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Behavioural Addictions

What is a behavioural addiction?

A behavioural addiction is a compulsion or urge to undertake a particular activity – despite possible negative consequences of doing so. Addictions of any kind are usually associated with feelings of doing something to excess and with feelings of regret or shame. Behavioural addictions can affect anyone and can be difficult to detect.

No substance need be consumed in order to become addicted. The brain’s own reward system responds to some activities by releasing powerful chemicals which can produce a pleasurable feeling. It is widely agreed that it is this internal mechanism that is the driving force for an addiction of any kind, whether substance or behavioural.

Although the behaviour may lead to a feeling of pleasure, the brain adapts quickly. Over time, this may mean that the amount or intensity of an activity needs to be increased in order to experience the same feeling. This is the recognisable spiral of addiction.

What causes a behavioural addiction?

Some of the reasons that people develop behavioural addictions are also those things which can lead to substance addictions:

  • Feelings of low self-esteem
  • A traumatic event or life period
  • Overwhelming sadness
  • Feelings of guilt or shame
  • Poor social and communication skills

What are the signs of a behavioural addiction?

Although everybody is different, some of the more common outward signs of a behavioural addiction are disrupted sleep patterns, agitation and mood swings. People with behavioural addictions may find that they try to hide their activity from others, that they lose interest in other things that used to be enjoyable and that they withdraw from social contact.

Examples of behavioural addictions

There is the potential for any activity to become an addiction, but there are some activities that are more commonly associated with the development of addiction:

  • Gambling
  • Trading
  • Sex
  • Food *
  • Internet
  • Gaming
  • Porn
  • Shopping
  • Cosmetic surgery
  • Risky behaviour
  • Exercise **

* Food is considered a behavioural addiction, even though there is something being ingested – because the food itself does not produce a ‘high’ like alcohol or drug use… it is the brain’s reward system that is provoked, as with other behavioural addictions. 

** Exercise is sometimes described as a ‘healthy addiction’, but – as with other addictions – it can also be damaging when taken to excess or when it is being used to avoid other feelings.

Is stock or Bitcoin trading addictive?

Any activity that triggers the brain’s reward circuitry can be addictive. Stock trading, or trading in currencies/cryptocurrencies will likely engage the brain in this way. Whilst there is potentially an element of skill required to make profitable trades, in the end – there is a large element of chance, just as with gambling of any kind.

Some of the same questions are as relevant to stock or currency traders as they are to gamblers: Are you only trading with money that you can afford to lose? Are you spending longer than you mean to working on trades? Are you preoccupied with trading at the expense of other social activities? Are you hiding the extent of your trading from others?

It can help to talk through some of these questions with a Gambling Therapy advisor.

What to do about a behavioural addiction

If you feel that you are doing something to excess or that your relationships are suffering as a result, then it is a good time to step back and assess your situation.

It is helpful to think about what led up to the behaviour, rather than just to focus on quitting the behaviour itself. Perhaps the behaviour is partly in response to a life problem that you are facing. This is something that you could explore with a counsellor or in a support group.

It is always helpful to speak to someone else about an addiction. Starting to speak out will help you recognise that you are not alone, whatever it is that you are facing.

For some people it might be easier to remain anonymous – so a text-based live support service could be a good first step. The Gambling Therapy live support service is available for anyone struggling with gambling or trading – and there are many similar services around the world set up to help those with other behavioural addictions.