Types of Behavioural Addictions and How to Recognise if You Have One

signs psychosis sad man by the stairs

If you’ve never experienced addiction first-hand, it can be difficult to imagine what it would feel like to be addicted to something.

Those who have never experienced addiction may question how hard it can be to give up drinking, drugs, or other harmful behaviours such as compulsive gambling or shopping. 

Surely it’s a case of simply not doing the ‘thing’ anymore, right?

In an ideal world, being able to give something up that easily would mean that a lot fewer people would be addicts, and rehab facilities would be a lot emptier.

Addiction is a complex disease

However, addiction is a complex disease, and healing involves much more than merely using willpower to abstain from harmful habits. 

For many, recovery is a lifelong process of developing healthier habits, cultivating new relationships, and addressing the underlying issues that may have led them to drugs, alcohol, gaming, or sex addiction in the first place.

As if all that’s not challenging enough, addiction is a highly stigmatised and profoundly misunderstood condition.

Even today, the term ‘addiction’ is often thought of as being only substance-related; these misconceptions can result in people not seeking professional care or treatment, despite needing it.

However, other harmful behaviours such as compulsive gambling, sex, food, and internet addictions can wreak as much havoc on individuals and their families as substance abuse and require complex treatment interventions to help people achieve sobriety and wellness.

This article explores the various types of behavioural addictions and their symptoms. 

If you’re concerned about yourself or a loved one and think you may have any of the symptoms mentioned in this article, please contact our friendly team for further advice and support.

Let’s dive in!

What are behavioural addictions?

Various descriptions of behavioural addictions exist, some more helpful than others!

However, behavioural addictions, sometimes called process addictions, follow a similar pattern to substance-based addictions, resulting in problems in many areas of a person’s life. (An Overview of Behavioural Addiction, Verywell Mind, Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD, September 17, 2020.)

Like substances, people can become addicted to a variety of behaviours, including sex, food, shopping, and gaming.

You may wonder how such activities can lead to addiction. However, many may be surprised to learn just how common normal everyday behaviours can become harmful or addictive.

It’s okay to indulge in the odd shopping spree now and then, enjoy an extra helping of dessert after dinner, or play the lottery occasionally.

However, the key word here is ‘occasionally’. 

When the cycle of addiction takes over

Psychologists explain that when the cycle of addiction takes over, everyday life can become a struggle. 

Individuals may seek out opportunities to engage more and more in a particular behaviour to experience the ‘high’ or euphoria associated with these experiences, despite any harmful or adverse consequences. (An Overview of Behavioural Addiction, Verywell Mind, Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, Ph.D., September 17, 2020.)

Like substance addiction, when a person abstains from a specific behaviour, such as gaming or gambling, they may experience withdrawal symptoms such as low mood, severe agitation, and other negative emotions.

What are the different types of behavioural addictions?

There’s been much debate about whether behavioural addictions are ‘real’ addictions within the mental health profession.

Gambling disorder is the only official behavioural addiction classified within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

However, although not currently classified in the DSM-5, other process or behavioural addictions are becoming more widely accepted by mental health professionals.

cfhh behavioural addiction internet

Common behavioural addictions include the following:

How will I know if I have a behavioural addiction?

Various telltale signs may help you identify a behavioural addiction in yourself or someone close to you.

Although each person may experience symptoms differently, there are some common signs and symptoms of behavioural addiction, including:

  • Intense cravings or a strong urge to engage in a particular behaviour
  • Relying on the behaviour to manage stress or deal with complicated feelings and emotions
  • Becoming angry or defensive when others question the behaviour
  • Having trouble cutting back or quitting the behaviour
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when stopping the behaviour, such as depression, anxiety, or agitation
  • Spending most of your time engaging in the behaviour, thinking about it, or recovering from the effects of the behaviour
  • Neglecting work, school, family, or friends to engage more frequently in the behaviour
  • Not being able to stop the behaviour and continuing despite harmful consequences to your health and relationships
  • Hiding how often you engage in a particular behaviour and minimising the extent of the problem 
  • Engaging in the behaviour to ‘feel normal’. 

A brief overview of the most common behavioural addictions

Behavioural addictions are not as talked about or widely accepted as substance-based addictions. However, that doesn’t mean their effects are less debilitating or devastating, particularly for those directly impacted.

That said, learning more about behavioural addictions and how these conditions present themselves can be helpful. So let’s look at a few of the most common behavioural addictions in more detail.

Gambling disorder

As mentioned, gambling disorder is formally recognised as a behavioural addiction by mental health professionals.

Studies show that around 2.6 per cent of the US population struggles with gambling addiction. In addition, men are more likely to develop an addiction to gambling than women, with a ratio of around 3:1. 

Gambling disorder involves a pattern of compulsive gambling that worsens over time.

professional gambler

Individuals with a gambling disorder may accrue substantial gambling debts, borrow money from friends and family without ever giving it back and gamble away valuable assets to sustain their habit.

It’s common for those with a gambling disorder to chase the euphoria or ‘high’ of gambling or placing bets, often the riskier the better, believing they will win or come up trumps.

