Types and Treatment for Behavioral Addictions

04 February, 2021
There are many types of addictions that don't involve substance abuse. Let's look at the types of additions and treatment for behavioral addictions.

Not all addictions are related to drugs and alcohol. In fact, there are other types of behaviors that are far more common and that we might even do every day. We may have even normalized these behaviors without knowing that there is a clear psychological problem behind them. Today, we’ll take a look at some types of these behaviors and treatment for behavioral addictions.

Using your cell phone so much that you aren’t able to put it down is addictive behavior.

Another type of addictive behavior is channeling emotions through food by binging. There are many forms and types of this clinical condition. In fact, a recent advancement within the fields of psychology and psychiatry was that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) finally included this nomenclature.

A separation between substance addictions and behavioral addictions didn’t exist until 2013. While this may seem irrelevant, it’s actually decisive for the therapeutic approach.

Let’s dive deeper into this topic.

What are behavioral addictions?

Until a few decades ago, people assumed that all addictions included the consumption of some type of harmful substance. Before behavioral addiction was given a name, harmful behavior that a person couldn’t stop repeating was considered an impulse control problem.

However, today we know that these types of addiction, such as cell phones and pornography, aren’t caused by people saying “I can’t control myself.” The brain’s addiction mechanism doesn’t require external substances, like cannabis, amphetamines, cocaine, caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. 

Apparently, there are even harmless and inconsequential behaviors that can become addictive. This is caused by the change that takes place in our brains.

These actions briefly supply us with dopamine and rewarding reinforcements, which makes the brain believe it needs that behavior to feel good.

Some playing cards

Read more: Addictions During Quarantine: What You Should Know

Addiction without drugs

Behavioral addictions are a set of harmful behaviors that are beyond a person’s control. Similar to substance addiction, they share the same characteristics. However, unlike substance addictions, the person doesn’t consume any external products.

If you’re asking yourself how these behaviors appear, the answer lies in the emotions and feelings they can bring on: positive, comforting, pleasant, and always obsessive. The affected person isn’t always aware of this addiction because they are generally harmless behaviors (such as playing video games).

These addictive behaviors are activated by a positive reinforcement mechanism, such as experiencing pleasure or euphoria. However, as the behavior becomes obsessive, the person may start to experience discomfort.

Additionally, they may notice symptoms of withdrawal appearing when they are not doing the behavior.

Types of behavioral addictions

There are many types of behavioral addiction. In fact, new types of addictions have emerged as the result of new technologies. This makes it necessary for healthcare professionals to develop mechanisms for detection and treatment.

Many of these conditions are showing up in an increasingly younger population.

Let’s look at the most common types:

  • Gambling disorder or gambling problems: Gambling is very common in our society. With casinos and a lack of regulations for protecting minors, its popularity is on the rise.
  • Internet gaming disorder: Scientific studies, such as those carried out at Nottingham Trent University, show us that this type of addiction is very common in adolescents.
  • Internet addiction: There are thousands of people who can’t take their eyes off everything that happens on social networks. This is, in fact, an addiction.
  • Pornography addiction: Frequent use of audiovisual material with sexual content is one of the most common behavioral addictions.
  • Phone addiction: This is another recurring phenomenon that many of us are not aware of. The simple act of being separated from, or losing, one’s phone triggers a lot of anxiety in many people.
  • Sex addiction: The need to satisfy sexual desire can become obsessive and harmful.
  • Eating disorders: This includes bingeing or obsessing over healthy foods.
  • Compulsive shopping.
  • Affective dependency disorders, or love addiction: In these cases, we also see behavioral addictions spring from relationships. With this addiction, it’s impossible for someone to leave their partner, even if the relationship is toxic.

Keep reading: How to Start a Conversation About Your Sexual Desires

Symptoms of behavioral addiction

All addictive behaviors can manifest themselves in many ways. Experts in the field of behavioral addictions, such as the professor of psychology Enrique Echebarrúa, explains in his books “Addictions without Drugs” that these disorders manifest in the following ways:

  • Intense desire and craving for the behavior.
  • The progressive loss of control over the activity, without being able to stop doing it.
  • Neglect of daily activities, such as work, school, or relationships.
  • When people around the person notice what’s happening and warns them, but they deny it and get defensive.
  • Progressive wear and tear of relationships. 
  • When the person cannot do this behavior, they experience withdrawal syndrome: anxiety, irritability, discomfort, anger, rage.
Boys playing video games

Treatment for behavioral addictions

Treatment for behavioral addictions is based on this fact: these disorders are often accompanied by depression, anxiety, or personality disorders. It’s essential to diagnose the underlying issue correctly and to individualize treatment for each patient. 

Generally, doctors will take a multidimensional approach that combines pharmacological treatment with the psychological approach. With the latter approach, cognitive-behavioral therapy, motivational therapy, as well as group and family therapies are effective.

When it comes to psychological therapy, the patient should work on self-esteem, rationalization of thoughts, impulse control, management of emotions, and coping strategies, as well as those aimed at preventing relapses. The patient should also establish new goals and future projects. 

Behavioral addiction is very common in young people and adolescents. Therefore, we need families and educators to collaborate and build an understanding to prevent and detect this condition.

  • Echeburúa E, Corral P. Adicción a las nuevas tecnologías y a las redes sociales. Adicciones. 2010; 22, 91-96.
  • Echeburúa E. ¿Adicciones sin drogas? Las nuevas adicciones. Bilbao: Desclee de Brouwer; 1999.
  • Griffiths M. Does Internet and computer “addiction” exist? Some case study evidence. Ciberpsychology & Behavior.
    2000;3: 211-218.
  • López, A. Luengo. “Adicción a Internet: conceptualización y propuesta de intervención.” Revista Profesional Española de terapia cognitivo-conductual 2.1 (2004): 22-52.
  • Echeburúa, Enrique, Paz Corral, and Pedro J. Amor. “El reto de las nuevas adicciones: objetivos terapéuticos y vías de intervención.” Psicología conductual 13.5 (2005): 511-525.
  • Gossop M. Relapse and addictive behaviour. London: Routledge; 1989. 8. Marks I. Behavioural (non-chemical) addictions. British Jour- nal of Addictions. 1990; 85: 1389-1394.
  • Potenza M. Should addictive disorders include nonsubstance related conditions? Addiction. 2006; 10 (S1): 142-151
    Fairburn C. La superación de los atracones de comida. Barcelona: Paidos; 1998.
  • Labrador FJ, Villadangos S. Adicciones a nuevas tecnologías en jóvenes y adolescentes. En: Echeburúa E, Labrador FJ, Becoña E. (Eds.). Adicción a las nuevas tecnologías en adolescentes y Jóvenes. Madrid: Pirámide; 2009.p.205-220.
  • Davis RA. A cognitive-behavioral model of pathological Internet use. Computers in Human Behavior. 2001; 17: 187-195.
    22.