Behavioural Addictions VS. Substance Addictions

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Behavioural Addictions VS. Substance Addictions

11 November, 2020Articles, News

Seeking treatment and help for substance addiction is a lot easier than seeking help for behavioural addictions. One of the reasons for this may be the denial surrounding behavioural addictions.


The simple explanation of addiction is a primary chronic disease of the brain reward, motivation, memory and body that involves compulsive use of one or more substances despite the serious health risks and social consequences that may result from our actions. Addiction disrupts regions of the brain that are responsible for reward, motivation, learning, judgement as well as memory. It damages various body systems as well as families, relationships, education and work.

One of the primary reasons for making it difficult to identify that a specific behaviour has become an addiction is that substance addiction affects the body and has serious visible health consequences and behavioural addictions do not present themselves with this specific consequence thus admitting to having a behavioural addiction is challenging.

  • Addiction is often characterized by:
    • Inability to abstain.
    • Impairment in behavioural control.
    • Craving or increased need for drugs or rewarding behaviours.
    • Diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviours and interpersonal relationships.
    • Dysfunctional emotional responses.


Behavioural addiction happens when an individual becomes pathologically focused on pursuing reward by engaging in behaviour. Often the individual struggles to refrain from the behaviour, experiences intense cravings, has difficulty resisting and has minimal awareness of the problems and or consequences that arise as a result of their behavioural addiction, including- loss of time and loss of the ability to prioritize other life functions and responsibilities.

  • Some examples of behavioural addictions are:

It is difficult to seek help or treatment if you are not sure that there is a problem. Identifying your addiction and understanding the consequences of it and deciding to seek help are the first steps to recovery.


Whether it is sex, gambling or substances- when these activities are indulged and enjoyed the reward pathways in the brain release dopamine, also known as the “feel-good” hormone.

This chemical rush acts as a positive reinforcement to the body and over time the brain is conditioned to seek out that dopamine release. This leads to an altered mental state affecting decision-making and potentially leading to dangerous consequences as is the case with substance addiction which could result in an overdose. A behavioural addiction, such as gambling, could result in bankruptcy.

Behavioural addictions carry the same characteristics as that of substance addiction.


Compulsive use or acting out on behaviour.
As the addict continues to ingest the substance or engage in the behaviour, tolerance develops and it takes larger doses of the substance or behaviour to produce the sought-after pleasure or relief.

This means that the body and brain send intense signals that the drug or behaviour is needed. Psychological cravings related to the experience of taking the substance or engaging in the behaviour may occur.

Loss of control
Addicts cannot predict or determine how much of the substance they will be using or when they will be using, however, once they begin, they cannot stop. The same loss of control applies to behavioural addictions such as gambling, sex, food or gaming.

Continued use despite adverse consequences
Behavioural addictions have negative consequences. Addicts often are not aware of these consequences due to denial. Adverse consequences include loss of time at work, failing interpersonal relationships and negatively impacted financial well-being. Addicts feel that the pleasure derived from the substance or behaviour outweighs the consequences.

Continual use of a substance affects the body which soon adapts and begins to tolerate the drugs pharmacological effect, as a result, the addict needs more of either the substance or the behaviour to achieve the same effect of the initial experience.

Withdrawal symptoms are unpleasant physical symptoms when the substance or behaviour is withheld.

To conclude that the effects of substance addiction are different or more severe than behavioural addictions would be erroneous.

The mental, physical and spiritual effects of behavioural addiction are much the same as with substance addiction and both carry dire consequences to both the addict and significant others in the addict’s life and treatment for both is equally important.

If you or anyone close to you needs help with an addiction to sex, gambling, substances, alcohol or food, please contact us for a free assessment.

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American Psychiatric Association
World Health Organisation: ICD 10 classification of behavioural disorders (
Goodman A: Addiction definition and implications (
American Society of Addiction Medicine policy (

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