Behavioural Addiction

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Behavioural Addiction

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Most of us have heard of substance addiction at some point in our lives, even if we only have a vague understanding of what it is and the type of challenges that those suffering from alcohol or drug abuse issues frequently face.

However, various behaviours are also considered addictive by some experts, although information and awareness around these disorders are wildly deficient and controversial in some mental health circles.

Much debate exists around behavioural addictions, particularly within various mental health communities where many disagree on whether they are ‘real’ addictions.

This has posed various diagnostic and treatment challenges for those who suffer from behavioural addiction; for instance, gambling disorder is currently the only officially recognised behavioural addiction included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

There is insufficient data for other proposed behavioural addictions, such as sex addiction and gaming disorder, to justify their inclusion in the DSM-5 and within the diagnostic process at this time. 

A call for increased research and awareness across all communities and cultures about behavioural addiction will hopefully, over time, help individuals better recognise the condition in themselves or a loved one and allow them to access the professional treatment and support they need.

Here, we will explore behavioural addictions, the different types, and some of the effective treatment options that can help.

What is meant by behavioural addiction?

UK Addiction Treatment Centres (UKAT) defines behavioural addiction, sometimes called process addiction or impulse control disorder, in the following way:

“Behavioural addiction involves an individual compulsively engaging in specific behaviours or activities that cause significant damage to their physical, emotional, or financial well-being.”

As mentioned, addiction is not a foreign concept to most people. The condition is often discussed in the news, social media, leaflets, and television advertisements.

Moreover, substance addiction appears more comprehensible for most people to digest than ‘seemingly’ everyday behaviours or activities that can become addictive if taken to an unhealthy extreme.

Drug, alcohol, prescription medication, and nicotine addictions are prevalent and affect many of the world’s population. 

You may have even come across television campaigns warning the public about the adverse effects of smoking and drinking, and this is all good stuff; information and awareness are much needed to encourage people to stop or reduce their substance use. 

Yet, it is also possible for people to develop an addiction to specific behaviours, including sex, shopping, gaming, and internet use. 

However, information and awareness around the effects of these behaviours are more challenging to come by, while those affected continue to suffer, mostly in silence.

Researchers have noted how important it is for people to be aware of the difference between addictive behaviours, problematic behaviours and normal behaviours that are not problematic. It can be challenging to distinguish between them as so many of the behaviours associated with behavioural addiction are ordinary everyday activities that most of us regularly engage in, like shopping, eating, and using the internet. 

How do we know if we’ve crossed the line from ‘normal’ into problematic or addictive behaviour? 

Well, there are some specific signs and symptoms that are consistent with behavioural addiction, most of which can also be found in drug or alcohol use disorders.

For example, you may find you’ve become dependent on a specific behaviour (like gaming or gambling) to help you cope with difficult or painful emotions or to ‘feel normal’, have trouble stopping a certain behaviour or cutting back, and spend most of your time thinking about the behaviour, engaging in it, or recovering from its effects. 

In that case, you may be suffering from a behavioural addiction.

What are the different types of behavioural addiction?

Behavioural addiction comes in various forms and, much like substance addiction, is often a coping mechanism individuals use to relieve or numb painful emotions and feelings. 

The need to escape or avoid one’s problems is an inherent factor in all addictions, whether through drinking, drug-taking, or gambling.

Although many behaviours can lead to addiction, there are some process or behavioural addictions that are more common than others, including:

  • Gambling addiction – involves compulsive gambling, such as spending large quantities of money on bets, sports, poker, casino games, and races. The ‘high’ people experience when gambling often induces feelings of euphoria and is one of the reasons they keep playing even when it is no longer rewarding.  
  • Internet addiction – can cause a person to lose control over the amount of time they spend online. Studies show those with internet addiction are at higher risk of developing other behavioural addictions, including porn and gaming addiction.
  • Work addiction – research shows that around five to ten per cent of the population struggles with work addiction, sometimes called workaholism. Women are more likely to struggle with work addiction than men, affecting around one-quarter of female employees. Like substance addiction, individuals experience a ‘high’ from working and may continue engaging in this behaviour despite any adverse consequences.
  • Video game addiction – involves playing video games excessively to the extent that you neglect other areas of your life, including friends, family, work, school, and self-care. Video game addiction is the compulsive or uncontrolled use of video games that can cause various complications in a person’s life, such as relationship problems, poor school grades, job loss, and physical and mental health issues.
  • Sex addiction – involves compulsively engaging in sexual acts despite adverse consequences or effects. Sex addiction is not classified within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). However, it has been classified as ‘compulsive sexual behaviour disorder’ by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
  • Food addiction – is a chronic mental health disorder involving the compulsive urge to consume large amounts of unhealthy foods. Those with food addiction tend to consume more junk food than people who do not have the condition, including sugary, salty, high-fat foods and drinks. Certain foods can trigger ‘feel-good chemicals’ in the brain, making people want to repeat this behaviour. 
  • Porn addiction – is an emotional dependence on pornography that leads to impaired functioning in an individual’s life, including their everyday routines, and relationships. Individuals with porn addiction may neglect essential tasks and responsibilities to watch porn, spend vast amounts of money on pornography, and use porn to cope with sadness, stress, or anxiety.
  • Shopping addiction – involves compulsively buying items or products you often can’t afford and usually don’t need. Individuals with shopping addiction compulsively buy items to make themselves feel better and to avoid complicated feelings such as depression and anxiety. Shopping addiction can become a preoccupation that takes over a person’s life, leading to various issues at work, in relationships, and with personal finances. 
  • Social media addiction – involves being obsessed with social media to the extent that it becomes an unhealthy habit. Individuals with social media addiction have an extreme compulsion to log in or use social media. They may devote much time to checking their social media accounts and spend extended periods online. Studies show that social media addiction mainly affects young people and adolescents. For example, one study showed that around forty per cent of US youth aged eighteen to twenty-two reported feeling addicted to social media.

