Substance Addiction vs Process Addiction

By 24th Oct 2017 No Comments
What is process addiction?

It’s a common misconception that the word ‘addiction’ refers only to the craving for a substance like illegal drugs, nicotine or alcohol. However there is another category of addiction, which is equally as serious, with consequences to physical, emotional and mental health, and that is a process addiction.

Process addiction – what is it?

A process or behavioral addiction takes the form of an obsession or compulsion, which the person cannot resist, and then acts on in order to get a ‘high’. There may or may not be substances involved too.

A process addiction is a lot more difficult to notice or suspect because there is often no physical deterioration, as you’d find with substance abusers.

The behavior can vary and can seem normal or harmless, however when conducted in a compulsive or obsessive way, creates the most damage. The most common process addictions include:

  • Shopping
  • Eating
  • Gambling
  • Exercise
  • Working
  • Sex
  • Screen (especially in young people)

These kinds of addictions are often considered less serious, or even joked about, as the obvious effects tend to be more psychological than physical. However, studies have started to show the prevalence of these addictions in modern day society and the upward trend.

When does an activity become an addiction?

There are a few signs that indicate a supposedly innocent activity, may have become an addiction:

  • The process of planning the action or activity begins to dominate the person’s life, often resulting in the neglect of other areas like work, relationships or finances.
  • When the activity creates a “high”
  • A gradual increase in behavior as the body’s tolerance rises, resulting in a greater level of intensity of the behavior needed to achieve the same feelings.
  • The feelings of guilt and shame may bring individuals into conflict with others, but NOT engaging in the activity no longer seems like a choice.
  • Trying to stop results in physical, emotional or mental withdrawal

What are the causes of process addiction?

Many of the underlying factors in process addiction are similar to those of substance addiction. Often a process addiction develops due to an emotional or traumatic experience in childhood, or as a way to cope with depression, stress or anxiety. In the case of screen addiction in children, it’s often used as a way to deal with stress or anxiety.

Process addictions operate in the same way as substance addictions. The brain’s reward centers become stimulated through the behavior the person is engaging in (like shopping or work) releasing endorphins (feel-good hormones) into the body.

The part of the brain that manages stimulus and response is activated, which over time creates a compulsive craving which is eased only when the individual engages once again in the behavior, which may have started out being pleasurable or even comforting, but which ends up being destructive and even harmful.

How is it treated?

Unfortunately, treating a process addiction it’s not simply exerting some self-discipline. By the time a behavior has become an addiction, self-control is impossible. Treatment needs to include a range of different approaches, including:

  • Identifying triggers
  • Diagnosing and treating underlying physical, emotional or mental disorders
  • Uncovering repressed traumatic events and feelings from childhood, and then dealing with them instead of suppressing them
  • Ongoing support from family and friends
  • Establishing new interests, activities and social circles

Some people benefit from checking in to a residential addiction rehab center for at least the first part of the process, and sometimes longer, so they can go through it in a very safe and controlled environment.

The eventual goal is a lifestyle change. This change supports the person to manage their addictive tendencies in a more constructive and sustainable way, regardless of what life brings them.


Leave a Reply