What Are Behavioral Addictions?

What are behavioral addictions, and do they differ from the concept of a behavioral disorder?

In short, it might depend on the context you encounter the terminology being used.
But let’s talk at more length about this question: In the mental health realm, over the span of the last quarter century or so, thought has moved towards recognizing the addictive nature of a handful of non-drug behaviors. The concept of (and nomenclature for) “behavioral addictions” arose to describe this group of maladaptive behaviors. The rubric of behavioral addictions often encompasses the following disorders:

Gambling Addiction
Internet Addiction
Gaming Addiction
Social Media Addiction
Sex Addiction

So, while it may not have always been the case, at present, it is clear that there exist distinct forms of addiction outside of the realm of alcohol and substance abuse. Despite the distinctions, they share a number of underlying traits with the more commonly encountered concepts of drug and alcohol addiction. For instance, those suffering from them tend to be governed by similar obsessive thought processes and compulsions to act on these obsessions. Additionally, behavioral addictions manifest in subjects who will report—similarly to those with substance addictions—the experiencing of phases of denial punctuated with loss of control. Frequently, attempts to curtail the behavior itself will be met with repeated failure, also paralleling the experience of many suffering substance addiction. And while tolerance and withdrawal are physical realities that many would only associate with the chemical effects that substances can exert on one’s body, many suffering from behavioral addictions also exhibit similar phenomena – no doubt as a result of analogous interactions/effects on brain circuitry and reward centers. As a final point, those with behavioral addictions are not immune to the potentially devastating and quite pervasive negative consequences most would readily associate with drug or alcohol problems: when considering the impact on financial, professional, interpersonal/social or legal issues – behavioral addictions can result in the inability to maintain a healthy level of control over multiple facets of one’s life.

It bears discussion—and is certainly not to confuse the issue even more—but some people may classify or reference a behavioral addiction as a process addiction, impulse control disorder or, even, a behavioral disorder (or behavior disorder). While many people might use the phrase ‘behavioral disorder’ to connote the phenomenon of non-drug addiction—or behavioral addiction—there actually exists a distinct diagnostic category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) that describes a group of ‘disruptive behavior disorders’. Included in this category are a few disorders that share some traits with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and typically manifest in children and adolescents. They include: Conduct Disorder (CD), Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Disruptive Behavior Disorder. So, technically, and if adhering to the diagnostic rules set up by and for clinical use by mental health practitioners, use of the terms ‘behavioral disorder’ or 'behavior disorder' should be in reference this subset of conditions, and not the addictive processes, to ease confusion that might result.

No matter what name is used, the existence of behavioral addiction is becoming an accepted reality, and they pose serious issues to contend with for those suffering from them. As mentioned, the spectrum of behavioral addictions resembles substance addiction on a number of levels, including that of a posited psychobiological mechanism as well as a shared ability to respond to specialized treatment. Thinking and research in the field has come a long way fairly recently, and has evolved to recognize this connection – “Gambling” now resides alongside “Substance Use Disorder” under an overarching category of “Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), for example. Perhaps reflecting this emerging visibility, encouragingly more and more treatment design is geared to accommodate the behavioral addictions, either in isolation, or as part of a dual-diagnosis with substance abuse disorders.

I’ll end my bit of discussion by mentioning that I’m not a mental health professional. However, I do know that I’ve encountered some confusion in the terminology when speaking to those in the addiction medicine space. I hope this information goes some way towards elucidating the meaning behind the concept of behavioral addictions and the difference between behavioral addictions and behavioral disorders. If I’ve strayed in my attempt to describe the categories, by all means jump into the conversation and let me know.

  • 5 Commentsby Likes|Date
  • Addiction is not only taking any bad substances and we can be addicted too in terms of our behavior. If we are spending too much time or paying much attention to the following like (internet, sex, gambling, playing video games, shopping, foods, doing dangerous adventures) and other unnatural behaviors then you have a behavioral addiction.
  • Addiction is a mental impairment. Anyone who excessively obsesses  over something (to the point of not functioning properly as a human being) has some deep-seated issues going on and needs to get help immediately or snap out of it through sheer will. Although I have my obsessions, I can still put them off when the occasion calls for it. It's highly important for people to be able to control their lives and not let themselves get carried away by destructive habits. Some habits do bring food on the table and give the person a deeper sense of self, so I'm not entirely opposed to them if they serve such purposes.
  • Many behavioral addictions go unclassified by the medical field. In fact sex addiction doesn't even exist in the eyes of science. I believe these are just as bad for a person and just as hard to recover from. I have an addictive personality, but tell myself I'm okay if I stay away from drugs and alcohol. Needless to say I have picked up an intense behavioral addiction that I have been fighting for over 10 years now. It is very real and very scary.
  • I had a gaming addiction that I dealt with for about two years, and it really did impact my social life and physical well being. I was a little too good at the games I was playing, and that drove me to keep playing for 8 to 10 hours per day. I always had fun, but then I'd neglect the parts of my real life that mattered, and I suffered financially and emotionally because of it. 
  • I had a porn addiction way back while in high school and it really messes me up. I was able to seek help from my church pastor who through time guided me and i was able to finally kick out the habit. I can attest to the fact that it affected me psychologically and it was pure hell for me. I could not concentrate in class and my grades plummeted faster than you could say drugs.
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