Contrary to popular belief, behaviors can be just as addictive as substances. Referred to as “process addictions,” these mental health conditions can have serious consequences.

Process addiction, also known as behavioral addiction, is an addiction characterized by a strong impulse to partake in a specific behavior.  An individual with a process addiction engages in this behavior even when it results in harmful consequences to an individual’s emotional, interpersonal or physical well-being. Process addictions do not involve drugs or alcohol. Instead, the behaviors themselves provide a natural reward or emotional high. Behavioral addictions are fueled by compulsive behaviors that cause distress across all areas of a person’s life. As with any addictive behaviors, those with process addiction are unable to refrain from taking part in the behavior and require treatment and intervention to stop.

What Is a Process Addiction?

Although most people associate addiction with substances, addictions can occur without the involvement of substances. These addictions are habitual and provide a person with an emotional high, which keeps the person engaging in that behavior. Process addictions are classified as compulsive and addictive behaviors that are detrimental to a person’s well-being. Despite the negative consequences, a person will continue to partake in the behavior and may feel shame and remorse after doing so.

While process addictions don’t involve substances, they share similar characteristics with drug or alcohol addiction. Like substance addictions, people with process addictions are unable to control themselves and cannot stop themselves from engaging in certain behaviors. Also similar to substance addictions, a person with a process addiction will remain fixated on a behavior and go to great lengths to avoid the feelings of discomfort that would result from stopping the action. A person with a process addiction will continue to partake in a behavior despite the adverse outcomes that it may cause, which is a hallmark of both types of addictions.

Types of Process Addictions

Some types of process addictions include:

  • Gambling addiction
  • Sex and love addiction
  • Internet addiction
  • Exercise addiction
  • Shopping addiction
  • Work addiction
  • Porn addiction
  • Food addiction
  • Video Game Addiction

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5) was updated to include process addictions, as prior editions only referenced “substance-related disorders.” Despite the inclusion of this category, the only DSM-5 behavioral addiction currently listed is gambling disorder. While many process addictions still need to be officially classified as mental health disorders, the inclusion of gambling disorder in the DSM-5 seems to be a step toward accepting process addictions as serious behavioral health conditions.

Signs & Symptoms Process Addiction

Several signs can alert a person as to when a family member, friend or loved one has a process addiction.

Some of the most common symptoms of process addiction include:

  • Spending an excessive amount of thinking about or partaking in the behavior
  • Reduced ability to control a behavior
  • Continuing to engage in a behavior despite negative physical or emotional consequences
  • Trouble stopping a behavior, including unsuccessful attempts to stop it
  • Ignoring occupational, academic and family responsibilities in favor of the behavior
  • Using the behavior to cope with difficult emotions and feelings
  • Diminishing or downplaying the magnitude of the problem
  • Developing a tolerance the behavior, so that the individual needs to increase the frequency or intensity of the behavior to continue to achieve pleasure and fulfillment from it
  • Experiencing emotional withdrawal when the behavior is stopped or avoided
  • Developing mental health concerns, such as anxiety, irritability, depression or substance addiction, after the behavior stops

Common Behavioral Addictions

There are several common behavioral addictions. These types of process addictions can cause significant distress and impairment in multiple areas of a person’s life.

Some of the most common process addictions include the following:

Gambling Addiction

Compulsive gambling is the uncontrollable desire to gamble despite negative financial, emotional and interpersonal consequences. Activities that fall under the umbrella of gambling include playing casino slot machines and card tables, playing the lottery, betting on horses and entering raffles. Today, there is also a wide range of gambling games available online.

Symptoms of gambling addiction include a fixating on gambling, experiencing financial debt or hardship related to gambling and making lifestyle accommodations to perpetuate gambling. Gambling addiction may begin when a person feels that they can quickly solve financial problems by gambling a small amount of money to win a large amount of money. Inevitably, a person loses money and feels that they have to win their losses back, initiating a vicious cycle.

Sex and Love Addiction

Sex addiction and love addiction are disorders related to intimacy. Sex addiction is the compulsive desire to obtain sexual arousal and characterized by a fixation on sexual activities that may be used to alleviate stress or heighten mood. A person with sex addiction cannot control their desires, may engage in unsafe sex practices and has extreme thoughts about partners of interest and sexual activity.

Love addiction is a dysfunctional compulsion to pursue romantic love and romantic satisfaction.  A person with love addiction believes that love will solve everything and seeks romantic fulfillment to bolster their self-worth and sense of security. Often, this leads people to engage in unhealthy, self-defeating relationship dynamics.

Internet Addiction

Internet addiction is classified as extreme internet use that gets in the way of a person’s daily functioning. Internet addiction disrupts effective time management and can result in health and mental health consequences, including obesity, loss of sleep, depression and impaired social skills. Internet addiction was noted in the DSM-5 as a disorder that needs more research before it can be officially classified as a mental health condition.

Exercise Addiction

Exercise addiction is a detrimental obsession with health, fitness and exercise. Exercise addiction can result from eating or body image disorders. Exercise addiction may be related to a dependency on the pleasure response people experience after exercising as the body releases feel-good endorphins. Excessive weight loss, injury and poor mental health are potential outcomes of exercise addiction.

Shopping Addiction

Shopping addiction is a compulsive spending problem that is impulsive, excessive and out of control. Shopping addiction can cause significant impairment in a person’s life, family and finances. Individuals with a shopping addiction experience a euphoric high from shopping, which serves to reinforce and encourage the behavior. However, because they usually feel remorseful and uncomfortable after a spree, people with shopping addiction tend to be secretive about their shopping habits. People with shopping addictions may shop to boost their self-esteem or combat other mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression.

