Addiction has long been limited to the abuse of chemical substances that leads to physical and emotional dependence. While still debated by some experts, many now agree that there are indisputable similarities between traditional substance addictions and what are called process addictions. These are addictions to any kind of activity or behavior, and do not involve ingesting a substance like a drug or alcohol.
Growing evidence from the addiction research community is showing that process (or behavioral) addictions share more things in common with drug addictions than previously thought. There are differences, too, but when all the similarities are realized, people who struggle with process addictions may get access to better treatment options.
What Are Process Addictions?
Even if you have minimal personal experience with substance addictions, it is easy to understand what they are. A chemical substance is ingested, produces changes in the body and mind, and eventually becomes a necessity. We call this addiction. What distinguishes a substance addiction from a process addiction is that process addiction involves no chemical substance. Any addiction that involves ingesting or taking in a drug or alcohol is a substance addiction, and anything else would be classified as a process addiction.
The activities and behaviors that can qualify as process addictions are nearly limitless. More common examples include gambling, sex or pornography, eating, shopping, Internet and video gaming. In fact, gambling has been officially recognized as an addictive disorder. Any activity or behavior, however, can become a process addiction.
Characteristics of Addiction
Process addictions are similar to substance addictions in many ways. As with substance addictions, a process addiction often begins when the addict uses a behavior or activity to cope with negative emotions. Just as an alcoholic might drink to drown out thoughts of an early trauma, someone addicted to shopping might go on a buying binge to cope with stress or a bad day. Not all addictions start this way, but it is a common theme.
Another commonality between process and substance addictions is the feeling of a high. Drugs and alcohol are mind-altering substances. They change chemicals in the brain and cause a feeling of euphoria. Although process addictions don’t involve chemicals, they still produce a high. An overeater experiences pleasure when binging on food, for instance. To achieve that high requires more and more of the substance or activity over time. This development is called tolerance and it is seen in both types of addiction.
When an addict stops using his drug of choice, he experiences withdrawal symptoms as his body copes with not having the substance. People with process addictions have these cravings and feelings of withdrawal as well. When a problem gambler cannot get to a casino or an online poker game, she may feel physically and emotionally distressed.
One of the most important ways in which process addictions are similar to substance addictions is in the way that they can overtake the life of the addict. Using a substance or engaging in an activity can become an obsession to the extent that it becomes the main controlling factor in the addict’s life. This leads to all kinds of negative consequences: disrupted relationships, loss of work, negative health impacts, financial problems and even legal trouble.
Many of the characteristics that have long been understood to be a part of chemical addictions are seen in cases of process addiction. This evidence lends support to the idea that they are genuine addictions, though they lack the chemical substance factor. But what are the implications of these similarities?
As experts come to better understand process addictions, the consequences should be positive for addicts. Addiction is largely recognized as a disease that requires medical treatment like any other illness. If experts can agree to include process addictions in this category, those who suffer from them may be able to access support and care that was previously used only for substance addicts. Currently, people with process addictions are generally not taken as seriously as other addicts and they don’t get the same kind of help as a result. With more research will come more knowledge, and everyone will benefit.