Process behavioral addictions


3- Process Behavioral Addictions


Behavioral addictions turn what is generally a normal and healthy activity into something obsessive and destructive. Those suffering from any kind of behavioral addiction, be it work, food or codependency, have entered into a vicious cycle of self-loathing, remorse, and denial. They are compelled to repeat self-destructive behavior, while at the same time operating under the illusion that they have the power to solve their problem themselves, with willpower alone.


  • Difference between habit and addiction
  • Addictive process
  • Cycle of behavioral addictions


Difference between habit and addiction

  • Everyone has habits. Some are good, some are not, but it’s important to distinguish between even bad habits and addictions. Simply because a person persists in an activity does not necessarily mean that person is in the grip of addictive behavior. For instance, a person might have a very legitimate reason for working on the computer for hours at a time. On the other hand, if that same person stays up late playing online video games and is unable to get up in the morning for work, then that’s a problem. Even then, though, the behavior may not be genuinely addictive. Most of us go overboard at one time or another on some activity or other. For instance, after gaining weight, we might decide we must get back into shape – and quickly! So we jump into an overly ambitious exercise regimen that wears us out and maybe even results in injury. The non-addict recognizes they have overdone it, and they scale back or stop. But the person for whom exercise has become an addiction doesn’t slow down. They keep pounding away at their bodies despite signs they are doing themselves harm. In the same way, people go on diets all the time, but the addict takes it to the extreme, to the point that they are hurting themselves. A person can — though often with some difficulty — stop a habit using their own willpower. These non-addicts have the ability to make a choice. But the person in the grip of addiction loses the ability to choose or to control. It is not longer within their power to stop.
  • A habit is a repeated action or behavior, and often is unconscious. It is something an individual does over and over again to the point it becomes logged in the brain. Yet even though the behavior may become automatic, if the person can exert control over it, then it’s not yet an addiction. An addiction, on the other hand, is a mental disease that is characterized by continued involvement with an activity, chemical or substance despite ongoing negative consequences. When someone suffers from an addiction, they cannot control their compulsion, no matter how hard they try or how determined they are to stop. An addiction is a physical and mental condition. Even though the person may recognize the devastating effects of their addiction, they do not have it in their power to stop.



