In the past, addiction referred to substances like drugs and alcohol that affected the brain. In 2011, the American Society of Addiction Medicine broadened the definition of addiction to include process addictions. (1) Instead of an addiction to substances, process addictions revolve around an addiction to behaviors. The behaviors provide reward and relief to people, similar to chemical addictions.
How Does Someone Become Addicted to Behaviors?
The American Society of Addiction Medicine explains that addiction is related to areas and functions within the brain that are connected to reward. In the case of process addictions, the brain rewards for engaging in certain behaviors and creates a chronic disease. (2) A process addiction can include signs and symptoms like:
- Difficulty or an inability to control behaviors or stop despite negative consequences of the behavior
- Craving a behavior
- Relapse and remission
- Difficulty seeing how the behavior is affecting relationships with others
- Unhealthy emotional responses
Someone who is addicted to sex, for example, might crave sexual encounters and not be able to stop the behavior, even though it is destroying his relationship with his family or friends. Someone who is addicted to shopping might continue to shop even if it is causing financial difficulties, and might even hide the behavior from family or friends.
Examples of Process Addictions
Process addictions encompass a lot of different behaviors that people become addicted to. Examples include:
- Internet and smartphone use
- Playing video games
- Watching television
Many people might think they have an addiction to the internet or television if they make a habit out of these activities. But process addictions go beyond habits. They are different because the person has a compulsion to perform the behavior and is unable to stop.
To explain this type of disorder, the UCLA Dual Diagnosis Program notes that a person with a sex addiction can be continuously obsessed with sexual acts, leading to behaviors like choosing strictly sexual encounters over relationships, engaging in excessive masturbation and having many different sexual partners.
For an example of a gambling addiction, the person might continue to feel an urge to gamble even after getting in financial trouble. Even if it costs personal relationships, the person might not be able to stop. (3)
Are Process Addictions the Same as Chemical Addictions?
In many ways, the two types of addictions are very similar. They both involve the same reward parts of the brain. People experience many of the same signs and symptoms like tolerance and withdrawal. And people are unable to stop the behavior, just like with chemical addictions. In addition, both types can benefit from addiction treatment or experience continuing or worsening symptoms if they do not receive treatment. (4)
Nonetheless, these types of addiction are different in the prominent way that people with chemical addictions are addicted to a substance, whereas people with process addictions are addicted to a behavior. Beyond that, the two types of addictions can affect your brain in different ways. A study in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine explains that substances directly affect neurotransmitter systems within the brain, whereas process addictions indirectly affect them. (5)
Just like with chemical addictions, people with process addictions should seek out treatment. Treatment can include methods like group therapy and psychotherapy. (3)