Behavioral Addictions

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What is a Behavioral Addiction?

You already know that drugs and alcohol can be addictive, but mind-altering substances aren't the only way to get high. Behavioral addictions activate your brain's reward centers, releasing dopamine and other neurotransmitters that leave you feeling euphoric. When the crash comes, as it inevitably does, you may be left in debt, filled with regret, or even suffer from a dangerous illness. A behavioral addiction is a medical condition, not a personal failing, but treatment can help you overcome these challenging addictions.
What is a Behavioral Addiction?

Behaviors such as gambling, shopping, eating, playing video games, or sex can be intensely rewarding, creating a powerful incentive, or compulsion to engage in them.

  • However, rewarding behaviors can become maladaptive, especially for people with underlying predispositions towards addiction and mental illness, or those who’ve suffered from painful or traumatic life experiences.
  • Over time, the likelihood of addiction increases and the corresponding, classic signs of addiction can be virtually indistinguishable from those associated with alcohol or substance dependence.

Symptoms of a Behavioral Addiction

One of the unfortunate realities of addiction is that it often comes with a hefty dose of denial. No one wants to admit that his or her life is controlled by a compulsive behavior. This issue is complicated by the fact that many potentially addictive behaviors are unavoidable. Everyone has to buy things, so a compulsive shopper can easily write her behavior off as just a bit of excessive spending.

Every addict is different, so the fact that you don't have every symptom of an addiction is not an excuse for ignoring the problem. Instead, the key is to critically evaluate how your behavior affects your life. If compulsive behavior makes things worse—by driving you into debt, destroying your relationships, or forcing you to suffer some other loss—you have an addiction.


Some signs and symptoms of a behavioral addiction include:

Couple in bed

  • Endangering yourself, your family, your health, or your financial well being to indulge your addiction.
  • Indulging a behavior much more frequently than other enthusiasts. For example, if you like gambling, but gamble much more than friends who also enjoy gambling, you might have a problem.
  • Trying to stop but being unable to do so.
  • Indulging your addiction at the expense of other activities or obligations.
  • Feeling shaky, anxious, panicky, or depressed when you can't indulge your addiction.
  • No longer enjoying the behavior, but feeling like you “have” to do it.

Do you recognize these signs? If you, or someone you love is battling a compulsive behavior, please call 1-888-993-3112Who Answers? – a treatment support team member can help provide information about behavioral addiction treatment resources.

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Diagnosing Compulsive Behavior

Since many compulsive behaviors are also “normal” behaviors, to properly diagnose such a condition, your treatment provider will evaluate how the behavior affects your daily life and functioning.

Do I Have a Behavioral Addiction?

To assess whether you might have a behavioral addiction, your treatment provider will explore issues such as:

  • Whether the behavior has caused you to lose something of value or compromises your health, such as when a sex addiction causes you to lose a relationship or contract an STD.
  • Harming loved ones because of the addiction, such as when a gambling addiction drives your family into debt.
  • Doing or saying harmful things because of the addiction, such as picking a fight with your wife so you have an excuse to go gamble.
  • Whether you want to continue engaging in the behavior or are only doing it because you feel like you can't stop.

Treating Behavioral Addictions

Though behavioral addictions have the power to cripple your well being, they're also highly treatable. No one willingly chooses to engage in compulsive behavior; research indicates that differences in brain chemistry, hormonal imbalances, and genetic heritage can all play a role in the development of behavioral addictions. So, there's nothing at all to feel ashamed of. Behavioral addictions require treatment, much like other medical conditions, such as food allergies or diabetes.

Cognitive Therapy for Behavioral Addiction

  • Cognitive therapy, sometimes called cognitive-behavioral therapy, is one of the most effective addiction treatments because it focuses on changing your thoughts, thereby helping you eliminate problem behaviors.

Your therapist will work with you to identify self-defeating thoughts, such as a belief that gambling is the only way to feel happy or that sex is the only way to feel love. From there, you'll work to develop healthier thoughts that can help you ditch your addiction—and the painful feelings that cause it—for good.

Behavioral Sign IconDual Diagnosis Treatment

A dual diagnosis is mental health jargon for an addiction that occurs alongside a mental health condition. About half of all people with a history of mental health challenges also struggle with addiction, so there's no need to feel embarrassed about a dual diagnosis. Many people suffering from addiction may use the substance to cope with the underlying pain of the mental illness – a concept known as “self-medication”.


