Process Addictions

People who are addicted to alcohol may share stories of how they love the taste of alcoholic drinks. In fact, they may be able to describe the way their favorite drinks taste, right down to the last detail. Marijuana addictions are similar, and people who develop these addictions might also be able to define what taste sensations are ideal in marijuana plants and which are best eliminated altogether. People who are addicted to substances like this have a clear-cut enemy standing in the way of their mental health. If they could only steer clear of the objects they’re addicted to, they could experience a full recovery.

There are some people, however, who don’t have addictions to a specific object. They have very real addictions, similar to alcoholism or heroin addiction, but they’re addicted to an action or a task instead of a substance. These process addictions, as they’re commonly known, can cause a significant amount of distress, but therapy can help to make these issues wane in intensity.

Typical Triggers

young man with process addictionAlmost any action could develop into a process addiction. In fact, it’s safe to say that some people with conventional addictions have a touch of process addictions, especially if they must go through multiple steps to prepare their drugs before they take them. A crystal meth addict, for example, could develop a process addiction to the way the drug is heated and inhaled, and how the tools are cleaned. There are some specific actions, however, that have nothing to do with taking or using drugs and that seem to be linked to addictive behaviors.

People feel a little jolt of excitement before they engage in these behaviors, but when they’re through, people feel either apathetic or just guilty. All of these actions may be quite different, and the people who engage in them might be similarly different, but there are some actions that remain the same in all process addictions. For starters, the actions are compulsive. Soon, they want to do those same behaviors again, and they may be unable to stop themselves, even though they know that the behaviors are causing them harm. It’s this compulsive need to engage in these behaviors that provides them with the “addiction” label.


gamblingGambling is an issue for about 5 percent of Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health, and it often tops the list when people discuss process addictions. People with an addiction to gambling do more than simply place an online bet from time to time or engage in a bit of friendly wagering at the office during the football season.

Winning is thrilling for people with gambling addiction, and there is some evidence that people who win feel a burst of pleasurable signals in the brain similar to those felt if the person used addictive drugs, but those signals rarely last for long. People with gambling addictions may find, in time, that their brains only release pleasure signals while they’re gambling. When they’re not gambling, they might not feel anything at all. Instead, people with gambling addictions may spend every waking moment thinking about gambling, and they may spend all of the family’s money on games of chance.

Shopping or Stealing

shoppingAmericans are conditioned to believe that more possessions leads to more happiness, but people with shopping addictions or stealing addictions (kleptomania) may find that the act of obtaining things is more pleasurable than the things themselves. A study in the journal Addiction Research and Theory found that people with shopping addictions often shopped because they had a low or sad mood, and shopping seemed to ameliorate those low feelings, at least momentarily. Once the shopping was over, those feelings returned, and this tended to perpetuate the cycle.

Researchers have found much the same results in people who have kleptomania. Stealing the items makes these people feel powerful and happy, but the items that are stolen are often so small and worthless that they couldn’t possibly bring long-lasting joy.

A shopper might return home with armfuls of purchases that he/she doesn’t remember choosing, or a person with kleptomania may not remember what, exactly, was stolen during a spree. These blackout feelings are common in other impulse-control disorders, including eating disorders, and they can be terrifying to the person impacted. Some people with shopping addictions or kleptomania report a feeling of disassociation while the acts are moving forward.


People with this disorder, and the U.S. National Library of Medicine says 4 percent of the population is impacted, may pull or twist their hair so frequently that it breaks off at the root. They may develop spots of hair loss that are easy to see, but they might also go to great lengths to hide their hair pulling.

Common signs include:

  • An uneven appearance to the hair
  • Stubbly, short growth of hair around the hairline
  • Constant tugging, twirling, pulling or twisting strands of hair
  • Bowel blockages, if people eat the hair they pull

While pulling hair might be painful, the body might also release feel-good chemicals in response to a pain stimulus like this. Once again, a person can become addicted to the burst of chemicals released with each little tug of hair. In time, the person might come to need those chemicals, and the addiction to hair pulling might be firmly in place.

