Do Behavioral Addictions Exist?

Do Behavioral Addictions Exist?

Scientific study of compulsive behaviors, which do not involve the use of drugs or alcohol, has revealed similarities between them and addictions to drugs and alcohol. These problems, such as compulsive gambling, spending or sexual activity, are called behavioral addictions.

Earlier Concepts of Behavioral Addictions

The habitual repetition of destructive activities that, in the long run, bring people more suffering than gratification is an old problem. Reckless gambling or spending, just like drunkenness or opium addiction, has often been blamed on a character flaw or moral failing. Even though the understanding of alcoholism and substance addiction as diseases has gained acceptance, those who have claimed an addiction to sex, shopping, internet content, gambling or video games have often been met with skepticism or disdain.

For many years, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) described these problems in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders under the category of impulse control disorders. Drug and alcohol addictions were described in a separate category as substance use disorders.

A Consensus Forming around Behavioral Addictions

Learning more about the psychological mechanisms of addiction has led the APA to place gambling addiction, a problem that does not involve substance abuse, into a category called “Addiction and Related Disorders.” This category also includes alcoholism and drug addiction. Instead of being called pathological gambling as it was in the past, gambling addiction is now call “disordered gambling.”

No other behavioral addictions have yet been included under “Addiction and Related Disorders.” As other problems such as internet, sex and video game addictions are studied further, new data and understanding of those problems may support their classification under that category as well.

Substance and Behavioral Addictions

The absence of a psychotropic chemical separates behavioral addictions from drug and alcohol addictions. However, both kinds of addiction share several fundamental aspects, including the following:

  • Tolerance – Over time, engaging in the addictive activity brings less gratification or relief.
  • Withdrawal – When the drug or activity is stopped, the addict suffers.
  • Risk factors – Many different characteristics appear to increase the likelihood of both substance and behavioral addictions.
  • Pharmacological response – Drugs that are used to detox from substance addictions also appear to be effective in treating behavioral addictions.

In addition to shared characteristics, behavioral and substance addictions also share many sufferers. As many as half of all gambling addicts are also addicted to a substance.

Getting Help

If you or someone you know has a behavioral addiction, call our toll-free, 24 hour helpline to learn more about treatment options. We are here to help.