CNS Depressants IconMedication for Compulsive Behavior

Doctors haven't yet developed a medication specifically designed to treat behavioral addictions, but that doesn't mean you're out of luck! If the pain of anxiety or depression compels you to engage in compulsive behaviors, medication to treat these conditions can help. A history of behavioral addictions, though, means that you're vulnerable to other addictions as well. Therefore, you need to tell your doctor about your addiction history so that she can weigh the risks and benefits of prescribing potentially addictive                                                                    medications.


Types of Behavioral Addiction Treatment Centers

If you need treatment for your addiction, you have many options. The key is to find a place that suits your values and works with your life, so don't shy away from asking lots of questions.


  • Outpatient treatment for behavioral addiction can offer a somewhat flexible treatment schedule, with the freedom to return home at the end of the session. If you have a demanding job, don't want to leave your family, or can't afford the costs of living at a residential or inpatient behavior addiction treatment center, outpatient treatment can be ideal.
  • If you crave a safe place away from the stress of home, are worried you'll give into temptation, or feel like you'll need support 24/7, an inpatient treatment program may be the better option.



  • Residential treatment offers you a home away from home where you can solely focus on your recovery, without being distracted by the demands of family or work. Residential treatment typically involves a more structured therapeutic environment, as one is able to participate in regularly scheduled private and group counseling sessions with others making similar strides in their own recovery.
One of the benefits of residential behavioral addiction treatment is that it removes you from potentially dangerous contacts or trigger situations that may have been contributing to the development and maintenance of the addiction to begin with.


  • Luxury treatment centers are typically inpatient facilities that resemble resorts, not mental health centers. You'll likely have your own, private room, access to spa-like services, and a chance to consume gourmet meals. Though these facilities are often the most inviting and relaxing, they're typically also the most expensive.


  • Executive rehab centers cater to people who can't leave work behind. You'll likely have some access to computers and phones, and may even have a place available where you can meet clients. Executive rehab centers are keenly aware of privacy issues, which mean that you'll probably have your own room. The facility will also take precautionary measures to ensure that you don't have to meet with unwanted visitors and that your records are not released without your consent.

Length of Inpatient Treatment

There's no “right” length of time to spend in rehab, though the average stay is about 45 days. Treatment centers offer a wide range of options, from 30, 60, and 90-day treatment plans to longer-term stays for those who need comprehensive and long-lasting help. You're in control of treatment, and unless you pose a danger to yourself or others, no one can compel you to stay. For the best possible outcome, though, it's best to collaborate with your treatment team to determine how long you'll stay and what steps you'll need to take prior to being discharged.

Choosing the right therapy is critical to your long-term recovery, but it can be overwhelming. Our treatment professionals can assist you choose a treatment plan that caters to your needs. Call our confidential line at 1-888-993-3112Who Answers? for more information.

Will Insurance Pay for Treatment?

The Affordable Care Act and the Mental Health Parity Act of 2008 both require insurers to provide coverage for mental health care. However, coverage depends on your insurer's policies.

  • You may have to demonstrate a specific need, and you might have to make a co-payment or hit a deductible before coverage kicks in.
  • In almost all cases, insurance should cover some portion of your stay, but it's rare for insurance to cover everything.
  • Many treatment centers work with clients to develop payment plans, and most facilities are highly adept at maximizing your insurance benefits.

Helping a Friend or Family Member

If someone you love suffers from a behavioral addiction, it's important to understand that addiction is a disease. Blaming or castigating your loved one will only increase his or her shame, thereby discouraging him or her from seeking treatment. You can't force someone to seek treatment, and people forced into treatment may become even more entrenched in the addiction. Instead, try the following strategies:

Family dinner

  • Educate yourself about the disease of addiction, and offer to share the information you've learned with your loved one.
  • Express your concern for your loved one, and convey your unconditional love.
  • Ask what you can do to help your loved one cope with recovery.
  • Offer information on treatment options.
  • If you want to encourage him or her to seek treatment, consider staging an intervention.

Behavioral Addiction Recovery Is Possible

When you're in the depths of addiction-related despair, it can feel like your situation is the worst that's ever existed, or like no one could possibly help you recover. Addiction does this to everyone, not just you. Hopelessness is part of the addiction package, but it's not a reflection of reality. You recover, and with the right treatment, you may find that you never give your addictive behavior another thought. Call 1-888-993-3112Who Answers? and get help today.

Additional Resources

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