Process addiction, sometimes referred to as behavioral addiction, is simply any addiction to an activity or process. Common examples include addictions to gambling, shopping, work, sex, eating, or surfing the Internet. Though some may not consider these addictions to be “real,” the general consensus in the scientific community is that they are quite real and significant problems.
Though certainly different from an addiction to a substance, there are similarities between process addictions and addictions to alcohol or drugs. Certain activities or behaviors will release pleasure responses in the brain, just like how drugs trigger the release of pleasure-inducing chemicals, leading an individual to participate in the behavior more and more. Over time, that behavior can become compulsive to the point that it’s considered an addiction.
Many different types of people develop process addictions, across all ages, races, ethnicities, income levels, and genders. Numbers differ significantly among the different types of behaviors and activities involved. For example, younger age groups are more likely to be addicted to video gaming or online activity, and women are more likely to have shopping addictions.
What really seems to determine who is at risk for process addictions has to do with cognitive traits. Just like with substance addictions, many people who are addicted to activities and behaviors score high on self-reported impulsivity and sensation-seeking tests while scoring low on harm avoidance. However, those with addictions to gambling or online activity sometimes score high on harm avoidance, suggesting that they may be seeking out this behavior to try and avoid painful emotions or life stress.
Types of Process Addictions
Probably the most widely known process addiction is addiction to gambling. In fact, it is listed as a formal diagnosable disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – 5 (DSM-5), the latest version of this manual.
According to the National Counsel on Problem Gambling (NCPG), 2 million people in the US are considered pathological gamblers and another 4-6 million are classified as problem gamblers. Problem gamblers don’t fit the full diagnostic criteria for addiction, but they fit some of the symptoms and it has an impact on their lives.
Gambling addiction is a great example of just how harmful process addictions can be. Although a process addiction can’t directly kill an individual the way a substance addiction can, it can ruin lives and drive people to dangerous and self-destructive behavior, including self-harm. With gambling addiction, this is often related to financial difficulties or devastation. NCPG estimates that one in five of those addicted to gambling attempt suicide.
Another commonly referenced process addiction is sexual addiction. This is a particularly difficult addiction to treat as, unlike with drugs and alcohol, total abstinence is not the goal. At the same time, this problem can be considered even more similar to substance addictions due to the fact that there is a direct and powerful reward response when the body comes to orgasm.
Sexual addiction is also very much a progressive disorder, just like many substance addiction disorders. Though some may never progress beyond compulsive masturbation, others feel compelled to seek out more and more sexual partners, or are simply more and more distracted and overwhelmed with sexual thoughts.
There’s also been research on the escalating nature of addiction to pornography, with subjects feeling the need to view progressively more graphic pornographic images and videos in order to get the same response. This is similar to how the human body and mind develops a tolerance for intoxicants when they are regularly abused.
Sexual addiction has become a serious problem in the US, with around 30 million people in the nation having some form of the disorder. Most of the health issues involved with this addiction are around sexually transmitted diseases.
One growing but less researched type of process addiction is addiction to video gaming. There have been isolated cases where people have died from dehydration because they were so addicted to a video game that they failed to take care of themselves. Internet addiction, now more commonly known as problematic internet use or compulsive internet use, is also a steadily increasing problem that can consume people’s lives to the point that they neglect everything else.
Another way in which substance addictions and process addictions are similar is in regard to their effective treatments. No process is physically addictive, so there are no physical withdrawal symptoms. However, the cravings to engage in the behavior can be very much the same, and they can be treated with medication, participation in support groups, and therapy.
There are treatment centers and organizations that deal specifically with process addiction disorders. However, they may be more difficult to find and access, especially for individuals who live in poverty and/or who live outside highly populated areas. This is even more of a problem for those addicted to gambling or shopping, as they are often buried in debt by the time they seek treatment. In fact, a 2013 study found that a full 50 percent of homeless individuals are problem gamblers.
Luckily, common forms of therapy are often very effective in treating process addictions. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is designed to teach people how to avoid destructive behaviors and replace them with healthy ones. Seeking therapy can be especially important when it comes to process addictions as the activities involved can be much more difficult to avoid than drugs and alcohol. The Internet has become essential in many people’s daily lives, few people can or are willing to give up sex entirely, people generally have to shop for things, and food is, of course, a basic need. Therefore, it may be necessary to discover the underlying cause of the addiction, such as depression or a desire to avoid stress in one’s life, if there is to be any chance of recovery.
Recovery often involve restructuring the relationship with the activity in question, such as learning how to have a healthy relationship with food or to participate in healthy sexual activities. The new relationship with the behavior involves balance in some cases, rather than abstinence.
Medication can also be used to treat compulsive behaviors, depression, and anxiety. Although there is not yet any medication approved to directly treat any kind of process addiction, there has been some promising evidence suggesting that medication used to treat some substance use disorders could be used to treat process addictions. This includes naltrexone, which is used to treat alcohol and opioid addiction by blocking a certain receptor in the brain. Topiramate, an anticonvulsant, has also shown some promise.
Much more research needs to be done on process addictions, as it was only recently that they began to be recognized as legitimate psychological disorders. However, it seems clear that there are many parallels between processing addictions and substance addictions, which should make the process of discovering potential causes and treatments easier.