What Are Some Addictive Behaviors?

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor who assists those struggling with substance abuse, gambling, gaming, and internet addiction.

As an addiction counselor specializing in behavioral addiction, I’ve often been asked what behaviors can be an addiction. Many people are familiar with gambling and gaming addictions, but some less-known forms of addiction don’t necessarily include substances.

Addictive behaviors operate similar to addictive substances, causing craving, loss of control, and continued use despite negative consequences. Addictions are ways of coping with difficult underlying thoughts or feelings in the short-term, causing long-term consequences in one’s life.

Some examples of addictive behaviors include:

  • Gambling addiction
  • Gaming addiction
  • Internet addiction
  • Shopping addiction
  • Sex addiction
  • Pornography addiction
  • Food addiction
  • Relationship addiction
  • Exercise addiction
  • Work addiction

It should be noted that gambling disorder is the only officially recognized behavioral addiction listed in the DSM-5, with gaming disorder being recommended for further research.

The other behavioral addictions listed here are commonly discussed by researchers, but there is no general consensus on their diagnostic constructs.

The following sections consist of common questions regarding various subtypes of these addictive behaviors. Despite their differences, each must fit with the criteria listed above to be considered an addiction.

For a more detailed analysis of what defines an addiction, see my article, “When Does Something Become an Addiction?

Can a relationship be addictive?

Relationship addiction can be classified as a form of codependency whereby an individual continually seeks the external validation of a romantic partner, generally stemming from low-self esteem and an anxious attachment style.

Relationship addiction may also often be referred to as love addiction, as mentioned above. I have written more about relationship addiction in my article, “Can You Be Addicted to a Person?

Is chronic cheating an addiction?

Chronic cheating can be considered a form of relationship addiction. Persons continually cheating seek the thrill of pursuing new partners in addition to the external validation of new love interests. Research also correlates this behavior with narcissistic personalities.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder has also been classified by some researchers as a form of addiction to esteem. If you are interested in learning more about narcissism, view my article titled, “Do Narcissists Have Low Self-esteem?

Can love be an addiction?

Recent research suggests love can be an addiction, particularly “harmful forms of love or love-related behaviors” negatively impacting a person’s well-being. Love addiction can also be considered a form of codependency.

It is important to note that the neurochemistry of romantic love is similar to that of an addiction. Although similar neuropathways are triggered, it can only be classified as a form of addiction if the person loses control over their desire to seek external validation and is unable to leave the relationship despite adverse consequences.

If you are interested in learning more about this unique form of addiction, I have written about it in my article, “Can You Be Addicted to a Person?

Is it an addiction if you constantly sext?

Sexting can be considered a form of sex addiction, particularly when it begins to have negative consequences in other areas of your life, and the individual starts to lose control over their ability to regulate this activity.

Sexting consists of engaging with persons over text message using sexually explicit message content or imagery. According to research, sexting has become a normalized and widely accepted practice in Western countries.

Like any kind of sexual engagement, it can be practiced in a non-addictive way. Like sex addiction, sexting can become an issue for an individual when it begins to preoccupy their attention, resulting in an ongoing craving that has an increasingly negative impact on their life.

Can spending money be an addiction?

Spending money can be an addiction when the individual loses control of their ability to regulate their shopping behaviors, resulting in negative consequences in their life. Research has also referred to this as shopping addiction or compulsive buying disorder.

A study found the following characteristics are associated with a shopping addiction:

(a) not engage in credit management, (b) believe that their purchases will transform their lives and selves, and (c) make purchases for an emotional lift…

Although many people can sometimes identify with these characteristics, spending money can only be classified as a form of addiction when taken to an extent where it is causing significant harm in someone’s life.

Can you be addicted to your phone?

Preoccupation with your phone as a form of escape, at the expense of other areas in your life, can be a form of internet addiction. Like other forms of addiction, this results in loss of control and significant harm in one’s life.

I have written more extensively about this question in my article, Are You Addicted to Your Phone?

Many people say they are addicted to their phones, but very few are actually suffering from an addiction. In that article, I share a quiz you can take to determine your level of addiction, based on the clinically validated Internet Addiction Test (IAT).

Can you be addicted to social media?

Social media can be a form of internet addiction whereby an individual engages in frequent social comparison, losing control over their use, and damaging their ability to maintain a healthy self-concept.

I write about this issue in-depth in my article, Why We Are Addicted To Social Media: The Psychology of Likes. In brief, I argue the following:

Likes on social media are addictive because they affect your brain, similar to taking chemical substances. Likes symbolize a gain in reputation, causing you to constantly compare yourself to your peers.

Can gaming be an addiction?

Gaming is recognized as an addiction in the DSM-5, under the classification, Internet Gaming Disorder. The preoccupation with gaming must cause significant harm to one’s life, including health, education, work, or in-person relationships.

In my article on Why Video Games Are Addictive, I explore this question deeper, stating:

Video games are addictive because they help meet our basic psychological need for a sense of freedom, purpose/progress, and social connection.

These needs become artificially met, resulting in harm to one’s life offline, when gaming becomes an addiction. Like an addiction to your phone, it is essential not to apply the word “addiction” too broadly.

Can you have an addiction to eating?

Compulsive overeating can be considered a food addiction. Like other forms of addiction, eating becomes an addiction when one uses food as a form of emotional escape, developing tolerance and requiring increasing amounts over time.

Unlike alcohol, drugs, or any other addictive behaviors like gambling, one cannot simply abstain from eating. Like sex addiction and relationship addiction, one must consider the quality of their relationship to eating.

