Behavioral addictions: what they are and their characteristics

When we think of an addiction, we usually think of an addiction to a substance, such as: alcohol or certain psychoactive drugs. However, addictions can go further, and the reality is that we can be addicted to almost anything.

Thus, addictions that do not involve chemicals are called behavioral addictions.

In this article we will talk about the most common behavioral addictions, Such as gambling addiction or new technologies. We will discuss its symptoms, causes and treatments (the latter two aspects more generically).

    What is an addiction?

    Before we dive into behavioral addictions, let’s explain what an addiction is. An addiction is a psychological disorder which involves, for the person, a strong need to use a certain substance or perform certain actions.

    When she cannot do so, she manifests the so-called withdrawal syndrome, a syndrome generally characterized by symptoms opposite to those produced by the substance or object in question. In other words, if alcohol, for example, causes us “depressive” symptoms (at the physiological level), the withdrawal syndrome will cause us the opposite symptoms: over-excitement, nervousness … but at a level of intensity that is very inconvenient for us. the individual.

    So, generally speaking, an addiction involves two basic symptoms: dependence on the substance or object in question (the person “needs” it) and excessive self-consumption. This consumption (or overconsumption) can be very harmful for the person, in terms of health (especially if we are talking about drug addiction).

    In this way, and in a very generic way, we can differentiate two large groups of dependencies:

    • Addiction to a substance (usually a chemical, such as alcohol, cocaine or tobacco).
    • Non-substance addictions (i.e., behavioral addictions, such as shopping or sex addiction).

    In reality, the DSM-5 itself (Mental Disorders Diagnostic Manual) (APA, 2013), includes, when talking about drug addiction, the category of “addiction and substance-related disorders”, And in its chapter are included these two major groups mentioned (addictions with and without substance).

    Behavioral addictions: what they are and their symptoms

    Now that we’ve seen what an addiction entails, let’s talk about behavioral addictions in more detail. Their main characteristic, as we have seen, is that they are addictions without substance. In other words, that is to say what creates dependence is not a substance, but an object, an action, a product, etc.

    Let’s take a look at some of the most common behavioral addictions:

    1. Internet gambling addiction

    This first of the behavioral addictions, is not yet considered an official diagnosis, and has been included in section III of DSM-5, in the section “Conditions for further studies in the future”, with the name of “ Internet gambling disorder ”or“ Internet gambling disorder ”. However, many researchers consider it to be an existing disorder.

    This is the addiction to these virtual games on the net (games of chance are not included), which they consume the user between 8 and 10 hours per day. Its prevalence in children and adolescents is very high (8.4% in men and 4.5% in women), especially in China and South Korea.

    2. Gambling addiction

    Pathological gambling is another of the behavioral addictions, considered in the DSM-5 itself. This condition, in the DSM-IV-TR, was included in Impulse Control Disorders, but with the arrival of the new edition of the Manual, is found to be considered an addictive (non-substance) disorder, observing its strong similarities to drug addiction (Dependence, tolerance and abstinence).

    Thus, pathological gambling is characterized by inappropriate and persistent gambling behavior, associated with symptoms of deterioration and stress in the individual’s life.

    In addition, there are other types of symptoms (which last at least 1 year), such as: deceiving the family to hide the degree of involvement in the game, worry about it, attempts to recover lost money the next day, failure to control or stop the game, restlessness or irritability when trying to stop the game, and so on.

    This disorder appears in 0.2-0.3% of the general adult population, And their rates are higher among teens and students.

      3. Internet addiction

      Although internet addiction (or addiction to new virtual technologies as a whole) is not included as a disorder in the DSM-5, it is true that, given the empirical evidence, we could consider the other addiction most prevalent behavioral issues today.

      It is a reality that more and more children and adolescents (and also adults) are dependent on the Internet, social networks, new technologies, etc. This addiction results in a constant need to consult the Internet and / or social networks, Do not take off cell phones all day, etc.

      In other words, there is an excessive consumption of new technologies and an associated worry of not being able to use them.

      The most serious problem with this type of disorder is that there are other problems associated with this addiction, such as: family problems, conduct disorders, low self-esteem, eating disorders, etc.

      Other behavioral addictions

      We have seen some of the behavioral addictions (the best known), but there are many more, such as: sex addiction, shopping addiction …

      Whether or not they are included in the DSM-5, it is an undeniable reality that these addictions appear in a large part of the population, or at least addictive behaviors that could be a serious problem when they interfere with life. daily life of the child.

      These addictions share common characteristics, such as overuse, addiction and discomfort associated with the inability to consume the object of desire / the addictive object.

      the causes

      Why do we become addicted to certain substances (in this case, objects or actions)? The causes will vary greatly from person to person, although it is true that we can talk about some causes that are more typical than others: family problems, dating problems, need to escape reality, low self-esteem, poor impulse control, Little tolerance for frustration, social isolation, harassment, bullying, illusion of control, etc.

      In the case of behavioral addictions, of course, being addicted to sex is not the same as shopping or the internet, but often the causes are similar.


        When it comes to the treatment of behavioral addictions, each treatment should be tailored to each specific case, as each person should manifest their own symptoms, additional problems, concerns, etc.

        However, we can speak, in general, of often used treatment options that have been shown to be effective in this type of addiction. Some of them are:

        • Cognitive-behavioral therapy: with techniques such as exposure with response prevention (widely used in pathological gambling).
        • Cognitive therapy: with techniques such as cognitive restructuring, relaxation, etc.
        • Pharmacological therapy: with prescription of anxiolytics and antidepressants.

        What is clear is that in addition to treating the nuclear symptomatology of drug addiction, he will have to treat it based on the problem, that is, its cause. The ideal is to approach the problem from a multidisciplinary and systemic perspective, where we also work with the patient’s environment.

        Bibliographical references:

        • American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th. Edition (DSM-5). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.
        • Cia, A. (2013). Non-substance-related addictions (DSM-5, APA, 2013): a first step towards including behavioral addictions in the current categorical classifications Rev Neuropsychiatr, 76 (4): 210-217.
        • Echeburúa I, Corral P. Addiction to new technologies and social networks. Addictions. 2010; 22, 91-96.
        • Echeburúa I, Corral P, Amor PJ. The challenge of new addictions: therapeutic objectives and avenues of intervention. Behavioral psychology. 2005; 13: 511-525.
        • Riva-Posse, AE (2016). Addictive Disorders: Manence, 5 (1): 51-57.

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