How Can a Behavior Be an Addiction?

Sometimes people struggle to understand that behavioral addictions, including sex, porn, and love addiction, are every bit as real and every bit as destructive as substance addictions.

Part of the confusion around behavioral addictions arises because certain addictive behaviors are (for most people, most of the time) healthy and essential to life. For instance, eating and being sexual contribute to survival of both the individual and the species. Because of this, our brains are pre-programmed to feel pleasure when we engage in these activities. Neurochemically speaking, our brains release a surge of dopamine, along with adrenaline, oxytocin, serotonin, and a variety of endorphins, and we experience pleasure.

Notably, this is the exact same neurochemical pleasure response that we see with alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, and other addictive substances.

Unfortunately, some people learn that inducing this pleasure response (by ingesting a substance or engaging in a behavior) is a great way to escape unwanted feelings like stress, boredom, anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Over time, numbing out in this way can become a go-to coping mechanism, and individuals can start to use this artificially induced neurochemical response compulsively. Eventually, these individuals find that they are no longer trying to have fun, they are simply hoping to numb out. And that is a sure sign of addiction.

The Anticipatory High

To further understand the similarity between substance and behavioral addictions, consider a cocaine addict on payday. After receiving his check, he runs to the bank to exchange it for cash, perhaps skipping out of work early to do so. Then he dashes off to his dealer’s house to spend money that he ought to set aside for food, rent, childcare, and the like. As he approaches his dealer’s house, his heart races, he’s sweating, and he is so obsessed and preoccupied with using cocaine that he doesn’t notice the police car parked a block away. He is so completely focused on cocaine that the day-to-day world, with its problems and obligations, has temporarily receded. In most respects this individual is high already. He has escaped from his life, his decision-making is distorted, and he has lost touch with reality. It doesn’t matter that there are no actual drugs in his system because his brain is pumping out dopamine and other pleasure-related neurochemicals as if there are.

This neurobiological state of distraction and emotional escape, no matter how it is induced, is the goal with all addictions.

Stated simply, addiction is about the manipulation of neurochemistry, and this can happen with or without an addictive substance. Sex addicts in particular “get high” based more on fantasies and ritualistic preparations than anything else. In fact, sex addicts usually experience more pleasure and escape through anticipating, chasing, and preparing for sex than from the sex act itself. They even have a name for this condition, referring to it as either the bubble or the trance. So, at the end of the day, the only significant difference between substance and behavioral addictions is that substance addicts ingest alcohol or drugs to create an emotionally escapist neurochemical reaction, while behavioral addicts rely on an intensely pleasurable activity.