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When addiction comes to mind, we usually think about substances such as alcohol, drugs (prescription and recreational), and cigarettes. Addictive substances are substances that a person craves; this makes sense – the substance changes something chemical within the body, and this effect becomes habit-forming. However, addictive behavior is not always as easy to understand. In order to understand addictive behavior, we have to look at what is going on in the brain and how this alters the thoughts, feelings, and perception of the addicted person. 


What is Addictive Behavior?

Young man sitting depressed overlooking a glass of alcohol

Addictive behavior is when a person has an irresistible compulsion to carry out certain types of behavior. They may feel this compulsion and carry out this behavior even though there are negative consequences. So, perhaps the behavior causes them ill health, physically or mentally. Or maybe it has a negative impact on their family life, personal relationships, or financial circumstances. Why would a person continue to engage in addictive behavior if it was having a detrimental impact on their life? The answer lies in the reward system within the human brain. Something in that addictive behavior causes a sense of reward. This rewarding sensation is just as potent as the ‘high’ that comes with chemical addictions. Even though a person may later feel regret, sadness, or anxiety over their behavior, they are still compelled to engage in the addictive behavior again. This can feel like they are stuck in an endless cycle of self-harming with behavior that might not look ‘addictive’ to other people, but which is activating a chemical reaction within the brain that makes it undoubtedly a true addiction.


The Brain and Addiction

Addictions behaviors within the brain

When you indulge in certain behaviors, they trigger the release of ‘happy chemicals’ such as dopamine. These neurotransmitters are an important part of our brain chemistry; they make sure that we associate things that we need to do with good feelings. For example, if we eat a satisfying meal, our brains work to create associations with happiness and reward so that we continue to eat (which is a good idea if we want to survive). It is the same with other behaviors such as sex; in order to keep the species going, sex has to be associated with good feelings. However, we also get a rush of reward when we do other things. Any activity or behavior that creates this rush is going to be something we want to repeat. However, even if you get a feel-good buzz from making a purchase, it doesn’t mean you get addicted and begin compulsively shopping. So what makes some people get addicted when other people don’t? This comes down to a number of factors, but a major one is genetics. Some people are more at risk of addiction due to their genetic makeup.


What Types of Behavior Are Addictive?

Young woman sitting looking into her empty purse after being unable to resist her addictive behavior of unnecessary shopping

There are many different types of addictive behavior and a whole range of activities and behaviors that activate the brain chemistry associated with addiction. Some of the most common addictive behaviors include the following:


  • Shopping – people may compulsively buy things in order to feel a rush. They may purchase things they don’t even need, feel unable to resist a ‘bargain,’ and hide their addictive behavior from others. This often leads to accumulating serious debt and experiencing financial hardship and can impact on relationships.
  • Gambling people may feel a compulsive urge to gamble, either in one specific way or generally finding the lure of chance hard to resist. This can lead to financial problems, debt, and family or relationship difficulties.
  • Exercise – exercise is necessary and healthy, but some people may feel compelled to exercise beyond what is good for their health. This can lead to various health problems and is often hard to identify as harmful behavior.
  • Sex and Love – people may feel the compulsive need to seek out sex or engage in new romantic relationships. This can lead to sexual health issues, as well as other mental health problems as well as family and relationship issues.
  • Food – people may feel a compulsive desire to eat, resulting in weight gain and associated health issues. This can lead to other eating disorders, as well as problems in personal relationships.
  • Gaming – people may spend extreme amounts of their time in gaming, feeling immersed in the gaming world and reluctant to participate in real life. This can lead to health issues and problems in maintaining relationships.


Treatment for Behavioral Addiction

Young woman seeking therapy for her addictive behavior issue

There is a lot of help out there for those who are suffering from addiction or trying to support someone that is struggling with addictive behavior. The first step is to speak to someone who can properly assess if you are addicted and how severe the problem is. This may feel daunting, but there are many trained professionals out there who will have heard similar stories and helped people to move past the addiction and manage it so that they can live a more fulfilled and fulfilling life. There are two elements to treating addictive behavior:


  • Medication – sometimes, medication can help support you through the process of working through the addictive behavior and identifying triggers before moving on into the recovery process. Remember, if the addictive behavior is impacting the levels of chemicals in the brain, then medication can help support this system and restore balance to the brain.
  • Therapy – therapy is the key to recovery from addictive behavior problems. This will help you to identify the causes and triggers, deal with any past trauma that is contributing to the problem, and finding a path to recovery. It can also help you deal with any feelings of low self-esteem, self-worth, or feeling of shame and guilt that you may be experiencing. These feelings are very common in those suffering from addiction of all types, but it is so important that you work towards viewing addiction as a health problem that can be treated.


For more information on addiction, check out the American Psychiatric Association here.