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Behavioural Addictions

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Behavioural Addictions

As humans, we are hard-wired to seek out pleasure in the form of short-term rewards. This biological desire can lead to compulsive behaviour in some people, most commonly depicted as substance abuse which has been widely studied for many years.

However, much less is known about a range of other compulsive behaviours that can have a similar detrimental effect on our physical, mental and emotional heath.

Behavioural addictions manifest in compulsion or uncontrollable desire to regularly engage in specific behaviours despite experiencing negative consequences. Many of the behaviours that we engage in without much thought have the potential to be addictive including shopping, exercising and even consuming food. [1]

It can be difficult for many individuals dealing with a behavioural addiction to find support and guidance, as the majority of these activities are socially acceptable and some such as consuming food are even required for survival.

Thankfully, scientists and medical professionals have become more aware of the range of potential behavioural addictions in recent years and have developed treatment programmes that can help to guide individuals towards long-term recovery.

What are the different types of behavioural addictions?

Many behavioural addictions are not as closely studied when compared to more prevalent and well-known addictions such as alcoholism, and as a result, millions of people may be suffering in silence.

It’s possible to become dependent on behaviours that target the reward centre of the brain, resulting in a wide range of behavioural addictions that are just as detrimental to our physical, mental and emotional health as many of the most prevalent substance abuse disorders. [2]

Some of the most common types of behavioural addiction include:

1. Sex addiction

Sex addiction does not always involve the physical act of sexual intercourse. If an individual feels compelled to compulsively watch pornography, engage in masturbation and use chat lines to the detriment of their mental health and relationships, they may be suffering from sex addiction.

Some people feel that they are unable to control their sexual urges, which can lead to risky behaviour such as having unprotected sex with multiple partners. Others may use sex as a coping mechanism to avoid unpleasant and painful feelings or memories.

2. Gambling addiction

It’s possible to gamble without being addicted, but with the rise of online casinos and betting apps there is a risk that the number of people with a gambling addiction may increase over the coming years.

Currently, it is believed that around 1.4 million people in the UK are problem gamblers. [3] Gambling addiction is defined as a compulsion to gamble despite negative consequences resulting from this behaviour, and can result in financial troubles, damage to relationships and in some cases even legal issues.

3. Food addiction

Many addictions do not have obvious external symptoms, and it’s possible to suffer from an internet or love addiction without others being aware. Individuals dealing with a food addiction do not always have this opportunity, as their disorder causes them to compulsively eat large amounts of food on a regular basis.

Certain foods such as sugar, fat and salt activate the same areas of the brain as a dose of heroin or cocaine, releasing pleasurable feelings that may quickly diminish once the food has been consumed. This can cause the individual to obsess over planning, shopping for and eating food while ignoring the signals that the body is full.

4. Exercise addiction

Although exercise is typically viewed as a productive and healthy activity, it is possible to develop an addiction to physical fitness. This can manifest in an obsession with exercise, including working out repeatedly even when the individual is injured or in pain and compulsively exercising despite having no desire to.

Physical activity releases endorphins and serotonin, also known as the ‘happy hormone’. Many exercise addicts may find it difficult to recapture this feeling during times of inactivity and will work out compulsively in order to lift their mood. Exercise addiction can also begin when the individual is dissatisfied with their body and may often co-occur with an eating disorder.

5. Shopping addiction

The compulsion to shop and spend money despite negative consequences is classified as an addiction, with a shopping addiction often leading to financial troubles and strained relationships. An individual dealing with this disorder may place shopping ahead of responsibilities such as paying bills and will compulsively purchase items that they may not particularly like or need.

Often co-occurring with other mental health disorders such as hoarding, shopping addiction can have serious repercussions for the individual’s mental, emotional and financial health.