Signs and symptoms of behavioural addiction

If you think you or a loved one may have a behavioural addiction, you must know the signs and symptoms to get the treatment and support you need and deserve.

Although each behavioural addiction has its own symptoms, understanding the addictive process and the red flags can help you determine whether or not you have a problem. 

Some of these red flags include the following:

  • Continuing to engage in a specific behaviour despite adverse consequences or effects.
  • Being unable to cut back despite wanting to stop the behaviour.
  • Neglecting other areas of your life to engage in the behaviour, including school, work, and social life.
  • Spending most of your time engaging in the behaviour, thinking about and organising ways to engage in the behaviour, and recovering from the effects of the behaviour.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when attempting to cut back or stop the behaviour, including anxiety, depression, and irritability.
  • Depending on the behaviour to feel ‘normal’ or manage difficult emotions.
  • Covering up or minimising the extent of the problem, such as lying to friends and family about how the behaviour might be affecting you or denying that you have a problem at all.

Reaching out for help and support

If you think you or a loved one may have a behavioural addiction, you might find it helpful to consult a mental health professional for further advice and support.

Early treatment can help you avoid some of the long-term effects of behavioural addiction and can improve treatment outcomes for many. 

What causes behavioural addiction?

Like substance addiction, it can be difficult to pinpoint an exact cause for behavioural addiction.

However, researchers noted some factors could put people at higher risk of developing behavioural addiction, including:

  • Genetics
  • Family history
  • Having another mental health condition such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder 
  • Environmental factors and personal circumstances
  • Certain personality traits, like impulsivity


Behavioural addiction can cause various complications in a person’s life, often severely damaging their physical and emotional well-being. Complications arising from behavioural addiction may include the following:

  • Interpersonal relationship issues – individuals with a behavioural addiction may experience problems in their relationships, such as with friends, family, work colleagues, and the broader community, often due to profound mood changes or secretive behaviour.
  • Physical health problems – behavioural addiction can affect a person’s physical health and well-being, including heart problems, liver damage, and weight gain or loss. These health issues are often found in individuals with food addiction but can also be observed in other behavioural addictions.

    Other examples include those with video game addiction, who may develop health problems such as chronic back pain due to long hours spent sitting down while playing games or staying in the same position for long periods.

    Studies show that physical impairments resulting from video game addiction are common. These include arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome due to overusing the thumb when playing with control pads. These repetitive motions can put video game addicts at high risk for carpal tunnel syndrome and other physical ailments.
  • Financial problems – people with behavioural addictions, particularly gambling or shopping addictions, may find themselves racking up a lot of debt due to gambling away their cash or spending money on things they can’t afford.
  • Issues with mental health and well-being – studies show those with behavioural addictions are more likely to suffer from co-occurring disorders like depression and anxiety than those without.

Behavioural addiction treatment 

Although behavioural addiction is a complicated condition, various treatment options can help you get a handle on your symptoms, allowing you to find healthier, alternative ways of coping with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, or other problems holding you back or keeping you stuck.

Many of the treatments developed for substance addiction have been shown to be effective in treating the different types of behavioural addictions. 

Furthermore, despite any controversies surrounding behavioural addiction within various subsets of the mental health profession, experts are developing proficiencies to diagnose and treat the condition, with some clinics specialising in behavioural addiction treatment.

The most effective treatments for behavioural addiction include:

Many people with a behavioural addiction also have other mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and unresolved trauma. Integrated treatment programs for behavioural addiction should address and treat any underlying mental health disorders a person may have in order for treatment to be effective.

Most rehab centres provide dual diagnosis treatment for clients with addiction and co-occurring disorders, giving individuals a much better chance at lasting recovery.

Behavioural addiction treatment at Centres for Health and Healing

Centres for Health and Healing provide personalised addiction and mental health treatment to clients with substance and behavioural addictions in Ontario and surrounding regions.

Our experienced, professional team diagnoses and treats various behavioural addictions, including gambling, video game, work, food, and sex addictions and various substance use disorders such as alcohol and drug addiction.

In our experience, integrated treatment is the most effective and produces the best recovery outcomes for those in mental health and addiction treatment. 

Therefore, our treatment programs blend various therapeutic modalities and approaches to ensure you get the most out of your recovery.

With our strategic approach, mixed therapeutic methods, and decades of knowledge and experience, Centres for Health and Healing provide the setting, tools, and resources necessary for deep transformational healing and a lasting recovery from behavioural addiction.

Our behavioural addiction programs have a high success rate, with comprehensive aftercare and support programs to ensure each person continues receiving all the support and care they need after completing a program at our centre.

We understand that taking the first initial steps to treatment can be daunting for many. 

However, once you begin experiencing the benefits of treatment, you will feel more confident and relaxed about your decision.

To learn more about our behavioural addiction programs, please contact one of our friendly specialists for further advice and guidance.

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