Addictive process

  • An addictive behavior enhances a person’s mood or emotional state, creating a euphoric feeling, similar to what a drug addict experiences. And as with the drug addict, this euphoria has a physical basis, the result of serotonin or Adrenalin released in the brain when the behavior addict engages in an addictive activity. A behavior addict can experience the same type of obsession with food or sex as a drug addict does with heroin. Like the drug addict, the behavior addict may become so preoccupied – so obsessed — with this activity that it will begin to take over the person’s life, pushing to the side concerns for family and work, for instance. What is notable too is that the activity is pursued in the face of evidence that it is causing repeated harm to the person and to those around them.
  • No one – including those in the medical profession — knows for sure what causes a person to become an addict. There are influencing factors such as a person’s mental state, social status, and upbringing. It is widely accepted that there is a genetic component to addiction. Having one or both parents as addicts statistically predisposes a person to addiction. Of course, in many families where one or both parents suffer the disease of addiction, there are children who never develop into addicts. The point is that the process of addiction, whether for substances or behaviors, is complex. Yet in both categories of addiction, the person’s brain reward center is stimulated each time they repeat the behavior or use the chemical. When stimulated, the brain releases feel-good chemicals into the system. Seeking to experience these same feelings leads the addict to the activity again and again, regardless of consequences. This compulsion is so overwhelming that it overrides a person’s best instincts, even the instinct of survival. Even sufferers who have reached the point where they recognize they have a problem and want to stop find they have lost control. Meanwhile, those around them are baffled by behavior that is so clearly destructive and self-defeating. In anonymous fellowships this is called “chasing the high,” whether the pursuit of that feeling of euphoria comes from hitting the roulette table or having a hit of heroin.  
  • Most behaviors that turn into compulsions are integral parts of the human experience. We eat to sustain ourselves; we go to work to earn money to support our families and ourselves. Meanwhile, being in a relationship with another and engaging in sex are normal parts of life. All these activities, in their proper place, bring us pleasure and satisfaction. But with behavior addicts these activities become compulsions, something they are driven to do repeatedly. The behavior takes over their lives. The job or the relationship becomes all consuming, pushing out other interests. The addict submerges himself in the activity. It dominates his thoughts and takes up his time and energy. For a behavior like gambling, the consequences can come fast and furious. The gambling addict can bankrupt himself, of course, but may also lose his job and thus any chance of digging himself out of the financial hole he’s put himself and his family in. Yet despite the mayhem and destruction, he will continue gambling because his mad obsession has him in its grip and tells him that the next time his bet will pay off. In 12 Step programs, diseases of addiction are properly labeled as forms of insanity, with insanity defined as repeating the same behavior and each time expecting different results.
  • Any activity, object, or behavior that has become the major focus of a person’s life to the exclusion of other activities, or that has begun to harm the individual or others physically, mentally, or socially is considered an addictive behavior. A person can become addicted, dependent, or compulsively obsessed with just about anything.  Some researchers note similarities between physical addiction to various chemicals, such as alcohol and heroin, and psychological dependence to activities such as compulsive gambling, sex, work, exercise, shopping, or eating disorders. It is thought that these behavior activities may produce beta-endorphins in the brain, which make the person feel “high.”  Some experts suggest that if a person continues to engage in the activity to achieve this feeling of well-being and euphoria, that person may be entering into an addictive cycle. If this is the case, the person becomes physically addicted to the brain chemicals, to the beta-endorphins. In one example, people commonly refer to the feeling of well-being that follows exercise as a “runner’s high.” This is a natural benefit of doing something that benefits a person’s health. But for those predisposed to addictive behavior, a positive activity like exercise can become obsessive and self-destructive. The behavior addict doesn’t know when to stop, and then they reach a point where they can’t stop.
  • Addictions to substances such as alcohol, heroin, or barbiturates have a psychological component. Everyone has heard of the heroin addict who searches for the next hit as the previous one wears off, and who suffers terrible physical withdrawal symptoms when unable to get it. It’s the same with the alcoholic who craves a drink the morning after the end of a binge. Yet these same addicts can crave a drug or a drink after years of abstinence. The idea of the substance still has a hold on them. This is the psychological dependence of addiction, and it underlies the strength of behavioral addictions to take over a person’s life. For this reason, some researchers argue we need to look at both physical and psychological dependencies upon a variety of substances, activities, and behaviors as an addictive process and as addictive behaviors. The contention of these researchers is that substance addictions and behavioral addictions have a host of commonalities, and that they shouldn’t be segregated from each other.


  • For information on the development of the disease of addiction as it relates to substances, please refer to: Chronic addicts
  • For information on the major types of anonymous fellowships that provide a program of recovery and support, please refer to: Behavior Fellowships



Cycle of behavioral addictions

Behavior addicts, like substance addicts, go through a cycle, which prompts the person into a cycle, which is often vicious and illusive. Here the 5 general phases the addict goes through is described for your awareness.


Process behavioral addictions - Cycle of behavioral addiction


1- Lack of life skills

  • Life on life’s terms is something those with addictive tendencies find hard to accept. Resorting to a behavior in which they can lose themselves is a way of coping with life’s problem — or escaping from hard realities. As they grow into adulthood, most people develop skills to negotiate their way through the inevitable challenges and disappointments that everyone encounters. But some people never do learn how that’s done. Essentially, they lack the mechanisms and tools to get through life. Not knowing how to deal with problems, they may deny the problem – or escape from it. Not knowing how to draw boundaries with people, or how to assert themselves, they are overwhelmed by demands made on them by others. Not being able to deal with people, they flee to the protective isolation and comfort they find in an addictive behavior.
  • Irrational feelings of low self-esteem and low self-worth are very much a part of the behavior addict’s appraisal of themselves. They feel insecure and lacking in ability to do anything about their lives, even when reality would tend to contradict these feelings. People harboring feelings of being “less than” may in fact be highly intelligent and highly accomplished. Nevertheless, such a person will reach for something to make themselves feel good, something to make themselves feel in control. A food addict, for example, resorts to restricting food to feel in power and control of life. A sex addict avoids or engages in sex in order to bolster feeling of self-worth.


