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Behavioral Addictions

Mrs. Renuka Rajshekar Hiremath

Consultant Clinical Psychologist

Cadabam’S Group

The concept of addiction to a drug or to alcohol is widely understood. The concept of behavioral addiction is less immediately obvious. Behavioral or ‘process’ addictions operate in very similar ways to substance addictions, and can be just as life-destroying for the addicted person and their family members. Behavioral addictions may involve a dependency on certain behaviors in relation to other people – as in the case of co-dependency or sexual/ relationship addictions – or compulsive behaviors engaged in for excitement, emotional release, achieving a sense of self or chasing the promise of control, such as gambling or self-harming.

Behavioral addictions are patterns of behavior, which follow a cycle similar to that of substance dependence. These are dependency disorders linked to various human activities, often pleasurable and not related to taking chemical substances. This begins with the individual experiencing pleasure in association with a behavior and seeking out that behavior, initially as a way of enhancing their experience of life, and later, as a way of coping with stress. The process of seeking out and engaging in the behavior becomes more frequent and ritualized, until it becomes a significant part of the person’s daily life. When the person is addicted, they experience urges or cravings to engage in the behavior, which intensify until the person carries out the behavior again, usually feeling relief and elation. Negative consequences of the behavior may occur, but the individual persists with the behavior in spite of this.

There are many types of behavioral addictions. Addictions to screens include videogames, mobile phones and internet (online games, cyber-sex and social networks). There is also compulsive shopping (called oniomania), addiction to sex, addiction to work (workaholic), body-building (Adonis complex), emotional dependency and dependency on groups who use psychological manipulation such as coercive sects, as well as interpersonal dependency (on one person in particular).

Videogames: We talk about addiction when videogames become the central focus of the person’s thoughts, affect sleeping patterns, lead to isolation from family and friends and replace the usual or enjoyable activities the person used to take part in.

Internet: Internet is the instrument or medium which can lead someone to develop one of the following behavioural addictions:

Online games: These are the so-called role games, successors to the game Dungeons and Dragons. Internet is the means of access and there is a monthly charge to be able to play. People from all over the world participate in large numbers in this form of group game. A virtual person is created (avatar) who evolves so as to be able to reach certain levels.
The characteristics of the game make it very attractive and for this and other reasons, it favors players who are persistent and who can develop a behavioural addiction. Furthermore, the sense of interaction the player feels can lead, in fact, to social and family isolation. Among teenagers it can be a reason for absenteeism from school.

  • Cybersex: Excessive uncontrolled behavior in the search for sexual activity without physical contact. Sexual excitation is obtained through the creation of fantasies produced by images, text messages, web cameras, etc., and internet is also used as a means of communication.
  • Social networks: Loss of control over time spent connected to social networks such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc. The activity occupies the person’s thoughts and affects family and social relationships, school performance, etc. The person presents problematic or addictive behavior.

Mobile telephone: A person can be described as dependent on mobiles when he becomes isolated socially or from the family and has difficulties with ‘face to face’ contact, loses control over the use of mobiles and the time spent and continues with the behavior despite negative consequences (work, family, economic, etc.).

Compulsive shopping (oniomania): Unplanned shopping accompanied by an uncontrollable impulse. The action of buying is paramount, rather than what is bought. Before shopping, the person becomes agitated and anxious, this state being relieved temporarily when a purchase is made. Feelings of guilt follow which do not impede repetition of the problem behavior despite negative consequences. It is a circuit which cannot be interrupted without treatment. 80% of ‘shopaholics’ are women and the age of onset of the problem is around 18 years of age. The level of general education among sufferers is medium or high.

Addiction to sex: Uncontrolled sexual activity. This dependency is one of the least admitted and visible. Sexual relations generally take place with strangers (anonymity) and do not always have obtaining pleasure as their aim, but rather the relieving of a temporary discomfort experienced if such behavior cannot be carried out.

Addiction to work: Addiction to work is defined as excessive dedication to work activities without control or limits. More and more time is spent working and other activities are forgotten. This excessive dedication is not due to real work demands placed on the person but to the person’s own needs. It is one of the more socially acceptable and justifiable addictions and the ‘workaholic’ tend to deny the problem. Such people are perfectionists.

