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Process Addictions Not Just Bad Habits

process addictionProcess addictions, or behavioral addictions as they are also called, refer to addictions that don’t involve alcohol or drugs. Process addictions include obsessive behaviors and activities, such as overeating, compulsive shopping or gambling, sex addiction, Internet use, gaming and more. We tend to think of excessive time spent on these activities or hobbies as just bad habits, and for some people, they are.But for others, process addictions are so much more than that. They share many common traits with substance addictions. Whether or not the community of addiction specialists comes to recognize these as so-called real addictions, the truth is that they are damaging and dangerous, and need to be taken seriously.

One process addiction, compulsive or problem gambling, has been officially recognized by professionals as an addictive disorder. Enough research has been conducted on problem gambling for this classification to be made. It is possible that as more research is conducted on other process addictions, the same conclusion will be drawn. Here are some of the many ways in which all of these compulsive behaviors are similar to real substance abuse disorders:

  • Impulse control  -- Many process addictions have been classified as impulse control disorders. An inability to control, or a difficulty controlling, impulses is a defining characteristic of addiction. When someone is dependent on alcohol, for instance, and tries to cut back, she fails time and again. Her impulse is to drink and she has a very difficult time stopping that impulse. Similarly, an overeater struggles every day to control the impulse to eat more than is necessary. In both cases, the addict knows that performing the action is harmful, and yet the impulse is still impossible to control.
  • Life interference  -- The direct result of being unable to control the impulse to drink, overeat, gamble or have sex, is that it interferes with other aspects of life. Someone who gambles compulsively, for example, will soon feel the impact in his wallet. He will experience financial setbacks, which will probably lead to difficulties in his relationships and in his home life. In spite of the problems the compulsive behavior causes, the addict keeps doing it. This is what happens with people who abuse drugs and alcohol as well.
  • Emotional binging -- Although drugs and alcohol are known to impact the chemistry of the brain, using them also has an emotional and psychological element. Those who abuse substances, as well as those who have process addictions, say that they feel tension or anxiety before engaging in the activity or substance use, and then a feeling of pleasure and relief afterward. As with a drug, a compulsive behavior for some people is an emotional release or a way of escaping negative emotions. Over time, cravings develop for both substances and compulsive behaviors.
  • Loss of pleasure -- Both substance abuse and behavioral compulsions start out as pleasurable experiences. The user engages in the activity or ingests the drug to get an emotional high. Over time, however, for both types of addiction, the action becomes more of a habit and a way of just feeling normal again. The experience of pleasure often goes away and is replaced by the simple need to relieve the withdrawal symptoms that are left when not using.

Aside from the similarities in the symptoms and mechanisms of the addictions themselves, there are other things that process and substance addictions have in common. Both tend to begin in late childhood or early adolescence. While they may not become full-blown addictions at this point, it is here when the bad habits often start. Research has also shown that people with both types of addictions have similar personalities. They both tend to have high levels of impulsivity and risk-taking tendencies. Early genetic studies are also showing that there may be a heredity link between substance abuse and process addictions.

As scientists work to understand process addictions better, the evidence emerging makes it clear that these bad habits are very serious. It is possible to simply have a bad habit of eating too much at dinner, or snacking too much between meals. However, these bad habits can turn into true psychological and addictive disorders. Even if they are never fully classified as addictions, the similarities between process addictions and substance addictions are clear and many. With this better understanding, those who suffer from process addictions will be able to get help and maintain recovery.

Posted on January 6th, 2014

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