Behavioral Addictions: Understanding the Science, Signs, and Solutions

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When you think of addiction, the first thing that comes to mind is probably some drug addiction. While addictions caused by substances are well-known and recorded, behavioral addictions are much less recognized and can be outright dismissed by many ordinary people and doctors.
However, this type of addiction can be very serious since it can often lead to people developing addictions to substances or other physical actions. Therefore, it is worth discussing behavioral addictions, their types, warning signs, and treatment.

What are Behavioral Addictions?

Behavioral addictions involve having the urge to perform a specific behavior. Similar to how a substance can trigger dopamine release in the mind, certain behaviors can do the same. So something like eating good food or buying new clothes can give a rush of dopamine, leading to people repeating these actions for the intended effect.

Along with being more compelled to perform these actions, individuals can become erratic and display a variety of other withdrawal symptoms when they are unable to perform those behaviors.

Behavioral vs. Physical Addiction?

Unlike an addiction that is the result of some substance, this category of addiction manifests physically. So even though they will experience all of the symptoms of addiction, the major difference is that an action or set of actions will be responsible for that good or euphoric feeling.

Some common examples of behavioral addictions can include social media and gaming, pornography, sex, gambling, food, and shopping addictions.

Importance of Recognizing and Addressing Behavioral Addictions

The most well-known behavioral addiction is gambling, and it also happens to be the only non-substance addiction in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Even though many do not recognize behavioral addictions as a real diagnosis, addictions prove that they can have very similar symptoms to other addictions.

The Science of Behavioral Addictions

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Studies surrounding behavioral addictions have found that certain actions can trigger parts of the brain, similar to most addictive substances. The part of the brain that they affect is called the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA), and it mainly focuses on releasing dopamine so that individuals will continue to seek out good things.

The Brain’s Reward System and Addiction

Dopamine and its Role in Addiction

Performing a specific action can sometimes trigger neurons in the VTA, which then produce dopamine. Some of these actions can include sex, shopping, gambling, and gaming. Performing these actions increases dopamine production in the brain, so people will try to pursue it.

Over time, if the person does not follow through on it, they can become erratic. They can even develop a tolerance for the action, which can lead them to perform the action to an unhealthy degree. So they might take bigger risks, play for longer hours, or spend more money when shopping.

Similarities and Differences between Substance and Behavioral Addictions

Some of the similarities between substance and behavioral addictions can include a failure to resist and control impulses and relief or pleasure after engaging in action or substance. The major difference between the two is that behavioral addictions are often the result of various other factors, like the individual being shy, depressed, lonely, or having withdrawals from another addiction.

Risk Factors for Developing Behavioral Addictions

Genetic predisposition

Studies on the connection between genetics and addiction suggest that up to 60% of addiction in a person could be because of their genetics. Some researchers speculate that a heightened predisposition to addiction could be because of reduced levels of D2 receptors, which can be the result of genetics.

Environmental influences

People who live in a household with exposure to behavioral or substance addiction are more likely to follow through in those footsteps at a young age.

Psychological factors

Psychological factors like depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions can influence people to develop behavioral addictions.

Common Types of Behavioral Addictions

It is important to recognize the different behavioral addictions that people can suffer from, especially their symptoms and their impact. Understanding these addictions can make getting treatment at a Luxury Addiction Treatment Center much easier.

Gambling Addiction

Compulsive gambling involves an uncontrollable urge to continue gambling despite its negative effects on your life.

Symptoms and Consequences

  • Placing larger bets
  • Chasing losses beyond the ability to pay
  • Betting more frequently

Prevalence and Impact

Internet and gaming addiction

Internet and/or gaming addiction is the compulsive need to spend a large amount of time on the internet. It can also apply to gaming, and is performed to the extent that it takes a toll on different areas of life.

Symptoms and Consequences

  • Erratic behavior when unable to play or access the internet
  • An inability to follow through on other hobbies because of gaming
  • An inability to stop using the internet or playing

Prevalence and Impact

  • 3%-4% of people who play videos games are addicted
  • Worsening health as essentials like hygiene and exercise are overlooked for gaming
  • Worsening relationships due to the inability to give time
  • Spending money on ads or in-game purchases

Shopping addiction

This condition refers to the act of compulsively purchasing things as a means to feel better and avoid negative thoughts.

Symptoms and Consequences

  • Shopping as a response to feeling depressed
  • Constantly talking about buying something new
  • A need to look like a flashy spender
  • Buying something just because it is on sale and no other reason

Prevalence and Impact

Statistics show that 5.8% of Americans struggle with compulsive buying

  • Spending more and more for the same euphoric pleasure
  • Feeling depressed about spending money on a shopping spree
  • Breaking off relationships because they call excessive shopping into question

Sex and Love Addiction

The condition refers to having excessive sexual behaviors, urges, and thoughts that can’t be controlled. It reaches a point where it causes harm to one’s relationships, finances, and other aspects.

Symptoms and Consequences

  • Constant masturbation
  • Always thinking about sex
  • Cheating on partners for sex
  • A feeling of shame due to an inability to control sexual urges

Prevalence and Impact

Prevalence is hard to determine as few people admit to having a sex addiction or that their partner has an addiction.

  • An inability to empathize with partners as people
  • An inability to create healthy and lasting relationships
  • Possible legal consequences for sex crimes

Food addiction

It’s a constant obsession with what you will eat, when you will eat, and how you can eat more.

Symptoms and Consequences

  • Hiding eating from other people
  • Failing to set limits for eating
  • Eating despite feeling full
  • Eating more than necessary

Prevalence and Impact

  • Over 5% of the US population might struggle with a food addiction
  • Excessive weight gain
  • Health issues resulting from weight gain
  • Shame felt when eating but being unable to stop

Warning Signs and Consequences

While there are different types of behavioral addictions, there are some warning signs that are universal to all of them. These can include:

  • Irritability when trying not to perform the behavior
  • Social withdrawal because of being preoccupied with behavior or shame for performing the behavior
  • Agitation when confronted about a possible addiction to a behavior
  • Depression when stopping or realizing addictive patterns
  • Changes in personality as a result of consistently engaging in behavior
  • Excessive weight loss or weight gain

What Types of Programs are offered to Treat Behavioral Addictions?

Behavioral addiction can be a very serious issue, especially since the actions fueling the addiction can be a lot more accessible than other addictive substances. Fortunately, there is a multitude of ways that you can treat behavioral addiction.

Diagnosis and Evaluation

The similarities between substance and behavioral addiction also extend to treatment and diagnosis. Diagnosis is essential to determine if the individual has an addiction and to find out what type.

Detox Support

Similar to substance abuse, it is possible to limit or completely eliminate the behavior or action that is responsible for the addiction. Completely removing and then slowly reintroducing actions can help the brain build self-control.


Finally, the most effective way forward when dealing with a behavioral addiction is through therapy. With the help of professionals, talk therapy and group therapy can show incredible growth. Psychological counseling can also help identify the core problems that lead to performing those actions, offering a more long-term solution.


Dealing with addiction, especially of the behavioral variety, is not easy, but treatment is possible. Regardless of how bad you think it is right now, you can change things by getting professional help. And with the right assistance, you can reduce your dependence on certain behaviors one step at a time.