Sex Addiction

People with this addiction may have multiple anonymous partners, or they may have a compulsion to find and use pornography. An article in Psych Central puts the prevalence of sex addiction at about 3 to 6 percent of the adult population in the United States. While sexual activity is considered pleasurable for almost everyone, people with a sex addiction may achieve no pleasure from the sex acts they perform. Instead, they may feel a boost of good feelings from finding new partners or finding new sources of arousal.

While engaged in the act, the person might not feel any emotion at all, but when it’s over, a deep sense of guilt may set in. Even though the person might not want to engage in this activity in the future, the person may feel helpless to stop.

Root Causes

therapyProcess addictions can develop in concert with other mental illnesses. For example, a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found a link between trichotillomania and depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. This doesn’t mean that people who are addicted to pulling their hair have all three of these mental illnesses as well as a hair-pulling compulsion, but it does mean that an underlying mental illness could be the reason the habit developed in the first place. Perhaps the person’s repeated behaviors began as a form of coping, and then spun out of control on their own.

Some process addictions can also develop in the presence of other process addictions. For example, a study in the journal Annals of Clinical Psychiatry found that people with pathological gambling issues were also likely to have compulsive shopping habits and compulsive sexual behavior.

Studies like this seem to suggest that having one process addiction could prime the brain and make it more susceptible to developing process addictions in the future, even to other types of actions.

Getting Better

For some people, process addictions begin with a poor sense of self-image.

These people may run a tape of negative comments through their heads all day long, telling themselves:

  • You’re not smart enough.
  • Other people don’t like you.
  • You’ll never get a promotion.
  • You’ll always be alone.

It’s hard to identify this voice without help, but leaving it in place could cause people to self-medicate with repetitive actions. Therapy can help to break the cycle. In therapy, people can learn how to spot this little voice when it speaks, and they can learn how to challenge those negative messages and replace them with terms that are much more positive and helpful. In time, people may develop a better self-image, and the urge to medicate may cease altogether.

group therapyTherapy may also be helpful in allowing people to understand the mental illnesses that might drive them to repetitive behaviors. People with anxiety disorders, for example, may learn how to use meditation and targeted muscle relaxation to calm their overactive minds and get centered, before they’re tempted to engage in some kind of destructive activity.

Medication Choices

prescription drugsSome people with process addictions benefit from medication management. There is some evidence that process addictions develop due to a chemical imbalance in the brain, similar to the imbalance seen in people who have chronic depression or relentless anxiety. By amending those imbalances with medications, therapists may help their clients to feel much more at ease. The results could be dramatic. For example, a study in the journal Annals of Clinical Psychiatry followed three women who had compulsive shopping disorders. After treatment, all of these women demonstrated a “partial or complete remission of their urges to shop.” This seems to demonstrate how very effective some kinds of medications can be for people who have these addictions.

Medications provided are often forms of antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, but some therapists have had success with providing their clients with medications commonly used for addictions.

The idea here is that people are addicted to the burst of positive chemicals the actions bring about, and medications could block that burst and make the actions slightly less appealing. This is a relatively new idea, however, and it’s not clear if it’s a treatment that all people would feel comfortable receiving for their process addictions.

Moving Forward

Admitting a process addiction can be difficult, as most people who have these disorders feel an intense amount of shame about the acts they perform. They might also blame themselves for their lack of willpower, believing that they could simply get better if they wanted to do so and had the willpower to make it all stick. Interventions are never easy to hold, but they might be an important step toward healing for the person with a process addiction.

Family members can sometimes provide an immense amount of solace. Process addictions can tear a family apart, causing a loss of income, a web of lies and a lack of trust. Families might know all too well that an addiction is in place, even if the person isn’t yet ready to admit that the acts can’t be controlled. Some families choose to hold interventions for the addicts in their midst, providing education on the nature of these sorts of addictions, and reassuring the person that treatment can and will make the situation better.

At The Oaks at La Paloma, we can provide you with a referral to an interventionist who can help you to hold this important conversation about addiction.

When the intervention is complete, we can also provide needed therapies that can help the person you love to get better. Our admissions coordinators are available 24 hours per day, and we’re happy to set up a consultation just for you.