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The Psychology of Addictive Behaviors

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Addictive behaviors are behaviors that are reinforcing and rewarding. These behaviors are not always positive, however. In fact, some of them do more harm than good. Others, though they are not harmful in themselves, can still lead to the development of harmful behavior and addictions.

Addiction doesn’t always involve drugs or alcohol. It’s entirely possible to struggle with addiction without having a substance use problem. Some individuals suffer from addictive behaviors. But, regardless of whether a person has a behavioral addiction or a substance problem, any addiction causes dangerous behaviors.

Overall, you wonder what addictive behaviors are and how they reduce the quality of life while becoming increasingly severe. It’s important to understand just how devastating they can be.

What Are Addictive Behaviors?

As we mentioned before, certain behaviors might not be harmful. However, if they are beyond your control they have the potential to be dangerous. This means ending these behaviors will feel impossible. You may find that if you don’t engage in a certain activity, you feel anxious or unhappy. You might even feel physically unwell.

For example, addictive behaviors might include gambling or shopping. If you’re constantly thinking about that lottery ticket you bought or the items in your online shopping cart are keeping you awake, you may be suffering from addictive behaviors.

You may also hear people refer to addictive behaviors as behavioral addictions. When a person suffers from a behavioral addiction, it means that he or she depends on a particular action or behavior for stimulation or reward. In this way, behavioral addiction is much like a substance use disorder, as individuals who suffer from drug or alcohol addiction usually rely on their substance of choice in order to feel a sense of euphoria or reward.

Some examples of behavioral addictions include the following:

  • Food/Eating Addiction
  • Exercise Addiction
  • Gambling Addiction
  • Shopping Addiction

These are only a few of the more common behavioral addictions. Each of these addictions involves specific symptoms and effects. So, it’s important to be aware of the addictive behaviors that accompany them so that you can identify them and get the help you need once you
recognize a behavioral addiction in your life.

Food/Eating Addiction

Food addictions are characterized by specific food-related behaviors. Many people who suffer from this type of behavioral addiction suffer from an uncontrollable and compulsive desire to eat. Some individuals who have food or eating addictions may eat when they feel stressed, angry, sad, or any other negative emotion. 

In most cases, eating addictions develop when people depend on certain types of food. It’s likely that people will depend on unhealthy food items. These might include foods that are high in sugar or carbohydrates. 

Some may compare food addiction to eating disorders. This is likely due to the fact that both of these problems are characterized by types of food obsessions. Some of the signs of food or eating addiction include:

  • Eating in isolation
  • Overeating despite the desire to stop
  • Eating in an attempt to relieve negative emotions
  • Uncontrollable/obsessive cravings for certain foods
  • Feelings of shame or guilt after eating
  • Lack of self-esteem or self-worth after eating

Often, people who suffer from eating/food addiction experience strong cravings for food even if they feel full. Sometimes, individuals may vomit after periods of overeating. They may even exercise excessively to “make up for” the amount of food they consumed. This may lead them to suffer from another type of behavioral addiction, exercise addiction.

Exercise Addiction

exercise as an addictive behaviorWhen a person suffers from exercise addiction, it means that he or she has an intense and even uncontrollable desire for physical activity. It’s easy to wonder if there is such a thing as exercise addiction. After all, perhaps you or someone you know really enjoys working out and exercising. It’s a part of most people’s routines. Some individuals are what people might consider “gym enthusiasts”. Would these people be considered to have an addiction to exercise and physical activity?

It’s important to understand that behavioral addictions are different from many types of substance addiction. Whereas many drug addictions (i.e. heroin or cocaine abuse) are harmful in any situation, exercising is actually a good thing. However, when individuals experience obsessive and compulsive thoughts and desires for physical activity, it may be a sign of exercise addiction. 

It’s common for people to find an escape in exercising. In fact, it’s absolutely normal for people to engage in physical activity to experience an emotional release. However, some people may begin to seek this release so intensely that they may engage in excessive exercise. For example, a person may work out harder and harder, regardless of the harm it may be doing to his or her body.

People may be developing an addiction to physical activity if they avoid other responsibilities in order to exercise. Maybe a person may choose to “hit the gym” rather than spend time with friends. If you find that you or someone you know is spending more and more time working out and less time interacting with friends and family, exercise addiction may be present.

Gambling Addiction

Gambling does not always lead to gambling addiction. It’s a legal pastime that many people find exciting and exhilarating. However, like anything else in life, it can be dangerous to spend too much time gambling. For many individuals, gambling can become problematic. Signs that a person may be developing a gambling addiction might include the following:

  • Uncontrollable gambling; inability to stop
  • Gambling despite negative consequences
  • Financial problems related to gambling
  • Gambling even when attempting to stop
  • Borrowing money from friends, family, coworkers, etc.
  • Loss of interest in other hobbies or other activities
  • Emotional fluctuations due to gambling wins or losses
  • Defensiveness when addressed about gambling problem
  • Frequent dishonesty, secrecy, isolation, disappearances

Many times, people who gamble excessively find themselves getting a euphoric rush while gambling. While most people who enjoy this activity also feel a rush of excitement, people who have a gambling problem find it difficult to avoid gambling because it makes them feel a certain way. But, when they encounter a loss, their emotions plummet and they feel the need to try again.

