How Can You Be Addicted to a Behavior?

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If you’re reading blogs on this particular website, you probably already believe that you or a loved one has an issue with compulsive sexual behavior. But an addiction? How can you be addicted to a behavior? Don’t you have to swallow, smoke, snort, or inject some type of substance to get high and get addicted?

Well, no, you don’t.

If you’re wondering how a person can be addicted to a behavior, you’re not alone. But believe us, behavioral addictions (sex, porn, gambling, spending, video gaming, etc.) are just as real and just as devastating as alcoholism and drug addiction.

Consider the criteria used by most clinicians to diagnose all types of addiction:

  1. Preoccupation to the point of obsession, with that preoccupation lasting six months or longer.
  2. Loss of control over use (typically evidenced by multiple failed attempts to quit or cut back).
  3. Directly related negative life consequences—relationship trouble, problems at work or in school, diminished self-esteem, depression, anxiety, social and emotional isolation, loss of interest in other previously enjoyable activities, financial issues, legal woes, etc.

These criteria are possible with both substances and behaviors. The preoccupation/obsession looks the same, the loss of control looks the same, and the negative consequences look the same. So why would one be an addiction when the other is not?

To further understand the link between substance and behavioral addictions, consider the behavior of a typical cocaine addict. On payday, he cancels his appointments, leaves work early, and takes money out of the bank to buy cocaine, even though he needs that money for his rent and daily expenses. He calls his drug dealer and arranges a purchase. He drives to his dealer’s house, entirely focused on buying and using cocaine. His heart rate is elevated, his palms are sweaty, and he is not thinking clearly. As he parks in front of his dealer’s house, he is so obsessed with cocaine that he does not even notice the police car parked a block away.

Psychologically and even neurochemically, this man is high long before he buys and uses cocaine. His anticipatory fantasies about cocaine have produced a dopamine and adrenaline rush, just like cocaine itself does. He is no longer feeling stress, anxiety, depression, or thinking about his commitments or problems. He has ‘escaped’ his life and his emotional discomfort, which is the whole point of an addiction. (Addicts don’t use to feel good and have a good time; they use to feel less and escape life’s problems.)

Sex and porn addicts refer to this escapist anticipatory high as the bubble or the trance, and they experience this high just like the cocaine addict described above. And once they’re in this state of mind, they’re actively in their addiction. They’re ‘high’ just as the cocaine addict is high.