Process Addiction Treatment and Rehab

Process addiction is an addiction to rewarding behaviour, without the presence of a physical substance. Also referred to as compulsive behaviours or behavioural addictions, they involve all compulsive actions that you do in spite of knowing the negative consequences.

Dependence does not derive from a physical substance but rather an action such as gambling, sex, shopping, watching porn, using the internet, playing video games, overeating and other related actions. Researchers have explained that there are chemical processes triggered when you engage in these activities, the same as when an addict takes cocaine or alcohol. It is characterised by an obsessive need to be involved in the activity or planning of the activity. It interferes with your relationships and ability to lead a normal, healthy life.

Examining the Different Types of Process Addiction

Sex Addiction: Sex as an act alone is not a problem, but like any activity that gives pleasure, it could be addictive. Dr Patrick Carnes describes the four stages of sex addiction as preoccupation, ritualisation, compulsive sexual behaviour and shame after the activity has concluded.

There have been some challenges in defining sexual addiction due to cultural and religious values in each society that sometimes narrows the definition of sex addiction. For example, a person who enjoys having sex with multiple partners, engaging in fantasies or a threesome might be viewed as an addict by someone with more conservative views.

Hypersexual behaviour poses a serious risk, such as legal consequences from engaging in illicit sexual activities or contracting an STI such as gonorrhoea, HIV, chlamydia and hepatitis. You could lose your job if you look at porn on your company computer and it affects your relationship with your partner. It could also lead to substance abuse to cushion the feelings of shame and guilt.

Shopping Addiction: While it is not recognised as an addiction, shopping addiction could have severe and destructive consequences on your life. For years, researchers and scientists have debated on the ideal classification for compulsive shopping. Should it be a mood disorder, addictive behaviour or an impulse-control issue? One thing they agree on is that shopping addiction is characterised by an overwhelming preoccupation to shop despite the negative consequences it has on your life.

It involves compulsive buying to feel good or numb feelings of depression and anxiety. Like other process addictions, it could take over your life, lead to legal woes, financial ruin and failed relationships. It usually exists with co-occurring disorders such as eating disorders, personality disorders, substance use disorder and impulse control disorders.

As with other behavioural addictions, it follows the pattern of thinking about shopping, planning the trip and executing the plan, which leads to you feeling a deep pleasure and temporary relief from negative emotions. When the “high” wears off, you feel disappointment and guilt, which leads to another shopping trip to combat those feelings.

Exercise Addiction: There are many benefits to exercise for the heart, brain, muscles and general wellbeing. However, it could also become an addiction, especially among runners, triathletes and those who have an eating disorder.

Exercise addiction is the compulsive need to exercise to feel good. Instead of to a substance, you’re addicted to the release of endorphins and dopamine that comes when you work out. These neurotransmitters are at work when someone is addicted to drugs/alcohol. The reward here is the joy from exercise. Quitting makes you feel anxious and depressed, just like someone who can’t access drugs.

Individuals who were overweight and got their body back are at risk of developing exercise addiction out of fear that they could gain all the weight back if they miss a few days of working out. Former addicts might turn to exercise to replace the reward they derive from taking drugs and alcohol. A diagnosis is not easy because you might not see it as a problem. Common indicators include decreased social activity, working out when you would normally be too sick to do so, and abnormal workout patterns.

Gaming Addiction

Gaming addiction is the compulsive use of video games to the extent that it negatively impacts your daily life. It is closely linked to internet addiction and gambling addiction. Many videos games are designed to engage users for long hours at a time. The creators know that it’s easier to get money out of their customers if they convince them to sit at their consoles for longer hours.

Multiplayer games are especially addictive. The gamer feels the thrill of a new challenge when they pass a level or unlock a new skill. They escape from reality into the virtual world until it becomes difficult to separate them both. New research reveals that there is a correlation between depression and gaming addiction, but many gamers are blind to the damage caused.

Food Addiction: Food is directly linked to life, we need it to survive. Eating healthily provides sustenance, keeps the disease at bay and energises you through each day. However, some people struggle with portion control and eating healthily. A food addict is addicted to food the same way an alcoholic is addicted to alcohol. Unlike other process addictions, there is a physical element involved that triggers the same neurotransmitters in the brain.

