What are behavioral addictions?

Traditionally, the term “addiction” has been applied to people whose drug or alcohol use has become a serious problem. But today, many mental health specialists agree that behaviors can be addictive, too. Treatments have been developed for sex addiction, gambling addiction, food addiction, and many others.

People also throw the word “addiction” around a lot in everyday conversation: “I’m so addicted to chocolate!” It can make it hard to understand where to draw the line between being addicted to something and just doing it a lot. Especially since most of these behaviors are fine in moderation—some are even healthy (like sex) or even necessary (like food)! So how can you tell when your behavior is becoming a problem?

Definition of behavioral addictions

There’s no single agreed-upon definition of behavioral addictions. But they’re generally defined similarly to drug and alcohol addictions. Here’s what you get if you take the definition of addiction and replace “drugs or alcohol” with another problem behavior:

  • You can’t stop doing it—at least not for long. You might try for a while, but you keep going back for more.
  • You can’t stop thinking about it. When you’re not doing it, you’re thinking about it. You might be willing to do extreme or dangerous things to keep doing it (like stealing money so that you can keep gambling, for example).
  • You have trouble managing your emotions. The behavior replaces your other coping skills. You become more sensitive to stress. You have a harder time identifying exactly what it is you’re feeling.
  • It interferes with your daily life or your relationships. Over time, your behavior gets more and more out of control. Your time and money go toward supporting your addiction in place of your other responsibilities. Other people start to become frustrated with your behavior.
  • You have less and less awareness of the negative consequences. The longer your behavior continues, the less you notice how it’s affecting you and the people around you. Even extremely severe negative consequences, like losing your job or failing classes, are not enough to motivate you to stop. Often other people notice that the behavior is a problem before you do.

What kinds of things can be addictive?

Addiction is a mental illness that involves the reward pathways of your brain. Anything that activates these reward pathways can become addictive. Some things, like sex and gambling, are more likely to do this than others. But really, pretty much anything that feels good can become addictive. It depends less on the behavior itself, and more on how that behavior makes you feel.

Behavioral addiction and other mental illnesses

Research shows that people who struggle with behavioral addictions are also more likely to be addicted to drugs or alcohol. Addiction treatment professionals sometimes talk about people substituting one addiction for another—maybe you stopped drinking, but you started overeating instead. Don’t get discouraged: recovering from one addiction actually makes you less likely to develop another addiction.

Many people who live with addiction also have at least one other type of mental illness. You might hear professionals call this dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders. Treatment for co-occurring disorders is most effective when it addresses each of the conditions rather than just focusing on one or the other. Fortunately, many of the treatments for addiction also address other mental illnesses, and vice versa.

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