Behavioral Addiction

group of teenagers addicted to their phones

What are behavioral addictions?

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Addiction, generally, is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences (definition from the American Society of Addiction Medicine). Those who suffer from behavioral addictions engage in repeated, uncontrollable actions that increase in frequency and intensity over time. These behaviors also result in detrimental consequences to the addict.

Some of the more common behavioral addictions include:

  • Gambling
  • Pornography and sex
  • Shopping and over-spending
  • Gaming
  • Social media
  • Exercise
  • Work
  • Food

Read more about specific behavioral addictions here.

close up of gambling from behavioral addiction

What are common symptoms of behavioral addiction?

Behavioral addictions involve recurring practices that lead to a state of anxiety or dysfunction. Of course, we all experience repetitive actions in the course of our daily lives. However, addictions will fit multiple criteria that result in some form of impairment. These factors include:

  • Increased physical risk when engaging the behavior
  • Ignoring resulting problems in the body or psyche to pursue the action
  • Significant craving of the activity, despite its effect on work, school, family, etc.
  • Prolonged involvement in the behavior, beyond its original intent
  • Elevated tolerance, resulting in increased need for more of the addictive behavior
  • Symptoms of withdrawal when behavior is stopped

Why do we engage in behavioral addictions?

Some people seem to be able to regulate their behavior and avoid addiction, while others fall into the patterns of addiction to enjoy the benefits of the behavior, despite the consequences. What makes the difference in these two groups?

Ultimately, we behave the way we do because of how our brains function.

The brain is magnificently complex. As part of its function, the brain houses a network of neurotransmitters that make up a reward system to guide our behavior. This reward system motivates us to actions that help preserve our lives but also guards us against activities that hinder our survival.

Part of this survival system engages the prefrontal cortex of the brain, where impulse control and judgment occurs. When working properly, the prefrontal cortex helps identify and avoid risky behaviors. However, when the prefrontal cortex has a malfunction, especially if it is underactive, the reward system is out of balance. In these circumstances, our impulse control is diminished, increasing our susceptibility to hazardous decisions.


Why do I have low self control?

Our brains function to help us find a balance between pleasure and peril. As noted above, normal brain activity provides self-regulation to avoid risky behavior. When parts of the brain, like the prefrontal cortex, are underactive, this governance is compromised; and healthy decision making is hindered.

There are several chemicals in the brain that affect our cravings and ability to control our responses.

  • Dopamine – When we engage in enjoyable activities, our brain releases a small amount of dopamine, which gives us a pleasurable feeling. Certain activities generate larger dopamine surges that make them particularly enticing, despite the risks involved in continued behaviors. Drugs and alcohol can exponentially increase dopamine levels in the brain.
  • Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) – This neurotransmitter helps to pacify and relax the brain. Traumas and anxiety may reduce your levels of GABA, causing you to seek out other means of calming the brain. Pleasures from the tastes of food and drink can serve as substitutes when GABA levels are depleted.
  • Endorphins – Our brains use these internal chemicals to reduce pain and generate pleasure, much like the effects of morphine. Vigorous exercise (think “runner’s high”) is one means of producing these feelings.
  • Serotonin – These neurotransmitters produce happy and soothing feelings. When these levels are low, we experience worry and anxiety. Carbohydrates like bread and sugar increase I-tryptophan levels, which compensates for low serotonin production.

The key to reversing our behavioral addictions is identifying the underlying reason for the addiction and re-training the brain to pursue healthy activities.

How do you treat addictive behaviors?

Though every patient is different, there are some general treatment options that have proven successful. At Bridgepoint, we will find the appropriate treatment – or combination of treatments – to address your unique situation. Some of these strategies include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – Through a re-creation of circumstances, we can help the brain properly identify and avoid detrimental behaviors via a re-training process.
  • Medications – Some prescriptions can be effective in addressing the underlying causes of addiction, eliminating the need to continue pursuing the behavior.
  • Therapy – Whether individual or group/family therapy, sessions with our trained physicians provide the support and education to cope with addictions and break the bonds that keep you from a healthy lifestyle.
  • Detoxification – Though associated more closely with substance addictions, detoxification may be a source of healing for some behavioral addictions as well.


How do I get help and stop my addiction?

It is important to remember that addictions are a natural response to pleasurable feelings. After all, we consciously choose to participate in many healthy activities that give us pleasure. Of course, our brains will similarly pursue actions that generate gratification. The problem occurs when our brain function lacks the self-regulation necessary to keep us from harm.

What we need to do is isolate the brain pattern that is creating the failure. Based on your specific addiction, we will formulate a treatment plan with the right strategy for your situation. Together, we can renew your brain’s normal function and achieve healthy patterns of living moving forward. Contact us today to schedule an appointment with a member of our specially trained team to initiate your healing process.

Contact us today to receive some encouragement and initial steps. We will need to schedule a visit with one of our staff members, who will work with you to identify the proper strategy for your recovery and healing. Don’t wait – the prompting you are feeling now reflects the urgency and the desire to get help. We will work with you to build on these feelings to restore a healthy balance in your life.