About Compulsive Behaviours and Addictions

By Peter S. Silin, MSW, RSW

Sex Addiction! Internet Addiction! Shopping/ Spending Addiction! Gambling Addiction! Love and relationship addiction! Crackberry! On line gaming!

“These aren’t ‘real’ addictions,” some people would say. In fact, in the therapeutic community there is controversy about whether one can truly be addicted to sex, the internet, gambling, etc. Comparisons are made between what are called “process” behaviours and the ingestive addictions, such as alcohol and drugs. The ingestive addictions are seen as “real” addictions because a substance is taken into the body and makes its way into the bloodstream and organs. There is a direct chemical reaction and impact on how the body system functions and there is a direct impact on different areas of the brain and the chemical reactions which occur.

However, more and more it is becoming increasingly clear that the process behaviours are addictions. Doing them, or sometimes even the thinking about doing them, does in fact, have physiological impacts on the brain reward centres, affecting the functioning of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotoninn, and norepinephrine. For instance ask any runner about the “runner’s high” that she experiences. It is quite well documented that running and exercise release endorphins into the brain and stimulate the pleasure centre of the brain. If a runner has run distances for a long while, they can visualize themselves running, and induce at least a reflection of the runner’s high without moving at all.

A second area in which “ process addictions are addictions” is in what is termed disassociation. If you ask most addicts about what is going on for them when they are engaged in their addictive activity, or just before they started it, they can identify a sense of being disconnected or disassociated. This usually means they are feeling in a way detached from their bodies and emotions. They will often talk about this as a ritual, or lead up, and can be as valued as the activity itself.

A third area of similarity between the process behaviours and ingestive addictions is the psychological concerns and backgrounds of people who develop problems using them. These include:

  1. History of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.
  2. Family history of compulsive behaviours.
  3. Socially isolated or lonely, or difficulty with social skills
  4. Recent major losses or changes
  5. History of depression, psychiatric illness, ADHD

In the end, as far as daily functioning is concerned, what is more important when thinking about process behaviours is not whether they are truly addictions,(which this article maintains), but rather how they are impacting on the life of the person, and those around him or her. The important question is whether they are problematic, and to what extent.

The attitudes and beliefs surrounding process addictions are the very things that can make a process addiction more difficult to diagnose, treat, or even own up to. It is easy to deny a sex addiction if one doesn’t believe that such a condition is possible. Online gaming is still so new that it has barely registered in the literature as a serious problem, and certainly the online gaming community and businesses are not spearheading any kind of cautionary behaviour. People laughingly talk about retail therapy so it is easy to hide behind when shopping, spending, and debt go out of control.

One distinguishing characteristic of most of the process is that they are at least to some extent, necessary to life and difficult to regulate. Drugs and alcohol can be dealt with through abstinence. Sex, food, shopping, and (in our society) computers and the internet, are pretty much imbedded parts of life. The only process addiction that can be dealt with through abstinence is gambling. (On line and computer concerns can be dealt with through abstinence, but the computer and internet can be pretty difficult to live without completely if someone is working). Abstinence for process addictions is not black or white, so “sobriety” has to be defined as a relative action

Because denial is so strong in any addiction, and because the idea of process addictions is still controversial, it can be hard for people to come to the point where they are able to admit there is a problem. For most addictions, process or ingestive, there are checklists that can help someone measure the extent of the problem. Checklists are helpful sometimes to break through denial about behaviour. They are also helpful for family and friends to come to “put everything together” and understand that there is a truly problematic behaviour occurring.

These are some of the questions people need to reflect on when thinking about thee extent to which a problem is a compulsive, addictive behavour.

  1. Have you every tried to stop or said you will never do it again?
  2. Have you told yourself you would do it just one more time?
  3. Have you tried and failed to put limits on the behaviour?
  4. Do you feel some shame about your behaviour, or the extent to which you engage in it?
  5. Would you feel some shame if your friends or family members knew about the behaviour or extent of it?
  6. After engaging in the activity do you experience remorse, regret, or shame?
  7. Do you try to hide the amount of time or the fact that you are engaged in the activity?
  8. Have you taken time from your work or studies to the point where they have been impacted?
  9. Have you received warnings at work, school, or from a partner?
  10. Have you limited the social time you spend with friends or family to engage in the activity?
  11. Is the activity harmful socially, psychologically, financially, or physically to you or your family?
  12. Has your family complained about your relationship with the activity?
  13. Do you get annoyed when people talk to you about the activity or interrupt you while you are engaged in it?
  14. Do you use the activity to avoid or blot out feelings of loneliness, sadness, or fear?
  15. Has your schedule changed?
  16. Is the behaviour affecting your sleeping or eating patterns?
  17. Do you pair the behaviour with drugs or alcohol to increase the enjoyment?
  18. Do you find that this is the only behaviour from which you derive pleasure?
  19. Has your behaviour ever crossed the legal line?
  20. Have you found that the behaviour is progressive in terms of how much time you are spending engaged in it?
  21. Do you find yourself noticing aspects of the activity, or looking for it, when you are not engaged in it?
  22. Do you reward yourself by engaging in the activity?
  23. Are you spending more money than you can afford or have you gone into debt due to the activity?

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Peter S. Silin, MSW, RSW


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