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Process Addictions: Sometimes Addiction Doesn’t Have a Substance

Process Addictions: Sometimes Addiction Doesn’t Have a Substance

What Are Process Addictions?

Because we talk so much about substance abuse, drug addiction and alcoholism, it’s tempting to think that’s what addiction is. Many of these addiction-causing substances cause chemical reactions in the brain that change the way the body reacts to certain stimuli. As a result, the brain and body combine to demand more and more and more of that stimulant. And in many cases, that stimulant is a drug. It can be an opiate, or alcohol, or methamphetamine, or any number of other things. They flood the brain’s reward sensors, and create a desire to replicate that feeling. Process addictions, also known as behavioral addictions, do exactly the same thing. Only they don’t require a drug to activate the brain’s reward center. Process addictions cause the same reaction as the result of carrying out a certain behavior or action. You probably already know this, but the word “addiction” can easily be preceded by a number of other words that aren’t “drug,” “alcohol,” or “prescription painkiller.” It’s also possible to attach addiction to things like

  • Gambling
  • Shopping
  • Sex
  • Eating
  • Video games
  • Phone/Internet
  • Pornography

And that’s just naming a few. Actress Winona Ryder made headlines in 2001 for shoplifting from a Saks Fifth Avenue department store in Beverly Hills. Being a well-paid actress, Ryder didn’t need to steal, but she found herself looking for a thrill while also dealing with clinical depression and painkiller addiction. Ryder’s case highlights two things about process addictions. First, that they often involve types of behaviors that are potentially harmful, and especially if performed repeatedly. And second, these are often co-occurring disorders that appear alongside other issues, such as mental health problems or substance abuse problems. But the most important thing to understand about process addictions is that they aren’t characterized as just simply doing these things. There’s a good chance you’ve done or consumed every single thing on that bullet list above. At the very least, you’re definitely eaten and gone shopping. And you’re literally using the internet right now. Many behavioral scientists believe that any sort of action that the brain or body finds stimulating can potentially be addictive. That’s why something as normal and necessary as eating can be classified as a process addiction under the right circumstances. But there’s a very big difference between simply doing these things and being addicted to them. Let’s break that down next.

Hobbies vs. Habits: Process Addictions Make You Lose Control

An occasional trip to the casino doesn’t mean you have a gambling problem. Putting some time into a video game doesn’t make you an addict. And buying yourself something nice doesn’t mean you have a process addiction with shopping. These are all perfectly normal behaviors. In fact, most process addictions stem from perfectly normal behaviors, such that it can often be difficult to tell when the behavior itself has become problematic. Much like an alcohol addiction, process addictions are about taking something that is considered normal and even fun in moderation, and driving it way beyond the point of moderation. So where do we draw the line between these behaviors as recreational and harmless, rather than destructive and compulsive? The simplest answer is that these behaviors can reach a point where they start to negatively affect other parts of your life. If you lose your job because you keep missing days to play a game, that’s a harmful addiction. If your consumption of pornography ends up as important or more important than actually engaging sexually with another person (especially if that person is a spouse or partner), that’s likely a problem. If you continue to gamble compulsively despite continued high-stakes losses, you’re likely suffering from a gambling addiction. Of course, there’s more to this than simply suffering negative consequences. Process addictions are characterized as compulsive behaviors that create negative consequences in your personal or social life, but that you still engage in despite the mounting consequences. This is really what addiction, in general, is. You can see that bad things are happening as a result of your behavior, but you lack the self-control to stop. That’s because your brain is getting a rush of endorphins from you performing this activity, which is making it seem like a good idea while you do it. Afterwards, you may feel a rush of guilt and remorse. But when faced with the situation again, your brain and body will remember the rush you got from it last time and convince you that it’s a good idea to do it again – even if, on some level, you know it isn’t. Process addictions are what it’s called when these behaviors become so compulsive and harmful that even a wave of negative consequences isn’t enough to prevent someone from doing them. Of course, “process addiction” or “behavioral addiction” is simply a catch-all term to describe a broad range of afflictions. No two process addictions are quite the same, and they each have some very unique features. Here are some things to look out for in the most common of these afflictions.