Unfortunately, many with gambling addiction often lose far more than they gain, including money, valuables, jobs, and relationships.

Sex addiction

Much controversy surrounds sex addiction. 

In fact, the condition has been excluded from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. However, sex addiction is still discussed and written about within various subsets of the mental health profession.

Sex addiction is “the compulsive need to perform sexual acts to achieve the kind of ‘fix’ that a person with an alcohol use disorder gets from a drink or someone with an opioid use disorder gets from using opiates.” (Sex Addiction, Healthline, Mara Tyler, July 26, 2018.)

A person with a sex addiction may change their life and routines to be able to perform sexual acts numerous times a day and be unable to control their behaviour, despite the severe adverse consequences. (Sex Addiction, Healthline, Mara Tyler, July 26, 2018).

The symptoms of sex addiction are varied but may include the following:

  • An inability to control or stop the behaviours
  • Constant, obsessive sexual fantasies and thoughts
  • Risky behaviours such as putting yourself or others in danger due to specific sexual behaviour or acts
  • Feeling guilty or regretful after sex
  • Sex with multiple partners, including strangers
  • Preoccupation with having sex, despite any disruption this may cause, such as to your work, home life, and daily routines. 

Video game addiction

It’s common for people to enjoy playing video games as they can be a fun source of entertainment and a way to interact with friends and other online gamers.

However, for many people, playing video games can be used as a coping mechanism to avoid dealing with deeper, underlying issues, similar to how people use drugs or alcohol to manage their problems or as a distraction from things they’d prefer not to think about.

When this happens, people are at higher risk of developing a video game addiction.

If you are worried that you or a loved one may have a video game addiction, you need to recognise the signs and symptoms and seek the treatment and support you deserve.

Gaming addiction

Common symptoms of video game addiction include the following: 

  • Feeling agitated and restless when not playing video games
  • Exhaustion, headaches, or other bodily aches and pains from overusing control pads or excessive screen time
  • Neglecting personal hygiene and forgetting or not wanting to eat
  • Skipping school or work to play video games
  • Constantly thinking about or wanting to play online games
  • Isolating from friends and family and other social activities to spend more time gaming 
  • Sleep issues, you may have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep.

What being addicted feels like

It might help you to understand why people become addicted in the first place.

Crucially, addiction (in any form) is often a symptom of a much deeper, underlying problem. 

Perhaps a person turns to drinking or drugs to cope with painful feelings, disturbing memories, or daily stressors. On the other hand, someone might gamble or develop an addiction to food or sex as a way to escape distressing feelings and emotions, such as anxiety or low self-esteem.

Escapism may feel good, but it doesn’t last

No matter how addiction presents itself, one thing remains consistent, a person’s need to escape; for example, someone who has always felt worthless or different from others may have a more positive emotional experience when playing video games or overeating.

Suddenly, lingering feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem are replaced with joy, confidence, belonging, and satisfaction.

Engaging in behaviours that harm us but make us feel good while doing them can become a double-edged sword.

Most people know that it’s unwise to gamble away their savings, eat another plate of chips or have sex with a stranger.

However, the euphoria associated with these behaviours can be similar to the ‘high’ experienced when someone takes drugs or drinks alcohol; the person has achieved what they set out to do: forget, numb, escape, just to feel better for a while.

Are there any risk factors involved?

Like substance addiction, various factors can put you at higher risk of developing a behavioural addiction. Some common risk factors include:

  • Genetics 
  • Environment
  • Co-occurring disorders. A person may have another physical or mental health condition as well as a behavioural addiction. For example, associations between many behavioural addictions and depressive and anxiety disorders are strong.
  • Work, school, family, or financial stress. Some people engage in particular behaviours to distract themselves or to help them cope better with stress.
  • Family history of addiction – if a family member or close relative struggles with addiction, you may also be at risk of becoming addicted yourself.

Treatment for behavioural addictions

CFHH Mood Disorder Group

Fortunately, various treatment options are available to those with behavioural addictions.

Some of the most effective behavioural addiction treatments include the following:

Behavioural addiction treatment at Centres for Health and Healing 

Centres for Health and Healing provides holistic treatment for various behavioural addictions, including food, sex, work, and gambling addictions. 

We offer individualised treatment programs designed around the personalisation of each client’s needs. 

We understand that each individual has had their own unique set of experiences that have brought them to our centre. Therefore our mental health and addiction treatment programs are tailored around each person’s unique recovery plan based on their personal selves, goals, and needs.

We also provide comprehensive aftercare and support programs to help our clients stay on track with their recovery after completing an addiction program at our centre. 

These supportive measures help to reinforce the vital principles learned during treatment, including practising healthy coping skills and relapse prevention strategies.

To learn more about our behavioural addiction treatment programs, please contact our recovery centre in Ontario for further advice and support.

Recovery is possible with proper treatment and care, and we are here to guide you every step of the way.

Helpful resources

  1. Sex Addiction, Healthline, Mara Tyler, July 26, 2018
  2. An Overview of Behavioural Addiction, Verywell Mind, Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, Ph.D., September 17, 2020
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