2- Preoccupation

  • An addiction, by definition, controls a person’s thinking. When the addict is not engaging in the activity to which they have become addicted, they are thinking of it, planning the next time they can participate in the activity. They crave the release that repeating the activity grants them. They may even be struggling against the urge, swearing to themselves that they are not going to do it again. But the allure of the reward, however fleeting and regardless of the price, proves too strong. The point is that the activity dominates the person’s thoughts. As real as any drug to the drug addict, the behavior that the addict craves to feel good draws them to repeat it. They have become addicted to the Endorphins that the brain releases during the activity, regardless of whether it’s dangerous or demeaning. Simply put, the high is too good to pass up.
  • Over time, the addictive behavior takes over the person’s life, taking priority over all else. The gambler forgets to go to the parents’ meeting at school because he is at the casino. The food addict, so enwrapped in the things she can and cannot eat, isolates, dropping out of the normal social functions that once brought pleasure. The Internet addict sits mesmerized by an online world, while the real world fades into the background. There is little room for anything else in the addict’s world apart from the behavior that has become an addiction. The time and energy devoted to it take over.


3- Obsession

  • When an activity turns into an obsession, then the roots of addiction have developed in a person. Obsession is an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind. It is a persistent and disturbing preoccupation, and is generally associated with an unreasonable idea or feeling.
  • With development of obsession the person’s sense of reality becomes distorted, and they find it difficult to distinguish illusion from reality. Those around the addict can clearly see that the addict is acting irrationally, but the addict himself is lost in his obsession and blind to the insanity he is creating. The gambler thinks he is making logical decisions to win back he money he’s lost, meanwhile continuing to lose, and continuing to put his job in jeopardy, and alienate friends and family. Along with obsession comes a variety of defense mechanisms to stay in denial about the compulsive behavior. The addict may justify, rationalize or minimize all in aid of continuing with the behavior. An addict’s denial grows in direct correlation to the growth of his addiction. Fundamentally, at this stage, the person does not want to accept the reality of their condition, because it would mean confronting the disease. And until an addict has suffered enough, that prospect is too frightening, so they deny they have a problem.


4- Negative consequences of addiction

  • The consequences of behavioral addiction are many and serious. And since addiction is a progressive disease, getting worse over time, so too do the consequences. Yet because of his distorted view of reality and the fact that the behavior despite the harm is giving him pleasure, the addict continues.
  • Addictions of all kinds are called family diseases because an addict, along with making his own life unmanageable, creates endless problems for those around him, especially his family. Because an addict is, above all, supremely self-absorbed, no one, be it a child or a husband or a wife, can expect anything in the way of normal attention or affection or support from the addict. And that’s only the beginning of the problem. The gambling addict’s wife may end up having to take a second job to make up for the debts of the husband. The sex addict wife may suffer from contagious diseases because of husband’s promiscuity. The workaholic’s wife is abandoned, essentially. Because the behavior addict is unable to be there for themselves, they are unable to be there for anyone else.
  • The consequences for the family members include a list of psychological ailments, including chronic anxiety and depression. The stress of living with a person whose life is out of control takes a toll.


5- Powerlessness & unmanageability of addiction

  • Unmanageability and powerlessness are two key components of addiction. By his self-destructive and irresponsible behavior, the behavior addict has turned his life upside down. He no longer is able to keep all the balls in the air. His life has become unmanageable. Work, relationships, and parenting – all are too much to deal with. But even now, when perhaps the addict is finally waking up to the fact they are in the grip of a form of insanity, stopping is no easy task. As the denial starts to crack – and there can be no chance of recovery until this happens – the addict is confronted by the frightening realization that they can’t stop even though they want to. They are powerless over the addiction, powerless to control it or stop it on their own. The addict may at times, through a great effort of will, swear off the addictive behavior, but it soon draws them back. He may make heartfelt promises to his family and mean it, but finds cannot keep his promises. He is powerless over the addiction.
  • This phase may go on for years, taking the addict on a journey that will often include dark, despairing places. They have to take that journey before they reach the point where they can accept the full dimension of their disease – before they can succumb to reality. Only then will that person be willing to do what they need to do to recover. This is what a vast amount of experience with many tens of thousands of addicts has demonstrated. As those recovering addicts can testify, it is not a question of weakness or lack of willpower or of character. It a disease that requires the addict to admit he needs the help of others in order to recover. That’s the first step.



  • To find out how substance addiction passes through a similar cycle, please refer to: Addiction Cycle

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