It is mostly used to explain a compulsive desire to eat unhealthily, including eating processed junk food that has a powerful effect on the reward centres of the brain. People who have struggled with drug addiction and who have replaced it with food addiction say they are one and the same. It causes physical harm and leads to medical conditions such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and more.

Tasty food that contains large amounts of fat, carbohydrates, salt, sugar and artificial sweeteners trigger the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin and dopamine. To recreate the feeling, your brain craves this unhealthy food as it adjusts its receptors to compensate for the rush of chemicals.

Gambling Addiction: Gambling addiction is the compulsive action of gambling with no regard to the consequences on your finances, work or personal relationships. Gambling is a fun way to relax and connect with friends, but when the lows of losing and the highs of winning become addictive, it takes a severe toll on your life and your family.

You’re unable to stop even when you don’t want to gamble anymore. You lose thousands within minutes and rack up debt you have no way to pay. The euphoric rush is like the “high” an addict feels when they take cocaine or alcohol and you crave it continuously. When you lose, you try to fix the resulting low mood with a stake and the inability to stop is known as problem gambling.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, problem gambling is an impulse control disorder caused by thinking obsessively about gambling. Warning signs of gambling addiction include loss of control over the amount you wager in a session, giving up your favourite hobbies to gamble and applying for multiple credit cards to finance your gambling habits.

Internet Addiction: Internet addiction is not an official diagnosis, but it shares characteristics with other behavioural disorders. It is described as a poorly-controlled obsession, behaviour and urges regarding internet access and computer use that negatively affects your life or leads to distress. Behavioural scientists classify it as an impulse control disorder where you use social media and online activities to create a fantasy world, escape reality and substitute real-life connections with people online.

If your work revolves around the internet, it doesn’t mean you have an addiction. It is an addiction when your online activities affect your regular life. Associated activities include social networking, inappropriate internet pornography use, blogging, email, chatting and online shopping. It is how you use the internet, not particularly the amount of time spent online.

One study suggests that internet addiction is caused by structural changes in the brain’s prefrontal region which affects your ability to prioritise correctly, making the internet the most significant aspect of your life.

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Symptoms of Specific Process Addictions

Symptoms of Sex and Love Addiction

  • An ongoing obsession with new relationships and romantic feelings, usually lasting up to six months or more
  • Lack of control over new relationships and romantic fantasies
  • Negative consequences either indirectly or directly related to serial relationships and romantic fantasies.
  • Denial about the extent of addiction or the problems caused by your behaviour
  • Using sex to control your partner and mistaking romantic intensity for lasting intimacy
  • Intense feelings of loneliness when you’re not in a relationship
  • Relying on romantic intensity to escape from other problems in your life
  • Feigning interest in an activity you don’t like to keep your partner happy
  • Missing out on family time or commitments to find a new relationship

Symptoms of Shopping Addiction

  • Going on buying binges
  • Spending a lot of time and money shopping online
  • Shopping because it makes you feel better
  • Buying things that you can’t afford
  • Feeling irritable and agitated when you don’t shop for a few days
  • Hiding credit card bills and receipts from your loved ones
  • Lying about your expenses
  • Destroying your personal relationships due to overspending
  • Lack of control over shopping behaviour
  • Experiencing a rush of pleasure that only happens when you shop
  • Feeling regret and guilt after buying something you can’t justify buying

Symptoms of Exercise Addiction

  • Inability to resist exercise
  • Needing more exercise to feel the desired mental and physical effects after developing tolerance
  • Trying and failing to cut back on the number of hours spent exercising
  • Overlooking the negative consequences of a strenuous exercise regimen
  • Exercise interfering with your daily life
  • Feeling depressed and irritable when you miss a workout
  • Working out even when you’re injured or sick
  • Using exercise as an escape from stress and emotions you don’t want to face
  • Redefining your happiness based on exercise
  • Working out excessively

Symptoms of Gaming Addiction

  • Lack of interest in school or work
  • Feeling anxious and depressed when you’re not playing video games
  • Dreaming about a game you love
  • Feelings of frustration when you’re denied access to video games
  • Rapid changes in weight
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Skipping meals to play games
  • Lying about the actual time you spend on video games
  • Feeling guilty when you consider the time spent playing video games
  • Constantly thinking about your next gaming session when you’re not playing
  • Feeling more at ease in the virtual world than in real life
  • Looking for ways to justify excessive gaming time
  • Loss of interest in all activities not directly related to video games

