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.
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.
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:
- 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.
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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
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.
Dual 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”.
Medication 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.
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.
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.
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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:
- 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.