Understanding Behavioral Addictions

Content review by Derek Wilksen, CEO

The term “addiction” is most commonly used in reference to substance use disorder (SUD), such as an addiction to alcohol or other drugs. However, addiction stretches beyond substance abuse. Addiction is an all-encompassing term that describes a compulsive or psychological need to engage in a habit-forming behavior.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines addiction as a chronic and relapsing disease of the brain that involves impairments in essential functioning, including reward, motivation and memory. Non-substance addictions, also known as behavioral addictions, can be just as damaging to the brain, as well as physical and mental health, as SUD can be.

It is imperative to recognize what behavioral addictions are and to understand how they can negatively affect health and well-being. Above all, it is essential to understand that treatment is available for individuals who struggle with addictive behaviors.

What are behavioral addictions?

Behavioral addictions are behaviors that an individual engages in and, over time, becomes dependent on. Oftentimes, people initially engage in addictive behaviors as means of achieving relief from mental or emotional distress.

Some common examples of addictive behaviors include:

  • Eating
  • Excessive gaming
  • Excessive social media or internet use
  • Engaging in high-risk activities
  • Excessive shopping
  • Gambling
  • Watching pornography
  • Sexual activity

Most of the time, individuals engage in these behaviors without any conscious understanding of the harm that they can cause. Additionally, they may try to rationalize their behavior by viewing it as “less harmful” than substance-using behaviors. However, the heightened feelings of gratification and pleasure achieved from repeatedly engaging in addictive behaviors — whether they be substance-related or otherwise— are exactly what can lead to increased harm later on.

Behavioral Addictions vs. Substance Addictions

Central to all addictive behaviors is the dependence on a specific behavior as means of achieving relief or pleasure. There is a misconception that addiction involves dependence on a chemical substance. However, experts in behavioral science have found that any stimulating behavior can become addictive.

Some behaviors that are of particular concern include passive behaviors, such as watching television, as well as active behaviors, including gambling. No matter the specifics of the behavior, if it contains reinforcing features that contribute to continuing engagement in the behavior and associated tendencies, it can be considered addictive.

There are common features that both behavioral addictions and substance addictions share. While not all of these features must be present to qualify as an addiction, they can help shed light on overlapping symptoms that all addictive behaviors share.

Signs of behavioral and/or substance addictions include:

  • Failure to resist an impulse or temptation to act in a specific way
  • Changes in mood, appetite and sleep patterns
  • Loss of interest in activities once found pleasurable
  • Feeling preoccupied with the behavior
  • Decreased socialization
  • Increased interpersonal conflict
  • Glorifying the behavior
  • Craving the behavior or experiencing withdrawals when not engaging in it
  • Experiencing increasing consequences from the behavior
  • Denial of addictive behavior

Replace addictive behaviors with healthier coping skills.

When individuals engage in behaviors that lead to more harm than good, they are likely doing so for purposes of self-medication. Self-medicating is the use of substances or other means to treat distress. Risk factors like untreated stress or trauma, unmanaged mental health, interpersonal conflict and low sense of self-worth only scratch the surface of circumstances that may increase vulnerability to engaging in addictive behaviors. Other times, individuals may engage in addictive behaviors because they are bored or are not aware of the harm they are causing themselves.

Additionally, when trying to overcome unhealthy behaviors, it can be easy to replace one addictive behavior with another. For example, one may kick substance-using habits only to begin compulsively gambling. This is why it is important to recognize and develop healthy coping skills for navigating mental and emotional distress.

Utilize professional treatment to overcome your addictive behaviors.

One of the most effective ways that you can work to overcome your addictive behaviors is by utilizing professional treatment. Substance use and behavioral addictions are complex issues that lie deep within the brain. Intimate and consistent treatment can help to reverse the altered brain functioning that has resulted from repeatedly engaging in addictive behaviors.

It is important to understand that most treatment programs utilize individualized treatment plans for patients. This ensures that every patient’s unique needs and recovery goals are taken into consideration before treatment begins. Additionally, individualized treatment plans are adaptable, which means that they can be altered as necessary throughout recovery.

Once a treatment plan is created for you, you will likely engage in a variety of different therapeutic modalities as you receive treatment. Each treatment modality is intentionally selected for you to help with your specific addictive behaviors, as well as help the underlying thought and emotional processes that are contributing to your recurrent behaviors.

For example, if you struggle with committing to change, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) may be a component of your treatment plan. Similarly, if you struggle with emotional regulation and interpersonal conflict, dialectal behavior therapy (DBT) may be added to your treatment plan. DBT, specifically, will teach you healthier ways to think and act, while learning how to tolerate life’s stressors.

Casa Palmera is a mental health and addiction treatment facility that understands all the various ways that addiction can develop. We offer several different treatment programs and options to help individualize our patient care. If you are experiencing mental health or substance use symptoms that interfere with your daily life, contact us today.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.