Has this become an excessive form of short-term self-soothing, resulting in serious long-term consequences in one’s life? Is food being used to avoid painful emotions? Are you using food to fill a bottomless void, losing control over your portions?

These are some questions one might consider since occasional overeating does not typically fit within this category.

Can Netflix be addictive?

Netflix can be a form of television addiction. The concept of television addiction was developed by researchers in the 1970s. Although there is currently no agreed-upon definition, Netflix binging may be an addiction if it causes significant harm in one’s life.

A 2017 study acknowledged that TV series watching can be addictive, but more research needs to be done in this area to generate a theoretical rationale.

Given my background in gambling and gaming addiction, I would compare television addiction to these areas, asking comparable questions:

Is this a form of leisure activity that you generally have control over? Or is this beyond a form of leisure, acting as a coping behavior? Is it having a significant long term-cost to other areas of your life?

Can you be addicted to reading?

Reading addiction has not been officially recognized as a form of addiction. However, one may have an addictive relationship to reading if they are using books as a way to escape from difficult thoughts or painful emotions, similar to other forms of behavioral addiction.

Some forms of reading addiction may resemble work addiction, especially if one is reading to learn new material. Like work addiction, this form of reading comes from the thought that one is not enough, and the excessive desire for new knowledge is driven by low self-esteem.

Throughout my graduate studies, I sometimes bordered on this type of addiction, feeling like I needed to continually devour new material to keep up with the high standards of producing original research in a field.

Excessive reading, like working, can be productive, depending on your ability to control it and maintain balance in your life. It is only considered a form of addictive behavior if it results in significant harm to your health or relationships.

Can overthinking be an addiction?

Overthinking is not considered a form of addiction. Instead, it can be classified as a form of anxiety. Overthinking may be part of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or part of obsessive rumination, in the case of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Although overthinking is generally considered a form of anxiety, overthinking is prevalent among persons with addiction.

As described in my article, The Benefits of Meditation for Addiction, meditation can help with overthinking, allowing you to gain a sense of presence and control over your life.

In addition to meditation, mindfulness-based therapies can help with overthinking. In my article, How to Stop Living in Your Head, I share the principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a mindfulness-based psychotherapy that has been supported by over 330 clinical trials.

Can fitness be addictive?

Preoccupation with fitness can be considered a form of exercise addiction. This occurs when someone is unable to control their desire to engage in excessive exercise, despite harmful consequences to their health, relationships, and self-concept.

Research has found similarities between exercise addiction and eating disorders, particularly in the realm of self-evaluation issues. This may consist of problems related to body dysmorphia.

Beyond self-evaluation issues, exercise addiction can offer a form of escape from difficult thoughts and painful emotions, providing a false sense of control.

Like work addiction, this activity may appear productive on the surface, but when it manifests as an addiction, the behavior becomes counterproductive, leading to significant harm in one’s life.

Can you be addicted to work?

Although there is no agreed-upon definition, work addiction consists of a dysfunctional preoccupation with one’s work, causing harm to one’s health or interpersonal relationships.

Preliminary research in the area of work addiction highlights how the concept has been downplayed in the professional literature.

A 2018 study highlights myths surrounding work addiction, challenging the idea that some types of work addiction are positive. The authors state:

If an activity is defined as an addiction, the long-term consequences of excessive work will always outweigh any short-term benefits.

It is important to consider the quality of one’s relationship to work, not the amount of time spent working. The study goes on to state:

While the time spent engaging in an activity (particularly an excessive activity) is correlated with those addicted, time in and of itself is not a core component of addiction. Content and context of the behavior are far more important in determining addictive behavior than time.

A person engaging in work addiction often approaches work similar to codependency. Work may be used as a way to seek external validation to cope with low-self esteem.

Conclusion

As noted in the introduction, gambling disorder is the only officially recognized behavioral addiction listed in the DSM-5. Although the behavioral addictions listed here are not recognized by the DSM-5, they are recognized by several researchers in the mental health and addiction field.

Preliminary research has been conducted in many of these areas, and perhaps one day, there will be further consensus regarding their definitions.

This overview of behavioral addictions is not meant to pathologize everyday behavior. Instead, it is intended to recognize when these behaviors become destructive forces in someone’s life.

Frequently engaging in an activity is not enough to call something an addiction. For a more detailed analysis of what defines an addiction, see my article, “When Does Something Become an Addiction?

In that article, I dive into the differences between addiction and recreation, if you are interested in learning more about this topic.

Looking for General Support?

BetterHelp.com provides online counseling. Check out their site here to see if their services are right for you Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily if you don’t feel supported.

Online-therapy.com is currently offering free support for persons looking to optimize their mental toolbox. Check out their free worksheets based on the evidence-based practice of Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT).

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help and Online-therapy.com, I may receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

To find local support, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors and therapists are not consistent. Also, one of the most important factors in successful treatment is the quality of the therapeutic relationship. If you are not feeling supported, it is important to seek out another practitioner.

Curious if online therapy works? I wrote an article here, looking at the evidence.

If you’re just bored and looking for a new hobby, check out Skillshare. with thousands of classes to choose from, this online community allows you to gain new skills, network with peers, and find new opportunities. Check out their free trial here.

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2 Comments

  1. Donna-Luisa (Dwordslayer)

    Thank you Steve this is quite interesting, and addiction can be almost anything from what you have shared.

    Reply
    • Steve Rose

      Yes.. anything can be an addiction, but I’m cautious when using the word, since pathologizing everything isn’t helpful.

      Reply

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