What are Behavioral Addictions?

Behavioral addictions affect the lives of millions of men and women around the world. Characterized by an inability to control certain impulses and actions related to a specific behavior like gambling, sex and shopping behavioral addictions can range from mildly disruptive to severely dysfunctional.

According to Psychology Today, certain behaviors produce a strong reinforcement in the brain that causes a person to want to repeat the behavior over and over again.

The same is true for the brain when a person is addicted to drugs. Studies show that this type of brain reinforcement can be so strong in certain people that they actually experience withdrawal symptoms when the behavior is stopped. Understanding the basics of behavioral addictions can help you recognize a problem in yourself or a loved one and get help.1

Behavioral Addiction Defined

According to the National Institutes of Health, behavioral addictions, like drug addictions, stimulate the brain to repeat a behavior in spite of the negative consequences of that behavior. When the habit changes to an obligation or compulsion, it becomes an addiction.2 Even though the behavior produces unwanted outcomes, the patient continues to engage – even to the point of great stress and unhappiness.

Many patients want more than anything to be able to control the behavior that is destroying their ability to interact with others, maintain employment, leave the house or get anywhere on time, or maintain their finances.

This lack of impulse control is the key to a number of mental health disorders, including drug addiction issues, personality disorders, and social disorders. That’s why many of those who struggle with a behavioral addiction may be simultaneously dealing with substance abuse or other mental health issues.

>>> READ THIS NEXT: Mental Health Treatment


A Spectrum of Disorders

Though some behavioral addictions are more common among men than women and vice versa, there are a number of similarities within this classification of mental illness.

Some of these include:
  • Similar age of onset of behavior (usually during the teen and early adult years)
  • Existence of co-occurring issues with substance abuse, anxiety, depression and other mental health problems
  • Family history or experience with a family member who also exhibits compulsive behavior issues
  • Similar response to treatment (i.e., patients who have long-term outpatient care with ongoing check-ins, follow-ups, and adjustments to medication will have the best rate of success in recovery)
  • Inability to stop the behavior despite the desire to change and attempts to stop
  • Interference of the behavior in everyday life that creates a discord or dysfunction

There are more than 100 behavioral disorders that have been identified and are treated by mental health professionals. Some of the most common and well-known include:

Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are serious, life-threatening conditions related to eating behaviors that negatively impact a person’s life. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. Eating disorder treatment helps men and women of all ages overcome potentially life-threatening conditions such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorders.3
Gambling Addiction
Gambling addiction is the urge to gamble in spite of negative outcomes. Basically, the person who struggles with gambling addiction is willing to lose what he or she has to gain something even better. Gambling addiction, once unrecognized as a disease, is now treated efficiently and effectively at addiction treatment centers across the country.4
OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder)
OCD is a type of mental illness characterized by obsessive thoughts and urges, repetitive behaviors or a combination of both. The disorder can affect your job, relationships and school and can make it difficult to live a normal life.5 Treatment for OCD includes a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and medication.
Hoarding Disorder
Hoarding disorder is a persistent inability to discard or part with possessions because of a perceived need to save them, regardless of their value.6 The issue of hoarding has received more attention in the media in the past few years, resulting in an increased recognition of the need for treatment.


When Does a Behavioral Addiction Require Treatment?

A behavioral addiction becomes an issue requiring mental health treatment whenever it begins to cause distress and disruption to everyday life. Behavioral addictions make even the simplest tasks, like grocery shopping, paying bills and returning phone calls, impossible.

When a behavior has taken control of a person’s life in this way, it’s time to get help.

Those who struggle with behavioral addictions often have problems telling the truth and following through on promised to family members and friends, as well as maintaining work and school responsibilities. When a behavior has taken control of a person’s life in this way, it’s time to get help.

Treatment for Behavior Problems

Admissions counselor talking to womanMental health treatment programs can be extremely effective for those struggling with behavioral addictions. Comprehensive treatment programs that include medication and psychotherapy are the most successful when it comes to helping those struggling return to a normal life. The goal is independence and freedom from the debilitating nature of behavioral addictions.

An important part of treatment is learning to manage symptoms by developing strategies and coping mechanisms will help the patient to monitor his or her behaviors, gain confidence and move forward.

As with all mental health and addiction disorders, the earlier that the issue is identified and treated, the higher the rate of success. Treatment options for behavioral addictions include inpatient treatment, outpatient programs, support groups and individual counseling. An admissions coordinator can help you understand your insurance benefits with regards to addiction treatment services.

Finding Help for Behavioral Addictions

If you are ready to start the process of recovery and leave the symptoms of behavioral addictions behind, contact us at 901-350-4575. We can provide you with a range of options for care and match you to the treatment program that will best address your personal issues with gambling addiction, OCD, shopping addiction, sex addiction, hoarding and other behavioral addictions.

Our admissions coordinators are available 24 hours a day to take your call.

By Patti Richards, Contributing Writer


1 “What Is a Behavioral Addiction?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 27 June 2016.

2 Alavi, S S, et al. “Behavioral Addiction versus Substance Addiction: Correspondence of Psychiatric and Psychological Views.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Apr. 2012.

3 Eating Disorders.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 22 Feb. 2018.

4 Compulsive Gambling.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 22 Oct. 2016.

5 What Is OCD?WebMD, WebMD. Accessed Sept. 20, 2018.

6 Hoarding Disorder.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 3 Feb. 2018.