How to Recognize Gambling Addiction

Gambling addiction, also called gambling disorder, compulsive gambling, and problem gambling, is an especially harmful process addiction that can affect everybody around the addicted person and cause extreme economic strife. The common stereotype of the problem gambler is the low point where the gambler loses their house, car, or life savings. This is an extreme situation, and while it does happen, the reality is that a real gambling addiction is rarely this dramatic, and if it does get to this point, it has likely existed for months, if not years, before getting to that point. The core issue faced by problem gamblers is that the problem feeds into itself. If the gambler is winning, they convince themselves to “let it ride,” and grow their winnings. If they lose, they feel they need to “chase the losses,” and continue to play until they’ve recouped the money they’ve lost. At no point, regardless of how they’re doing, does it occur to them that the best course of action is to simply stop where they are. They can consistently find a justification to continue. And because of the nature of gambling, the longer you gamble, the higher the chance you lose everything. Problem gamblers don’t necessarily have to gamble consistently. Even if they only gamble once every couple of months, they can still gamble themselves into extreme debt in a short time if their habits are bad enough. Someone who hits the casino every weekend, or has a weekly poker game with friends isn’t necessarily a problem gambler, as long as they set limits for themselves and understand when to stop. On the other hand, even people who can afford the heavy losses can be problem gamblers. Regardless of whether it causes financial strain, the compulsion to gamble in and of itself can be a problem. The time taken away from family, friends, or work to engage in gambling can cause issues all by itself. The simplest way to explain problem gamblers sounds like a circular argument. If the gambling causes a problem, it’s problem gambling. That problem can be emotional, financial, or social, but it is always worth taking seriously. Gambling is frequently seen co-occurring with alcohol addictions, as many casinos offer free or cheap drinks to loosen up patrons and reduce their inhibitions to gambling and money management. That said, not all gambling addicts have to go to a casino to carry out their addictive behaviors. The rise of online gambling has made it easier than ever for people to feed that habit right from their desks.

Shopping Addiction and Compulsive Spending

While a gambling addiction is what it looks like when somebody spends time and money in the pursuit of more money, a shopping addiction is when somebody spends time and money in the pursuit of basically any other things. A shopping addict also feels a rush of endorphins upon buying something new. Their brain feels rewarded for spending money, and so they begin to spend regardless of whether they have the income to do it. In many cases, compulsive spenders will send themselves into debt and ignore their regular financial commitments, opting instead for new clothes, accessories, furniture, electronics, or even major purchases like a car. Like any addiction, this can start small and grow in intensity over time. Once the brain starts feeling that reward, it needs more and more of the same feeling to get the same euphoric rush. In the case of substance abuse, that means larger and more frequent doses. In the case of shopping addiction, it means larger and more frequent purchases. In either case, this is a harmful habit which will eventually lead to disaster it if continues to escalate. Shopping addiction is also closely linked to hoarding disorders. People who are compulsive shoppers often don’t actually use many of the things they buy, but they also aren’t willing to part with the things they buy, nor are they willing to stop buying new things. Thus these things build up over time and continue to take up space, often outgrowing the storage area allotted to them. This is especially problematic for shopping addicts, who often attempt to hide the evidence of their purchases in an attempt to avoid confrontation about it. Shopping disorders, like many process addictions, tend to coincide with mental health problems. Some shopping addicts suffer from depression or anxiety, and they use shopping as a method of coping with those afflictions. Getting treatment for one will likely mean getting treatment for both.

Sex/Love Addiction – Yes, It’s a Real Problem

When Tiger Woods came out into the public as having a sex addiction in 2009, many responded flippantly to the idea that a sex addiction could even be a real thing. Contrary to what some may believe, no, liking and desiring sex is not the same thing as having a sex addiction. We discussed earlier that any activity that causes stimulus can potentially be addictive, and it’s hard to imagine a more stimulating activity than sex. So of course it can be addictive. But what’s the difference between a normal urge for sexual activity and a sex addiction? It isn’t as simple as just “wanting to have sex a lot.” People who like to have a lot of sex can still have fun with other activities. They have other hobbies and personal relationships that they find rewarding even without sex. Sex addicts cannot enjoy anything other than sex. They maintain very few meaningful relationships, opting instead for one-night stands, frequent visits to prostitutes, and voyeurism. Their lives increasingly revolve around the ritualistic satiation of their sexual urges. They don’t care who they get to satisfy these urges, where they do it, or what the consequences may be. They are completely addicted to the state of sexual arousal. Love addiction is similar, but markedly different. Love addicts aren’t necessarily looking for cheap sex, what they crave is the feeling of being appreciated and desired that comes with being a partner in a relationship. What a love addiction often looks like is someone who frequently cycles from partner to partner, never forming a deep relationship, but also never spending any considerable amount of time single. The quality of their relationship isn’t important, they just need to be in one, no matter who with. Sex and love addictions are different, but similar, and they often relate to deeper aversions to commitment and personal relationships. Identifying the root causes of the affliction is key to treating it.

What Treatment is Available for Process Addictions?

Just as many substance abuse addictions are treated with behavioral therapy, so too are behavioral addictions. In some cases, even detox may be necessary, as serious process addictions may cause extreme anxiety and irritation when the behavior is stopped. Process addictions very frequently occur alongside substance abuse and mental health disorders. A rehab treatment center will work to identify and treat all these disorders at their core, with both medicine and both individual and group behavioral therapy. In that way, process addictions are treated much like any other addiction – with evidence-based treatments, therapy and compassion.