Work Addiction

Work addiction occurs when a person works compulsively to reduce apprehension and feelings of guilt they experience when they are not working. Work addiction is characterized by extreme loyalty and excessive devotion to work, often to the detriment of an individual’s personal life and physical and emotional well-being. Risk factors that can lead to work addiction include financial stress, fear of being laid off, or personal motivation to achieve a certain level of achievement or success.

Porn Addiction

Porn addiction is another compulsive behavior where an undue amount of time is spent watching pornography instead of socializing with others or completing daily activities. People with porn addiction often feel embarrassed and ashamed about their habit, but continue to view porn despite any negative consequences that it has on their life.

Food Addiction

Food addiction can be classified as a process addiction, as well as an eating disorder. Food addiction occurs when a person cannot stop eating despite negative consequences such as unhealthy weight gain or other health problems. An eating addiction can result in cravings, tolerance and withdrawal. People with an eating addiction may use food to alleviate negative emotions and feelings of stress.

Video Game Addiction

Video game addiction is a pattern of gaming habits that involve a lack of impulse control and continuance of gaming despite dire consequences on mental, physical or emotional health. In other words, video game addiction involves compulsive game playing.

What Causes Process Addiction?

Genetic, societal and environmental factors can influence the development of process addictions. The behaviors associated with process addictions cause people to experience a high when reward pathways are stimulated in the brain, which reinforces engagement in these behaviors. Other causes of addictive behavior may include past trauma or neglect, feelings of stress or unhappy home life. Outside stressors can also have an impact, as a person may engage in addictive behaviors to alleviate stress and other negative emotions. Additionally, compulsive behaviors may result from co-occurring mental health conditions, whose symptoms tend to complicate and worsen the process addiction.

Process Addiction Statistics

Behavior addiction statistics reveal that process addictions are more common than most people think:

  • Up to 10 million Americans live with a gambling addiction
  • About 6 percent of people in the United States live with shopping addiction
  • It is estimated that 25 percent of Internet search inquiries — or 68 million searches daily — are associated with pornography, and 35 percent of downloads are related to pornography
  • Exercise addiction impacts about 3 percent of people who regularly go to the gym
  • About 5–10 percent of people grapple with work addiction

Risk Factors for Compulsive Behaviors

Genetics is a significant risk factor for compulsive behaviors, as individuals with family members who have experienced addictions are more likely to develop addictions themselves. Other risk factors include childhood trauma, abuse and neglect, lack of parental oversight or a tumultuous home environment. Individuals who spend a considerable amount of time with a person who has a process addiction can be another risk factor.

Process Addiction and Substance Abuse

Process addiction and substance abuse co-occur frequently and tend to be prompted by the same types of feelings and urges. There are many linkages between substance abuse and specific types of process addictions, including sex addiction, porn addiction and gambling addiction. Process addiction and substance use disorder are independent conditions, but both are inadequate methods of coping. In some instances, a process addiction and substance abuse can overlap, occur simultaneously and feed off each other when a person switches back and forth between them.

The Professional Counselor Journal reports that individuals with process addiction frequently have another addiction or disorder accompanying it. It is estimated that sexual and love addiction co-occurs with addiction with rates as high as 40 percent and eating addiction co-occurs around 25 percent. Gambling addiction co-occurs with addiction with rates anywhere between 20 and 30 percent, exercise addiction co-occurs with rates as high as 15 percent and internet addiction co-occurs at about 10 percent.

Treatment for Process Addiction

Treatment for process addiction often involves professional intervention, as many individuals cannot overcome them on their own. Process addictions can have devastating impacts on a person’s personal, academic, occupational, financial and social life if they are not treated.

Process addiction treatment almost always includes psychotherapy with a behavioral component. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a successful form of behavioral addiction treatment, as it helps a person manage negative thoughts and alter maladaptive patterns of behavior. In therapy, people learn about triggers to their addiction, discuss how and why their addictions occurred and learn healthy coping skills to manage their impulses and urges.

If a process addiction is co-occurring with another disorder, such as a substance abuse disorder or other mental health condition, both disorders must be treated simultaneously. Each disorder needs to be addressed fully, along with any potential interactions between the two conditions.

At the Recovery Village, you are never alone. Our clinical staff is highly trained in addiction and co-occurring mental health conditions and can assist you in determining which treatment program is right for you. Reach out today for more information.

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Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS
Tracy Smith is a Licensed Professional Counselor, a Nationally Certified Counselor, an Approved Clinical Supervisor, and a mental health freelance and ghostwriter. Read more
Read Next

Healthline. “Exercise Addiction.” June 29, 2016.  Accessed March 26, 2019.

North American Foundation for Gambling Addiction Help. “Statistics Of Gambling Addiction 2016.” (n.d.) Accessed April 9, 2019.

Koran, Lorrin. “Estimated Prevalence of Compulsive Buying Behavior in the United States.” The American Journal of Psychiatry, October 2006. Accessed April 2, 2019.

Psycom. “Internet Addiction Disorder.” March 4, 2019.  Accessed March 26, 2019.

Webroot. “Internet Pornography by the Numbers; A S[…]nt Threat to Society.” (n.d.) Accessed April 2, 2019.

Sussman, Steve. “Workaholism: A Review.” Journal of Addiction Research & Therapy, 2012. Accessed April 16, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.