Excessive and problematic gambling can cause people to suffer in various areas of their lives. They may encounter serious financial hardship. They may also have trouble at work or in school. It can be difficult for them to connect with spouses, children, or other family members because of their harmful habits. This can cause marital problems and other family issues. Individuals may also suffer job loss and other such problems. It’s also possible for individuals who have gambling problems to suffer from other disorders, such as anxiety, depression, or even substance use disorder.

Shopping Addiction

The Psychology of Addictive BehaviorsEveryone loves to get new things. Whether it be things like clothes or electronics, most individuals enjoy having something new. But, some people seem to take shopping to another level. They may engage in this activity much more often than they should. Perhaps they seem to enjoy spending money more than the average person. Or, maybe they tend to go shopping so excessively that it causes financial problems, relationship issues, and more. If any of these things occur, it’s possible that these individuals have what is known as a shopping addiction.

Most people don’t realize that this is actually an addiction. But, although it may seem strange to some individuals, it’s important to understand the nature of addiction. When a person is dependent on or addicted to a certain thing, whether it’s a substance or a behavior, it means that they experience euphoria as these activities affect the brain’s reward system. 

Over time, individuals will lose the ability to control their behaviors. And, as an addiction develops, these individuals will find it hard to think about much else. This is what happens in the lives of those who develop an addiction to shopping.

A person may have a shopping addiction if he or she:

  • Shops regardless of financial problems
  • Feels a euphoric rush while/after shopping
  • Goes shopping when angry, sad, or stressed
  • Feels restless or anxious when not shopping
  • Often buys items he/she does not actually use
  • Gets defensive or angry when addressed about shopping habits

Sometimes, people develop this behavioral addiction as a result of low self-esteem. Others may develop an addiction to shopping after having experienced deprivation as a child. 

Examples of Addictive Behaviors

When people are suffering from a behavioral addiction, the following behaviors may occur in their lives: 

  • An overall loss of self-control: Individuals who have behavioral addictions may have difficulty controlling their behaviors. It can be difficult for them to set boundaries or limitations on their behaviors because of the nature of addiction.
  • Lack of pleasure: It’s typical for people with addiction to stop finding joy in other activities. But, they may even stop finding joy in the behaviors to which they are addicted. For example, a person may shop excessively but feel guilty afterward. Or the individual may simply stop finding joy in shopping altogether. This could ultimately cause the person to overindulge in the activity in the search of that rush of joy. 
  • Desire to quit, but the inability to do so: Many times, people who have addictions become well aware of the negative effects of their behaviors. They may even want to stop engaging in these behaviors but they find that they are unable to quit. Some may even try to stop but eventually experience a relapse.
  • Obsession: Individuals who suffer from behavioral addictions often show signs of obsession. They may constantly think or speak about the behaviors to which they’re addicted. 
  • Denial: Sometimes, people who have an addiction deny the fact that they have a problem. They may even become angry or offended when people confront them about their addiction. 
  • Depression: Often, depression accompanies behavioral addiction. People may experience depression for many different reasons. For one, people may feel misunderstood by family and friends. Or they may feel alone or ashamed because of their behaviors. These emotions can lead to depression.

The Effects of Addictive Behaviors

If you have a behavioral addiction, you may struggle in various areas of your life. Many addictive behaviors negatively impact health. For example, people with food addictions may gain weight and suffer from obesity-related complications. Their family members and doctors may intervene and suggest a weight loss plan. However, if eating is part of the addiction, then these suggestions won’t change problematic behaviors. True recovery involves specific addiction treatment that identifies the behavior and addresses underlying issues.

Treatment for Addictive Behaviors

If you’re suffering from addictive behaviors, know that you are not alone. Also, know that you can find freedom from addiction. With help from a professional treatment program, you can overcome the effects of behavioral addiction. 

Perhaps you are dealing with both a behavioral addiction and a substance use disorder. This may cause you to feel hopeless and helpless. But, addiction treatment is available to help you overcome these issues in your life.

The first part of recovery is admitting that you need help. Then, with help from professionals who understand, you can choose a specific treatment plan. With a behavioral addiction, the approach to recovery is often similar to drug or alcohol addiction treatment.:

Don’t let addictive behaviors control your life. Permanently end addiction at New Directions for Women. Contact us to take the next step toward a healthier lifestyle today.



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