.
  • Similar to group therapy, 12-step recovery programs provide a structured framework for working through behavioral addiction problems while having the support of others who have gone through similar experiences. Some 12-step programs have religious undertones and require participants to admit that they do not have control over their addictions. Non-12-step programs follow a similar structured framework, but exclude any religious affiliation and emphasize taking personal accountability for one’s addiction. Non-12-step, 12-step, and group therapy programs are excellent options for long-term recovery because they offer built-in support from people who understand how hard overcoming addiction can be.
  • The type of behavioral addiction treatment program you need will depend on your specific addiction. For example, a gambling addiction requires abstinence as part of the treatment program, while overeating requires relearning behaviors so that you can modify negative patterns and engage in healthy eating. The staff at the facility you choose will assess your situation and your addiction, and then determine the most effective behavioral addiction treatment for your unique circumstances.

Several different types of behavioral addiction treatment facilities are available, including state-funded, nonprofit, and privately owned rehabilitation facilities. All facilities, no matter how they are funded, must comply with patient privacy rights under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA).3

The decision about which type of treatment facility to choose depends on whether you plan to use health insurance, where you are located, where you want to complete your treatment, and what sort of addiction you are working to overcome. Some treatment facilities specialize in one particular kind of addiction (such as gambling addiction), while others offer various programs or an all-inclusive program to treat people with a variety of different addiction struggles. You can also choose from inpatient and outpatient programs, or a sequential combination of both.

Ideally, people suffering from behavioral addiction will receive multiple forms of treatment. For example, in an inpatient setting, you participate in one-on-one therapy sessions, group therapy, skills building activities, and coping skills development. This diverse therapeutic approach offers the greatest chance of success in beating a behavioral addiction.

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