The idea of a behavioral addiction calls many people’s accepted definition of addiction into question. Addictions are not limited to substances, with gambling addiction, sex addiction and Internet addiction being examples of addictions to specific patterns of behavior. This may be puzzling at first, but the truth is that behavioral addictions are ultimately chemical in nature too: it’s just that those chemicals happen to be naturally-occurring substances in the brain. This means—despite how counterintuitive it may seem—there are withdrawal symptoms associated with behavioral addictions that are very similar to those experienced by long-term drug users.
About Behavioral Addictions
Addiction can be understood through some basic neurochemistry. All drugs effectively work on the natural processes within your brain. Dopamine and endorphins are two natural chemicals commonly stimulated by drugs such as heroin, amphetamines, cocaine and the majority of other substances people consume recreationally. The molecules of these chemicals are either sufficiently similar to the natural chemical to activate the same receptors, or can interfere with the normal process of their release and re-uptake through their similarity to other natural chemicals.
Drugs often release large quantities of these chemicals, but they are intended for use by the body in ordinary circumstances. Dopamine is used as a “motivator” and reward chemical, and is used to make us like doing things we need to do, like eating and having sex. In other words, other activities can stimulate the release of these chemicals too. This is why behavioral addictions are effectively the same thing as drug addictions, because they’re both really addictions to natural chemicals that cause euphoria. The reason some people are more susceptible to addiction is thought to be a mixture of genetic and environmental influences.
Withdrawal in Addiction
Withdrawal is the word for the deficit of these neurochemicals that occurs when the large, forced doses cease being delivered. The brain is overwhelmed by the overabundance of these chemicals and reduces natural production to compensate, so when the outside influence stops elevating their levels, the person is left with a deficit. This produces withdrawal symptoms, and often serves to make the person crave the substance or activity in question. With drugs, the withdrawal symptoms are related to the specific chemicals involved, but frequently involve things like agitation, anxiety and restlessness.
Behavioral Addiction Withdrawal Symptoms
Research confirms the presence of withdrawal symptoms in addictions to things like gambling and Internet addiction, as well as many others. It seems that all behavioral addictions have withdrawal symptoms, and these usually involve irritability, restlessness, anxiety and cravings, the same symptoms seen in addicts quitting drugs and alcohol. Since many people with addiction use substances or activities as a way of “self-medicating” for psychological issues such as depression, in many cases these moods will be particularly noticeable during withdrawal.
Studies on specific behavioral addictions have revealed different symptoms. For example, in a piece of research on gambling addiction, cravings, irritability and restlessness were the most widely-reported symptoms, but insomnia, headaches, diarrhea, difficulty breathing and muscle aches were also reported. These symptoms weren’t found to correlate with a substance abuse problem, and were more severe in those who gambled more heavily.
Withdrawal Symptoms Do Fade
Withdrawal symptoms are ultimately related to the brain’s chemical imbalance, and it’s important to remember that the brain will re-adjust itself with time. Withdrawal symptoms tend to be strongest during the first week of abstinence, and will ease the longer the activity or substance is avoided. Getting better is about building up your psychological “tool kit” and learning to deal with stress or a low mood without resorting to addictive substances or activities