Understanding Process Addictions

What are process addictions?

Process addictions occur when someone becomes addicted to a rewarding behaviour that does not involve an addictive substance, such as gambling, sex, or eating. Sometimes referred to as behavioural addictions, or compulsive behaviours, process addictions involve compulsion to perform an action despite negative consequences. In this way people can suffer from dependence on certain processes — they are reliant upon and/or controlled by the addiction as their primary way of dealing with life.

While the theory about behavioural addictions has been around for a while, only recently have we been able to look at the brain and determine how processes can in fact become addictive in the same way as addictive substances.

Process addictions vs. Substance addictions: How is the brain affected?

Addiction is a chronic brain disease that presents itself similarly whether you become addicted to a substance or process. Addictive behaviours such as gambling, sex, eating, and internet use all stimulate the brain’s reward system similarly to addictive substances, by releasing neurotransmitters such as dopamine.

This stimulation leads people to seek out such pleasurable experiences more and more often. After repeated exposure some people will begin to seek out the experiences compulsively, while at the same time their ability to derive pleasure from the action decreases.

The difference between behavioural and substance addiction is that behaviours affect the brain indirectly while substances physically change neurotransmitters. As part of our ability to survive, we naturally experience pleasure from sex and eating. Drugs such as heroin provide a shortcut to the brain’s reward system by flooding it with dopamine, which is what makes them extremely addictive.

Addiction is a disease that is present in the brain’s reward system before an individual ever begins using drugs or repeatedly engaging in an addictive behaviour. Just as most people can drink alcohol without becoming addicted, most of us engage in gambling, sex, and eating without ever developing an addiction to these behaviours. However, these behavioural addictions are more common than the public currently believes.

Common process addictions

Some of the most common behavioural addictions are socially acceptable, and can even include necessary behaviours such as sex and eating. This contributes to a lack of awareness that a problem is developing while negative consequences keep piling up. The following is a list of the most common process addictions recognised at this time:

Understanding Process Addictions2

  • Gambling:
    Gambling addiction is the most researched and talked about of process addictions. Consequences faced by compulsive gamblers are severe, such as financial and relationship difficulties which can frequently lead to death by suicide. Rates of suicide by compulsive gamblers is higher than that of alcohol or drug addicts.
  • Sex:
    Sex addiction has also recently received the attention of researchers and practitioners. Sex addiction occurs when people become preoccupied with sex and act on sexual compulsions without concern for the negative consequences.
  • Eating:
    Food addiction is a process addiction in which someone becomes addicted to the act of eating and the feelings they get from eating certain foods. A food addiction is emotionally, physically, and socially detrimental as it can cause extreme guilt, health problems, and interfere with relationships.
  • Internet:
    Internet addiction has become a serious concern worldwide. While most of us use the internet daily, there is a certain point in which the process is considered addiction. When internet use is more important that real life relationships or activities, or causes problems in a person’s ability to function in daily life, they are likely suffering from internet addiction.
  • Shopping:
    While the term shopping addiction is thrown around lightly, compulsive spending is a form of process addiction that is serious and results in similar feelings of guilt and shame, loss of control, and financial, social, and emotional consequences as other addictions.

These are only some of the most common and researched process addictions, but a process addiction can occur when someone loses control over any process to the point where it causes problems in daily life. Process addictions lack the physical attributes that often alert people to problems with drug and alcohol abuse, such as visible intoxication, which makes them fly under the radar more easily. However, despite their relative invisibility, process addictions can lead to serious problems in a person’s life and well-being.

Symptoms of process addictions

Process addictions share many of the same symptoms as drug addiction:

  • Cravings and inability to resist impulse
  • Narrowed interest
  • Irritability when access to process is limited (withdrawal)
  • Decreased pleasure in activity over time (tolerance)
  • Denial
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Lying
  • Hiding behaviour
  • Family, work, financial problems due to indulgence in the process

Addiction is highlighted by a person’s loss of control; a loss of control that usually cannot be reversed by willpower alone and is not a moral failing. This loss of control is coupled with cravings, and continued use or behaviour despite negative consequences. Treatment is often necessary to completely recover from any addiction.

Process addiction treatment

Treatment of process addictions is similar to that of other addictions, but can also pose unique challenges. One of the greatest challenges when dealing with certain process addictions is that life-long abstinence is sometimes unrealistic or impossible. In these cases, such as with sex or food addictions, treatment must be tailored to address specific foods and situations that trigger compulsive behaviour and avoid them.

At The Cabin, we utilise a unique addiction treatment method called Recovery Zones, which is effective in treating all addictions, but is a particularly useful model for treating process addictions where complete abstinence is not possible.

Because process addictions often coexist with other addictions, treatment must be holistic and aimed at a broad improvement in lifestyle rather than only addressing the specific behaviour. This helps prevent relapse and cross addiction, or addiction replacement from occurring. If you are struggling with a process addiction, be sure to get in touch with an addiction treatment centre that is right for you, so you can get the help you deserve.

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