6. Video game addiction

While video games can be an enjoyable way to relax, they also have the potential to be addictive. Gaming disorder is now officially recognised by the World Health Organisation as a mental health condition and is much more common in younger people who may also suffer from feelings of anxiety and low self-esteem. [4]

Video game addiction can manifest in a number of ways including a compulsion to continue playing even when the individual does not want to, feeling anxious and irritable when unable to play and no longer having time to complete work or school assignments. When video games begin to replace reality, the risk of addiction is very real.

What can cause a behavioural addiction?

Some of the factors can lead to a behavioural addiction include:

1. Past trauma

It can be tempting to engage in activities that feel pleasurable in an attempt to escape from unpleasant and traumatic memories or experiences. These activities can quickly become habitual and addiction may develop, particularly if the individual is not addressing the root cause of their trauma.

2. Low self-esteem

If an individual has little self-worth and does not see themselves as an important member of society or even their own community, they may be less concerned with any potential damage to their health and wellbeing when engaging in destructive or addictive behaviours.

3. Poor social skills

Many activities such as gambling, watching pornography and playing video games can all be enjoyed alone, which can make them more appealing to individuals who struggle socially and find it difficult to engage with other people. They may find that feelings of loneliness and isolation are temporarily decreased when they engage in these behaviours, potentially leading to an addiction.

Do I need to go to behavioural addiction rehab?

If your behaviour around a certain activity is having a negative impact on your life or others around you, it may be a sign that something needs to change. This is particularly true if you have attempted to cut down on the amount of time that you spend engaging in the behaviour but have been unable to do so.

It’s recommended that you reach out to a medical professional if you have concerns surrounding a potential behavioural addiction. They will be able to make a diagnosis and guide you through a treatment programme.

If you can relate to the below statements, it’s recommended that you reach out to a medical professional to explain your concerns surrounding a potential behavioural addiction. They will be able to make a diagnosis and guide you through a treatment programme.

  • I do not feel like myself unless I am regularly engaging in the behaviour
  • I have attempted to reduce or entirely stop the behaviour and have been unable to do so
  • I have experienced negative consequences related to the behaviour but I continue to do it
  • I am not always honest about how often I engage in the behaviour, both to myself and others
  • If I am not engaging in the behaviour I am often thinking about it or planning to do it
  • I often neglect my responsibilities in order to engage in the behaviour
  • If I am unable to engage in the behaviour I feel depressed, anxious and/or irritable

How does behavioural treatment rehab work?

A rehabilitation programme for behavioural addiction may be similar to treatment for substance abuse, depending on the severity and length of the addiction.

1. Diagnosis

A psychological evaluation and diagnosis by a medical professional must be performed before treatment can begin – it is not advised to self-diagnose with any form of addiction.

They will then be able to create a personalised treatment plan tailored to the individual, which will maximise the chances of success and long-term recovery.

2. Detoxification

Similarly to substance abuse rehabilitation, successful treatment involves a detoxification process in which the addictive behaviour is ceased. This allows the individual to move forward to the psychological aspect of recovery without the distraction of the behaviour.

Although there are no substances involved in behavioural addiction, withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, depression, restlessness and mood swings may be apparent.

3. Therapy

Simply stopping the behaviour will not usually lead to long-term recovery, as relapse is likely to occur without further introspection.

There are various forms of therapy that can assist with behavioural addiction including cognitive behavioural therapy, which focuses on addressing the root cause of the addiction and implementing behaviour changes that lead to healthier and more fulfilling ways of coping with uncomfortable thoughts and emotions.

4. Medication

Some medications can assist throughout the detoxification period and help to calm cravings and withdrawal symptoms, although no specific medications have been developed to treat behavioural addictions.

Medication is usually most effective when the individual is dealing with a co-occurring disorder such as anxiety or schizophrenia. A medical professional will be able to prescribe the most effective medication in accordance with the treatment plan.

References

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3164585/

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3354400/

[3] https://www.gamblingcommission.gov.uk/PDF/survey-data/Gambling-behaviour-in-Great-Britain-2016.pdf

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6676913/

 

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