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A Guide to Behavioral Addictions

Most often, the word addiction brings to mind addiction to chemical substances such as alcohol or drugs. Although these seem to be the most commonly discussed addictions, they are far from being the only types of addiction that can affect a person’s life. When an addiction centers around a behavior or action versus a substance it is known as a behavioral addiction. Gambling, sex, food, and even self-harm are just a few of the examples of common behavioral addictions. What often makes these behaviors addictive is the immediate reward that is associated with it. This “reward” is a pleasurable one that the individual will seek to repeat over and over again, despite the consequences. Often the consequences to behavior addiction are negative, as with time they can affect a person’s ability and desire to interact with others socially. It may also cause financial, work-related, and even marital problems. The best way to combat behavioral addictions is to understand what the most common ones are and how they can be treated.


Cutting is a form of self-harm that involves intentionally making shallow cuts on one’s person. When a person cuts his or herself it is a way for them to cope with negative issues in their life, be they typical or excessive. It is also done as a way to express strong emotions such as sorrow, self-loathing, or depression. People who do this often do so in secret and may even have a sense of guilt about their actions. Signs associated with cutting include blood found on towels or clothing or bedding, scarring that cannot be explained, and wearing clothing that covers the body during times of excessively high temperatures. A person who cuts his or herself may also isolate themselves for long periods and seem irritable. It is important that people who cut themselves understand the potential harm of doing so. Cuts can become infected, or a person may cut too deeply and severely injure themselves. It can lead to other types of addiction such as drug addiction if the individual is unable to learn how to cope with pain and emotions in another way. It may even lead to severe depression and suicide.

Gambling Addiction

When a person is unable to stop gambling despite negative consequences such as severe financial loss, even to the point of losing one’s savings or home, it is called gambling addiction. The addict will think about gambling to the point of preoccupation, and may use it as a type of escape from problems. He or she often needs to gamble with larger and larger amounts of money to experience the “reward” or “rush” that comes from gambling. Lying becomes a problem as the gambler attempts to hide the gambling or the extent of it from loved ones and friends. This negatively impacts relationships and one’s job. Often, if money is not available, a gambler may even break the law by committing a crime to gain money for paying off gambling losses or to play. In addition to the symptoms noted, other signs that a person is addicted to gambling include asking for money to pay for gambling, attempts to cut back on gambling but being unable to do so, and guilt after the completion of gambling.

Sexual Addiction

When a person persistently engages in sex and sexual behavior and is unable to stop despite negative consequences, it is a sexual addiction. Sex can become an addiction as it produces hormones that cause a type of high. People inadvertently want to repeat that high by having more sex. A person who is a sex addict may watch excessive amounts of pornography, masturbate compulsively, have numerous affairs and/or multiple partners, or may even seek out escorts and prostitutes frequently. He or she may demand sex from a partner, engage in unsafe sexual practices, and seek out sexual gratification through venues such as cyber-sex, phone sex, massage parlors, or strip clubs. Potential causes include, surprisingly, a fear of true intimacy, a history of sexual abuse and/or incest, and feelings of shame due to a sexual secret. People may require the high from sex to cope with negative emotions or stress. Negative consequences to sexual addiction include the loss of personal relationships, including the destruction of marriages.

Shopping Addiction

Compulsive buyers, or shopping addicts, are unable to stop themselves from shopping and may lie about buying items or attempt to hide them. Another sign of a shopping addict is that he or she will have multiple credit cards, all or most of which are maxed out. Items that are purchased may never be used and may never even have the tags removed. Compulsive buyers are often constantly in a financial crisis. Shopping addicts are not only confined to malls as they may also be addicted to online shopping or shopping from television shopping networks. The harm from this addiction comes from the damage that can be done to relationships. Money is often the source of problems, particularly when there is a strain on finances. This is worsened when a person is spending money on buying excessive and/or unnecessary items. It can lead to separation, divorce, loss of children due to an inability to support them, and a loss of one’s saving, home, car, etc.

Internet Addiction

Internet addiction is a controversial addiction in that many professionals disagree whether it should be classified as such. It is a compulsive need that certain people have that makes them need to be on the Internet for a vast majority of their time. People with this addiction are on the Internet so long and often that it creates problems with their ability to interact with others socially and in-person. It can impact non-Internet related relationships such as with girlfriends or boyfriends, or with spouses or friends in general. Work may be negatively impacted, particularly when a person goes online during work hours. Sitting long hours in front of a computer can negatively impact one’s health as well. Signs that a person is addicted to the Internet include an increasing need to be online longer and longer, and extreme upset to the point of having withdrawal symptoms if not allowed to use the Internet. Withdrawal symptoms may include anxiety, depression, or anger. An addict may fantasize about being on the Internet while at work or in a place where the Internet is not accessible. School work and other responsibilities are often neglected in favor of using the Internet. The Internet may serve as a form of escape from reality, it may create a feel-good “reward” for the user, or it may be a way for an individual to cope with personality issues such as shyness.

Gaming Addiction

Video games are a source of great fun for many, but they can also become a problem for some. A person has a video game addiction when he or she has a compulsive desire to play video games more often and for increasingly longer times. Game playing may become so important that the addict thinks about it constantly throughout the day and may eventually skip work, school, or other responsibilities around the house. The gamer may even begin to avoid or neglect friends or spouses in order to play. Another sign of addiction is that the gamer shows signs of withdrawal if kept away from video gaming. The addict may show signs of anger, depression, and violence. In essence, the game begins to hold more appeal than life outside of the game. For some individuals, gaming serves as a type of escape that makes them feel good about themselves and their abilities, or their life in general.

Food Addiction

With food addiction, food acts like a drug. The fat, salt, and sugar in certain types of food releases dopamine which is a known feel-good chemical. This pleasurable response to the food creates a craving for more food and can mask signs of fullness. People who become addicted to this feeling may become tolerant to food and need to eat greater amounts to experience the satisfaction and fullness. Signs of addiction to food include eating until illness sets in, eating even when not hungry, searching for certain foods even when they are not readily available, concern about cutting back on specific types of food, and thinking of food when not eating. A food addict may fear overeating in social settings and may, as a result, avoid these settings to avoid embarrassment. Another sign of food addiction is passing over opportunities to spend time with friends or loved ones in favor of eating. Some addicts may even avoid working to eat. For some, eating may cause them to feel guilt or self-loathing afterward or during. Withdrawal symptoms include agitation and anxiety, abdominal pain, fatigue, headaches, confusion, and weakness. The negative consequences of food addiction include obesity, the risk of health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, the loss of one’s job, or social isolation.


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