Symptoms of Food Addiction

  • Craving for more food even when you have just finished eating
  • Justifying overeating by saying that cravings and hunger are not the same
  • Having problems controlling your food intake
  • Eating more food than you intended to
  • Can’t stop eating until you feel stuffed
  • Feeling sad and guilty when you realise how much food you just consumed but repeating the action with your next meal
  • Making excuses to eat more junk food
  • You’ve tried to reduce your food intake but failed
  • Hiding your eating habits from others
  • Experiencing adverse medical and mental health issues as a result of overeating, but still unable to stop
  • Eating in the middle of the night
  • Obsessing about the next meal as soon as you finish your current meal
  • Constantly snacking on unhealthy food

Symptoms of Gambling Addiction

  • Obsession with gambling to the point where you don’t care about anything else in your life
  • Continued gambling despite the obvious negative consequences on your job, finances, and relationships
  • Unsuccessful attempts to quit
  • Experiencing psychological withdrawal such as depression and irritability
  • Needing to gamble to make yourself happy
  • Experiencing financial woes because of your gambling habits
  • Denying that you have a gambling problem
  • Having mood swings when you can’t gamble
  • Hiding your gambling activities from your loved ones
  • Continuously increase the stakes to achieve the original thrill
  • Losing your job and friends because of gambling

Why Makes Process Addictions Serious?

It is similar to drug addiction, so the effects will be the same after a long time. For instance, a person who is addicted to sex might begin with sex with a partner, casual sex with strangers, sex with multiple partners, sex involving violent acts and fall into sex with drugs.

The case is similar for someone who is addicted to gambling. You begin with small wagers and losses you can handle but soon degenerate

to spending your monthly income on gambling, withdrawing your children’s education funds, stealing from the workplace and racking up humongous debt to fund your gambling lifestyle.

The most dangerous aspect of behavioural addiction is that it’s easy to deny you have a problem, especially when it is generally accepted as a normal action. Someone with an exercise addiction might rationalise that exercise is good for the body, sex is healthy, food is required for sustenance, video games are fun, and the internet is for research.

Just like drug and alcohol disorders, these addictions take but never give in return. At the height of addiction, feelings of worthlessness, guilt and shame could send you spiralling down into depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation as a way out. Each process addiction starts with pleasure but, once it takes hold of you, it becomes harder to derive pleasure from the activity.

How Do Process Addictions Affect Teens?

Many parents are aware of the dangers of alcohol and drug addiction. They know the signs and take the necessary precautions to keep their teens out of trouble. However, most are unaware of the increasing dangers of behavioural addictions that wreak just as much havoc as any substance abuse. They are as legitimate as any physical addiction and require the same level of intensive treatment.

Over time, these compulsive behaviours could become toxic, affecting the quality of their life, relationships, school work and emotional wellbeing. Process addictions common to teens include internet addiction, gambling addiction, gaming disorder, sex addiction and shopping addiction. A teenager who is addicted to shopping will rack up a huge credit card bill that could take years to pay off. Someone who is addicted to sex is at the risk of teenage pregnancy and contracting a sexually transmitted disease.

Internet addiction is particularly prevalent among teenagers. Studies have shown that roughly 18% of teens are addicted to the internet. It affects their academic performance, ability to complete chores at home, leads them to isolate themselves from loved ones, lose track of time and become addicted to the pleasure of being online.

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Process Addiction & Substance Abuse

Behavioural scientists believe that all entities and actions that could stimulate a person can also lead to addiction. Any habit that becomes something you can’t stop doing could be described as an addiction. Behavioural addictions such as internet addiction are similar to opioid addiction except that, in the case of internet addiction, you’re addicted to the feeling produced by the action. When you quit the action, you might experience the same consequences a person who is addicted to alcohol goes through, such as depression and insomnia.

Stanton Peele was the first to suggest that addictions could exist without a psychotropic drug. In his view, an addict is dependent on the experience the substance produces and the reaction to the substance is only one example. Other researchers posit that core indicators of process addiction are just like a chemical addiction, emphasising that it impacts social relationships, work performance and general life.