Adonis complex: The main symptom of this disorder is an obsession to achieve an athletic, muscular body shape without an ounce of fat. The person’s self-image is distorted and the use of anabolic steroids and food supplements is common. The sufferers are mainly men between 18 and 35, with obsessive tendencies and a low to medium economic level.

Emotional dependence: A pattern of excessive emotional needs directed towards a person in their circle which can persist for a great length of time and can lead to the sufferer into situations of submission. Most people who suffer emotional dependency are women who present certain characteristics such as an excessive need for approval by others, a tendency towards exclusivity in relationships, the need to have constant access to the person they depend on, etc.

Dependence on groups who use psychological manipulation (GPM): Manipulative groups systematically use members of an association through subjective practices which have the following steps: recruitment, indoctrination and retention. These practices are based, above all, in the veiled satisfaction (not necessarily conscious) of the emotional needs of the followers and the leaders. The result is the establishment of reciprocal dependency links, a common adherence to the association which tends to be exclusive or pre-eminent (sole or virtually sole dependence to the exclusion of other links: family, friendship, etc.) and leads to a reduction in the person’s capacity to manage their own destiny (critical capacity and free choice). These sole (or almost sole) reciprocal dependency links are established through a process of institutionalization which tends to be perpetuated. There is no one single profile of a person predisposed to recruitment by a sect: any person in a vulnerable moment can be susceptible to being drawn in by a group using psychological manipulation such as a coercive sect. Any person can be susceptible to suffering a behavioural addiction, but there must be a series of factors which, between them, contribute to the development of addictive behavior. For example:

  • Frequency or intensity of the behavior.
  • Personality type:
    • Impulsive,
    • Low self-esteem,
    • Poor communication within the family,
    • Emotional instability,
    • Lack of social skills,
    • Introversion.
  • The influence of external variables:
    • Crisis moments or situations,
    • Dissatisfaction or failure to adapt socially or to the family,
    • Role models, and
    • Education.
  • The influence of social variables:
    • Publicity,
    • Social pressure, and
    • Isolation.


Beginning from an interruption, lessening or control over the cause of the addiction, the symptoms can be normalized and the person’s vulnerability diminishes.

Experience shows that most cases which are treated have a favorable outcome. This is normally a long process where, often, commitment by the sufferer’s family is an essential tool for the success of the treatment. A good program would include the involvement in probably one-on-one work for the addict, as well as perhaps even one-on-one work with the wife. And then some family work, where the extended family, and perhaps even the children, are involved, as well as the grandparents, where everybody is sort of on the same track. Part of the problem with recovery is, somebody goes into a treatment center or whatever, and they return to the same dynamic, the same set of forces that set the stage in the first place. They relapse, not because they can’t recover, but because the family is not on the same wavelength or on the same track, and they undermine what changes really need to really occur in the family as a whole.

Currently, treatment in most cases of this disorder is based on cognitive-behavioural therapy and does not involve the use of drugs. It is based on the assumption that thinking leads to feelings that leads to behavior. It’s sort of like a triangle. And that if you change one’s thinking about something, you can change the way they feel about it. If you can change the way feel about it, you can change the way they act upon it. An addiction is just a thinking method or a belief method. Certain beliefs lead to feelings that lead to behaviors, and they are often irrational, illogical, excessive, exaggerated beliefs. A cognitive behavioral therapist will focus primarily on the thinking component, will intervene first, talk about the thinking that leads to these feelings or behaviors.

Preventative measures

There are some preventative measures which can be taken as part of normal daily life, for example:

  • Teaching tolerance to frustration and responsible consumption;
  • Fostering independence and personal confidence;
  • Promoting and strengthening communication within the family;
  • Taking part in satisfying leisure activities;
  • Establishing rules, limits and time restrictions for the use of the computer, mobile phone, etc.;
  • The use of parent control filters in the computer;
  • Placing the computer in shared space in the house.

In the case of videogames it is important to refer to the PEGI code, available online and which provides information about such games, recommended age limits, type of game, etc.

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