Process Addictions

About Process Addictions

Addiction can take on many forms and wear many different masks.   A process addiction (a.k.a. behavioral addiction) is when a person obsessively or compulsively engages in an activity or behavior despite the negative consequences; mentally, physically, relationally, financially, legally etc.   This is the same working definition for substance addiction minus the physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms.  While it is true that drug and alcohol addiction can cause a PHYSICAL dependency in the body that requires a period of detox, the real addictive “hooks” go way deeper than just physical dependence.  If this were not the case, detox alone would solve the problem and relapse would not exist.

Why would someone choose to use again after their body has been detoxed and the physical dependency is gone?  Because the true addictive “hooks” lie in the EMOTIONAL dependency.  This is why some people become addicted to pain medication even after they are no longer in physical pain – because the pain medication was also medicating emotional pain.

The brain does not know the difference between physical and emotional pain—-Gabor Mate M.D. 

Recognizing EMOTIONAL dependency is the foundation for understanding all chronic addictive patterns - process or substances. This understanding also shifts addiction treatment from a behavioral focus (the WHAT), to an emotional focus (the WHY).  Addictive patterns are therefore seen as serving a purpose –or solving a problem.   They are unhealthy coping mechanisms that help manage unbearable emotional pain.

In addition, the research on compulsive behaviors has shown that any activity or behavior that stimulates the reward center of the brain can become addictive, and could potentially be just as damaging as drug and alcohol addictions.

Like drugs and alcohol, process addictions can offer a person different experiences.  Two of the most common experiences are:

  1. To create a “good feeling” state by engaging in the behavior or activity, which in turn stimulates the reward center of the brain. This natural rush or “high” can happen with just the anticipation of engaging in the activity or behavior.
  2. To shut down a “bad feeling” state by engaging in the behavior or activity, which in turn provides a distraction from painful and overwhelming feelings.

Process addiction(s) are present in most, if not all, chronic mental health diagnoses and symptoms (including substance use disorder).  This is why it is imperative to treat all issues simultaneously.  Process addictions can also take on addictive patterns in cognitions (thoughts) or behaviors, regardless of diagnosis.  

Whether a person is aware of it or not, most, if not all, behavioral addictions start with cognitive addictions.  However, a small percentage of people, will report only a cognitive addiction without a behavioral addiction. While people can become addicted to any activity, hobby or behavior, some of the most common process addictions are the following:

  • sex
  • gambling
  • pornography
  • shopping
  • exercising
  • working
  • smoking
  • eating
  • cleaning
  • hoarding
  • Internet/gaming
  • dissociation
  • self-harming
  • Obsessive thoughts

Types of Process Addictions

How do I know if I struggle with a process addiction?