Process Addictions

People who are addicted to alcohol or other substances of abuse can describe the taste or effect of the substance in great detail often with longing in their eyes. There are some people, however, who don’t have addictions to a specific substance. 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. 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

Almost any action could develop into a process addiction. In fact, many people who develop rituals around substance-based addictions also develop process addictions. Someone addicted to crystal meth, for example, could develop a process addiction to the way the drug is heated and inhaled and how the tools are cleaned. Most process addictions, however, are not connected to substance abuse but to other behaviors that may pose no problem for the general population.

Many process addictions stem from risky behaviors; however, most people who engage these behaviors do not become addicted to them. All of these behaviors, though different, have some commonalities. For starters, the actions are compulsive, and once the person repeats it, it may be difficult to stop despite negative consequences. It’s this compulsive need to engage in these behaviors that leads to addiction.

Gambling

Card player with bad handGambling is an issue for about 6 to 8 million Americans, and it often tops the list when people discuss process addictions.1 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 drugs. Like substance abuse, 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 Shoplifting

Americans are conditioned to believe that more money and more things leads to more happiness, but people with shopping addictions or stealing addictions (kleptomania) often feel the act of obtaining things is more pleasurable than the things themselves.2 Many people with shopping addictions often shop because they feel sad or depressed and shopping makes them feel better, at least momentarily.3

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.

Trichotillomania

People with this disorder may pull or twist their hair so frequently that it breaks off at the root. They often develop spots of hair loss that are easy to see, and they often go to great lengths to hide their hair pulling.Common signs of trichotillomania include the following:

  • 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 pull4

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. About 3 to 6 percent of the adult population in the United States meets the criteria for a sex addiction.5 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

Process addictions can develop in concert with other mental illnesses and may indicate underlying undiagnosed problems. Perhaps the person’s repeated behaviors began as a form of coping, and then grew into addictions overtime. Because all process addictions are based in compulsory behaviors, they may develop on top of one another and people seek new thrills through other activities.

Getting Better

For some people, process addictions begin with a poor sense of self-image and feed off negative self-talk like the following:

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

Many people believe these type thoughts are normal and not see them as problematic; however,therapy can help to break the cycle. In therapy, people can learn how to identify these type thoughts and challenge 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 self-medicate through addictive behaviors may cease altogether.

Therapy 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

Some people with process addictions benefit from medication management. Particularly for process addictions related to underlying mental illnesses caused my chemical imbalances, medication may help many patients feel at ease. Antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are commonly used for process addictions, but some therapists have had success with providing their clients with other medications used for more specifically for addictions.

These medications block the pleasure-giving neurotransmitters in the brain in order to make the addictive actions less appealing. More work is still being done to understand this type of treatment’s efficacy.

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. Many blame themselves for a lack of willpower, too. 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 often provide great solace for their addicted loved ones assuring them of their love as well as being a compelling force to enter treatment. 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.

We want to help you and your family heal from the destructive nature of process addictions. Our admissions coordinators are available 24 hours aday at our toll-free helpline, and we want to help you being your journey to a better you today. Please call now.


1FAQ.” National Council on Problem Gambling, Accessed April 30, 2018.

2Kleptomania.” Psychology Today, March 1, 2018.

3 Triffin, Molly, “What Shopping Addiction Really Looks Like – and How to Quit.” Time, December 3, 2015.

4Trichotillomania.” MedlinePlus, April 5, 2018.

5 Weiss, Robert, “Who Is a Sex Addict?PsychCentral, July 17, 2016.