Behavioral Addictions

Tracie Timme


Tracie Timme – Online Counselor and Therapist

This paper explores behavior addictions, what they are, if it is thought that they exist, the similarities and differences between behavior addictions and substance addictions, thoughts about behavior addictions according to the diagnostic criteria in the DSM-IV-TR, and what types of treatments are used for behavioral addictions and how they work.  Most see addiction as, just that, addiction, no matter what one is addicted to.  There is a hypothesis for the neurobiology of addiction, and that is that there are manipulations on the structural and molecular levels that are unchangeable, due to the synaptic plasticity of the dopaminergic reinforcement system (Spanagel & Heilig, 2005). 

People have all kinds of addictions for many reasons.  Some people (women) like to shop when they get upset, shopping makes them feel better.  Others like to eat when something goes wrong.  Regardless what the reason is, people do things that make them feel better.  No matter what “addiction” people have, it all boils down to the way it makes them feel.  Substance or behavior, they get relatively the same rush.

Behavioral addictions are defined as being similar to that of a drug addiction.  Behavioral addictions are issues like pathological gambling, kleptomania, intermittent explosive disorder, pyromania, compulsive sexual behavior, compulsive computer use, and compulsive buying (Frances, Miller, & Mack, 2005).  People get some kind of rush doing these things, they enjoy them.

Behavioral addictions would exist because people get a rush from doing something.  They get an excited feeling to want to do it more and more, it makes them feel good.  These feelings come from getting an adrenalin rush and the feel good hormones dopamine, ocytocin, and vasopressin (Reynaud, Karila, Blecha, & Benyamina, 2010).  Therefore people who have behavioral addictions would want that feeling to continue, so they would be addicted to that feeling.  Just like a person is addicted to the high they get from a substance.  They want it more and more and over and over again.

Behavioral addictions and substance addictions differ because you ingest substances, so you are adding outside chemicals that affect the chemicals inside, to your body.  Behavior addictions you are not adding anything to your body, you are doing an action that increases the chemicals you already have.

Similarities between substance addiction and behavioral addiction are multiple or spur-of-the-moment participations in a behavior regardless negative consequences, lack of control over the behavior that is the issue, the need or yearning prior to participation in the problematic behavior, and a carefree quality during the participation of the problem behavior.  They also share similar features such as withdrawal, tolerance, many attempts to cut back or stop that are unsuccessful, and hindrance in major life functioning areas (Frances et al., 2005).  Addictions of all kinds also have in common GABA and glutamate, opioid, cannabinnoid, and noradrenaline and serotonin, which are neurotransmitter systems.  Implicated in the addiction process as well are the dopaminergic and oxytocinergic systems, which are regulated by the corticotrophin system (Reynaud et al., 2010).

The DSM-IV-TR (2000) places behavioral addictions under the impulse-control disorders category.  Their definition of impulse-control disorder is the inability to have control over impulse, temptation, or drive to do something that is harmful to self or others.  For most of the disorders they describe that the person has a rise in tension or arousal before the act, then while acting they feel gratification, relief, or pleasure.  When they are finished with the act they may or may not feel self-reproach, guilt, or regret (APA, 2000).  Gambling, compulsive buying or computer use, and kleptomania only cost a lot of money.  However, these four things could lead to harming one’s self or turning to robbery, therefore could potentially hurt others as well.

Treatments that are used for behavioral addictions are similar to those used for substance addictions (Frances et al., 2005).  Some pharmaceuticals, according to Frances et al., (2005) that are used are antidepressants like clomipramine.  This drug given to patients helped to improve their actions.  Fluvoxamine gave mixed responses.  Paroxetine had no significant improvement in patients.  Another treatment that is used for alcohol dependency was given to patients with urges to gamble, opioid antagonists showed to decrease gambling thoughts, urges, and behaviors when given in higher doses.  Mood stabilizers improved behaviors over placebo.  Atypical antipsychotics showed no improvements.  Psychotherapy helped the patients to change their thinking about behaviors through cognitive therapy.  Imaginal desensitization had more positive outcomes over a one month to nine year period (Frances et al., 2005).

People that have behavioral disorders should seek assistance for their problem.  In many ways it is just like having an addiction to a substance.  Behavioral addictions can lead to harm of self and others, just like a substance addiction can.  People can get so addicted to the way they feel when they engage in the behavior; they can become just as violent as substance addicts to be able to partake in the behavior that makes them feel so good.

About the Author: Tracie Timme is a practising Online Counselor and Therapist at


American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-IV-TR) (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author. ISBN: 9780890420256.

Frances, R. J., Miller, S. I., & Mack, A. H. (Eds). (2005). Clinical textbook of addictive disorders (3rd ed.). New York: Guilford.

Reynaud, M., Karila, L., Blecha, L., & Benyamina, A. (2010). Is love passion an addictive disorder? The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 36(5), 261-267.

Spanagel, R., & Heilig, M. (2005). Addiction and its brain science. Addiction, 100(12), 1813-1822.


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