Substance Addiction vs Process Addiction

Many people think that the word “addiction” refers solely to a craving for a substance, like alcohol, drugs or nicotine addiction. This is certainly one type of addiction, which can have serious consequences to physical, emotional and mental health. It’s not the only kind though.

What is process addiction?

Process or behavioral addictions don’t necessarily involve ingesting a physical substance, but their effects can be just as devastating. They usually take the form of an obsession or compulsion, based on the feeling created by a particular behavior.

As these behaviors show little incidence of mortality they tend not to generate as much media hype as say an addiction to drugs. The psychological effects though, can have devastating obsessive compulsive consequences. The behavior can be as widely varied and normally harmless as:

  • Shopping
  • Eating
  • Watching TV
  • Browsing the internet
  • Playing video games
  • Gambling
  • Exercise
  • Using social media
  • Working
  • Tidying up and/or cleaning
  • Locking up the house
  • Seeking excitement
  • Sex

These kinds of addictions are often considered less serious, or even joked about, as the obvious effects tend to be more psychological than physical (with a few notable exceptions such as sexual addiction resulting in pregnancy or STDs). They still negatively affect other aspects of life though.

When does an activity become an addiction?

These are a few of the signs that indicate that a supposedly innocent activity has become an addiction:

  • The activity creates a “high”.
  • After a while, the body’s tolerance to this rises, and a greater level of intensity of the behavior is needed to reach the same high.
  • Finding ways to carry out the activity begins to dominate the person’s life, and they may neglect other areas, such as work, finance or relationships.
  • They may feel guilty about it or it may bring them into conflict with others, but engaging in the activity no longer seems like a choice.
  • If they try to stop, they may experience physical, emotional or mental withdrawal symptoms.
  • They may relapse after trying to stop the behavior, despite knowing the harmful consequences of their actions.

What causes process addiction?

Many of the underlying factors in process addiction are similar to those of substance addiction. For example, stress, anxiety or depression, obsessive thought patterns, and/or a feeling of being alone or unable to cope with life. Factors such as environment and peer influence, as well as genetics and mental health issues all add to the risk.

Process addictions also operate in the same way as substance addictions. The brain’s reward centers become stimulated, releasing a burst of feel-good hormones into the body. The part of the brain that manages stimulus and response is also activated, creating a compulsive craving.

How is it treated?

Unfortunately, it’s not a simple matter of exerting some self-discipline. By the time a behavior has become an addiction, control seems impossible. Instead treatment needs to include a range of different aspects, including:

  • Identifying triggers for the behavior
  • Diagnosing and treating any underlying physical, emotional or mental disorders Support from medical professionals, especially while going through detox and withdrawal
  • Support from counselors, mentors and/or sponsors
  • Ongoing support from family and friends
  • Establishing new interests, activities and social circles

Some people benefit from checking in to a residential rehab center for at least the first part of the process, and sometimes longer, so they can go through it in a very safe and controlled environment.

The eventual goal, however, is a lifestyle change. This change supports the person to manage their addictive tendencies in a more constructive and sustainable way, regardless of what life brings them.

 

Author: Trevor Roberts

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