When most people think of addictions, they think of mind-altering drugs or alcohol. However, the fact is that anything that can alter the way we think or feel has the potential to be habit-forming under the right circumstances. These are known as “process addictions” or “behavioral addictions.” They have the same capacity to cause the same negative consequences as alcohol and drugs and deserve to be treated with the same immediacy and respect.
Process addictions are characterized by people engaging in a behavior or action despite the fact that it has a negative impact on the person’s health, employment, interpersonal relationships, or romantic relationships. While the person may enjoy the way the behavior makes them feel in the short-term, it is likely that long-term they will suffer from feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse. This can lead to a cycle in which the person further engages in the behavior to mask the negative effects it has caused them. Process addictions can be very tough to break on your own, and without proper intervention, many people find that they are unable to stop.
As previously mentioned, any sort of behavior that creates a surge of Dopamine has the potential to be addictive and cause decreased functioning in a person’s life. However, certain process addictions are more common than others:
Sex and Love Addiction
On a biological level, our feelings are governed by neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers, such as dopamine and serotonin that are released by our body to reward us for engaging in activities which further our survival as a species, such as having sex, socializing, and eating. It is well known that substance abuse disorders effectively hijack this system to make us crave whatever our substance of choice is.
Modern scientific research has shown close similarities between the way the brains of substance users and people with process addictions work. Dopamine is known as our “feel good” chemical, and brain scans have shown that levels of dopamine are affected by process addictions similarly to drugs. This means that users will experience a “high” upon completing a behavior, followed by a “low” when the dopamine has worn off. Process addictions have also been shown to affect the part of the brain responsible for decision making. This means people with process addictions can experience a reduced capacity to make a positive choice about whether to engage in their problematic behavior.
Process addictions typically mimic substance use in that users build up a “tolerance’” to the behavior and need to engage in it more frequently to feel the same positive effects. This unfortunately means that they have the capacity to progress rapidly if intervention does not take place.
There is no definitive cause of process addictions. It is thought that they are caused by a combination of factors such as genes and family history, early life experiences, and environment.
It is helpful to know the specific symptoms of process addictions so that potential habits can be spotted early and treated:
There are presently many more types of gambling than ever before, and they have never been more accessible. People typically gamble on sports or in casinos but can place wagers on political events, video games, or more recently with the advent of trading apps, stock market movements. Some signs that you or a loved one might have gambling disorder are:
Gambling increasing amounts
Becoming restless when not gambling
Being preoccupied with gambling
Gambling when feeling distressed
Lying about how much they are gambling
Chasing gambling losses
Borrowing money and not repaying it
Disordered eating can involve anything from binge eating, restricting certain foods, not eating, and vomiting after eating. It is important to note that the relationship between the self and food, not personal appearance, is the defining factor for eating disorders. Some people can still struggle with behavior around food without displaying bodily signs. Some signs that you can look out for are:
Spending a lot of time worrying about weight and body shape
Avoiding socializing when food will be involved
Eating very little food
Deliberately vomiting or taking laxatives after eating
Exercising too much
Having very strict habits or routines around food
Changes in mood
Changes in weight
Cessation of menstrual periods
Damaged personal relationships
Decreased productivity at work
Sexual dysfunction or sexually transmitted diseases
This relatively new issue affects millions of Americans. It is estimated that between 0.5-1% of gamers fall into the category of problem gamer. Symptoms of this can include:
Forgoing sleep for gaming
Missing real-life events to game
Placing gaming over schoolwork/chores
Reduced productivity at work
There are many other behaviors, such as exercise, stealing, shopping, social media, and using the internet, that can also be addictive.
As there is no single definitive cause for a process addiction, it is important that people are given a thorough and professional diagnosis. This means that when treating process addictions, it is of the utmost importance that a person’s entire history is taken into account. This can then be used to inform a holistic approach that treats a person’s entire being rather than just their symptoms.
Some treatment modalities which have been successful in treating process addictions are CBT, EMDR, group therapy, drama therapy, art therapy, and Mindfulness. If you think that you or a loved one may have a process addiction, do not hesitate to contact us.
We will work together with you to develop a plan of healing for you and your entire family system.
Ethical Intervention and Treatment: A Guide to Ethical Practice Contributions by Heather R. Hayes, M.Ed., LPC, CAI, CIP, Founder & CEO of Heather R. Hayes
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Heather R. Hayes & Associates, Inc. is committed to providing the highest level of care without compromise, and we are not employed by, nor do we receive any form of payment or compensation from, the providers with whom we consult for placement or referrals.