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Addiction to a Behavior as a Sign of Substance Abuse

Addiction to a Behavior as a Sign of Substance Abuse

Behavioral addictions, such as gambling, can go hand-in-hand with substance addictions

Addictions are so sneaky. Not only are they pervasive and all encompassing, they sometimes are disguised as things that don’t even seem like they would be addictions. These types of “behavioral” or “process” addictions don’t involve a substance, like drugs alcohol, but operate with the same basic concept and should be addressed for recovery to be successful.

Some of these behavioral addictions include:

  • Gambling
  • Eating
  • Sex
  • Shopping
  • Use of the Internet or videogames
  • Excessive exercising
  • Working or
  • Seeking love inappropriately.

All addictions, both substance and non-substance, have one thing in common: compulsion.

“If there is a common denominator underlying substance and behavioral addictions,” Marc Lewis, Ph.D., writes, “both in people’s behavior and in their brain mechanisms, then compulsion is its cornerstone.”

These non-substance addictions act the same way in the brain as the addictive substances, according to the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. Because of this commonality, it is easy for a person to think they have successfully dealt with an addiction of a substance, yet they often have just transferred the behavior to a different outlet.

Mike Bundrant writes on that research in the field of addiction suggests that “all addiction is rooted in impaired brain chemistry, not lack of will power, character defects, personality disorders or spirituality.” As an addiction develops, a person’s brain gets used to receiving the euphoric high – from whatever the stimulant might be. When that is taken away, such as through a recovery process, the brain is still looking for the soothing properties of the high.

“The addict is not really craving the addictive substance; they are craving what the substance does for the brain,” Dr. Charles Gant explains.

So when a person gets control of a drug or alcohol addiction, they must be on the lookout for other behaviors that may pop up to take the place of the original addiction.

What’s So Bad About Behavioral Addictions, Anyway?

Sometimes these behavioral addictions are from activities that, without an addictive component, are basic behaviors that most people can enjoy in healthy ways – eating, sex, and even use of the Internet.

These are normal things for a person to do, when within reason, so it is difficult to see when it turns into addictive behavior. For instance, using heroin may be a more obvious way to screw up your life, but relationships, jobs and lives can also be destroyed in more subtle ways: by focusing so much on Internet porn to the exclusion of family, or gambling away the money needed to pay the bills.

Behavioral addicts “abuse these pleasurable activities not to enjoy, but to escape,” according to Robert Weiss. He notes that “the unconscious goal is to gain a sense of control over challenging emotional states and uncomfortable interactions by doing something like eating, perusing porn or gaming…these behavioral patterns can become a person’s default response to just about everything that feels emotionally challenging – good and bad.” An individual may not even realize what he is doing is addictive, but find himself “using” a behavior anytime an uncomfortable feeling arises.

“People find what works at the time and then move onto the next thing,” writes Dr. David Sack for Psychology Today. “One compulsive behavior morphs into the next – a phenomenon sometimes called cross-addiction or addiction transfer – and the cycle continues because [the person] isn’t addressing the underlying issues. She just moves from one coping mechanism to another, never realizing the true extent of her problem.”

Signs and Symptoms of Addiction

Behavioral addictions have many similarities to drug and alcohol addictions. At the basic level, all of these actions are ways used to gain control over emotional pain. Weiss explains the similarities of behavioral and substance addictions:

  • Preoccupation and obsession about using/doing the substance/behavior
  • Tolerance and escalation
  • Failed attempts to curtail or quit the substance/behavior
  • Continuation despite negative consequences
  • Cravings and other symptoms of withdrawal

The behavioral addictions, however, often go untreated, Weiss adds, because society sees them as “moral failings rather than treatable illnesses.”

When a person has a drug or alcohol addiction, the person herself may not realize it, even when others can easily see the outward physical and behavioral signs. The most common signs and symptoms of addiction are:

  • Isolation
  • Mood swings
  • Money troubles
  • Lying.

Addicts isolate themselves from friends and family and often lose interest in activities or sports they once loved.  If a person is using drugs or alcohol all of the time, the “symptoms of withdrawal can include depression, irritability, fatigue, sweating and anxiety. When that person is using, signs of addiction can be drastic improvements in mood, or suddenly shifting from being cranky to becoming happy and upbeat,” according to Steven Gifford, writing for  Addicts will often use all their money and any retirement accounts and steal from friends or family in an effort to support their habit.

Gifford groups all of the signs of addiction under the category of “deceitfulness and insincerity.” He writes, “Isolation, withdrawal, hiding drug and alcohol use, and stealing are all dishonest behaviors, and lying becomes a daily habit for individuals struggling with addiction. Rarely are people truthful about their addiction.”

You May Need Help with More than One Addiction

“Once you’ve struggled with one addiction, you are at greater risk of developing another,” Sack writes. “Even if you think you’re not an addict, or you’ve found your way into recovery from one addiction, you’re not truly free if any mood-altering substance or compulsive behavior is impeding your life.”

If you or a loved one in San Diego is engaging in one or more behaviors that may have become an addiction, call our toll-free helpline. Admission coordinators are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to take your call.