Behavioral addictions, also called process addictions, are often no taken seriously. Many professionals in the addiction community do not consider them to be proper addictions. These are things like compulsive eating, gambling addiction, Internet addiction and compulsive shopping. In other words, a behavioral addiction is anything that is not a chemical dependency—an addiction to drugs or alcohol.
Because they do not involve consuming a mind-altering substance, many do not believe these compulsive behaviors are as serious or as damaging as drug addiction or alcoholism. For the people who live with or near them, though, these addictions are very real, very serious, and very damaging. Overcoming them often requires the same intensive care that drug addicts need.
What Is a Behavioral Addiction?
A behavioral addiction begins when someone engages in an activity and gets pleasure from it. Often, the activity is associated with emotions. For instance, if you feel bad after a breakup, you might get a pint of ice cream and eat it all at once. The pleasure of the ice cream helps you momentarily forget the pain of your lost relationship. You might alternatively eat that ice cream to cope with the stress of a long day at work. Because it makes you feel momentary pleasure, you might seek out food again when you are feeling bad. Over time this can become a pattern and a cycle. You feel bad, you eat, you feel guilty about eating, and you eat some more. You may even experience a craving for food when you are not eating.
This cycle of behaviors can happen with any kind of activity that gives you pleasure. For some people it might be shopping, while for others it could be sex or gambling. These behaviors become addictions as you begin to experience negative consequences, like gaining weight, yet you continue the behavior anyway. Although they do not involve chemical substances, these addictive behaviors follow the same pattern as drug and alcohol addictions.
Most of the activities that have the potential to turn into addictive behaviors are innocent enough for many people. Eating ice cream as a reward is not always bad, and for most of us does not lead to a cycle of addiction. Gambling can be a fun activity when conducted responsibly. Shopping may be a great stress reliever without running your life. When any of these behaviors gets out of control, however, lives can be ruined.
One woman, whose identity is protected, admitted to being addicted to reading eBooks. What is an enjoyable, harmless and even healthy habit for most of us became a destructive activity for her. She read book after book, and once engaged in a story would read until she finished without stopping to eat, sleep or do anything else. In spite of headaches, burning eyes and terrible hunger, she remained glued to her device. Her compulsive behavior caused her physical distress and pain, yet she kept doing it.
As innocent as a behavior may seem, it can become destructive. Compulsive eating can lead to unhealthy weight gain, not to mention terrible self-esteem. Gambling or shopping excessively can destroy finances and relationships. A sex addiction can leave a person alone, ashamed, and unable to stay in a normal relationship. Internet addiction can also destroy relationships and lead to isolation.
A Real Addiction
Although it may be difficult to change the general viewpoint on behavioral addictions, it is indeed changing. More evidence is being uncovered by researchers that show just how similar chemical dependency is to process addiction. There are genetic similarities as well as connections between the kinds of treatments that help people with both types of addictions. Researchers are even seeing similarities in the brain chemistry of people addicted to drugs and people who engage in activities compulsively.
As more research is conducted, it is likely that we will see even more connections that prove behavioral addictions should be taken seriously. Even if they are never classified as true addictions, these compulsive behaviors are destructive and devastating and are therefore worthy of attention. Being addicted to reading eBooks may not sound as serious as an addiction to heroin, but it is a problem that needs to be addressed. With more attention and research, more people with these complex and damaging addictions can be helped.