People suffering from a behavioural addiction often combine their processes with a substance abuse disorder. Gamblers are presented with alcohol to keep themselves “entertained”, cocaine and performance drugs are described by many porn stars as the true “heroes” of their videos, gamers are shown alcohol and energy drinks all the time during advertisements during streams and special broadcasts.

When Does a Process Addict Need Help?

Each individual has a different experience with process addiction. It affects everyone, regardless of race, age or gender. If left untreated, it could have a dangerous effect on your personal life, economic status, as well as your physical and mental health. You should get help for a process addict when:

  • The behaviour affects their relationship with others
  • The behaviour has become an obsession
  • It affects their performance at work or school
  • It leads to legal and financial difficulties
  • The person prefers to engage in the behaviour instead of participating in activities they previously enjoyed, spending time with loved ones or going to work

Process Addiction Treatment

Treatment is similar to other addictions, but it presents its own challenges, such as the impracticality of life-long abstinence from the behaviour especially when it involves food, the internet, computers or shopping. In these cases, treatment is designed to address the specific situations that triggered the compulsive behaviour and develop a unique plan for avoiding them or engaging in them without abuse.

Process addiction usually exists with a co-occurring disorder, so it is important to seek treatment at a facility that treats dual diagnosis patients. A holistic treatment aimed at changing all aspects of your life instead of targeting just the addictive behaviour will yield the best results. It also helps to prevent cross addiction where you switch one addiction for another and reduce the occurrence of a relapse.

Diagnosis and evaluation

It is very difficult to diagnose a process addiction because there is no presence of a psychotropic substance in the body or resulting effect on the brain. Until recently, not much research was conducted and there isn’t a lot of data for a consistent diagnosis and evaluation of behavioural addiction.

Tools used to diagnose pathological gambling include the South Oaks Gambling Screen, the Canadian Problem Gambling Index and the Massachusetts Gambling Screen. Other diagnostic tools include:

Shopping addiction: Survey on Compensatory and Addictive Shopping Behaviour, Compulsive Buying Scale and the Minnesota Impulsive Disorder Interview.

Exercise addiction: Commitment to Running Scale, Exercise Dependence Questionnaire and the Bodybuilding Dependency Scale

Gaming addiction: Problem Video Game Playing Scale, Internet Addiction Test and the Game Addiction Scale


Unlike the plan for substance abuse or a physical addiction, a behavioural addiction doesn’t require a detox because withdrawal symptoms are mostly psychological. Individuals who are in treatment use the “cold turkey” method to break their dependence to a process addiction. The hardest part is getting them to admit they have a problem and need professional guidance to overcome their addiction.

Medication may be helpful in treating some addictions such as naltrexone for online sex addiction, sleeping aids to help with insomnia and antidepressants for those who are going through withdrawal.

Treatment plans

There are many treatment options to consider but, whatever technique is used, effective treatment begins with identifying all the underlying factors that fuelled the behaviour and cessation of the behaviour with a commitment to staying abstinent. Hence, treatment will involve a combination of therapies based on your evaluation results, risk factors, comfort level, short- and long-term recovery goals.

Family support

The family is an integral part of any addiction treatment. Addiction is a “family disease” because it leaves a mark on your loved ones. For treatment to be comprehensive, family members partake in the recovery journey and engage in family therapy sessions designed to help the unit learn how to provide support for the addict.

Helpful therapies

Therapy is the primary focus of treatment for behavioural addiction. The goals of therapy are to help you quit, reduce the frequency of relapse, increase the time-frame whilst in remission, and help you function properly during that period. Working with a therapist, you’ll develop coping skills to maintain long-term abstinence. Therapies include:

Individual therapy: Cognitive behavioural therapy to identify the underlying thoughts, beliefs and feelings that perpetuate addictive behaviours and develop effective strategies to change them for positive behaviours.

Dialectical behavioural therapy for patients who have complex needs or who have a hard time controlling their actions and feelings (especially those who are suicidal).

Motivational interviewing meets you where you are. It is a non-judgemental approach that helps you find inward motivation for treatment. It is useful for those who are apathetic to treatment in the early days of recovery.

Alternative therapies: This includes prayer, meditation, nature retreats, art therapy, yoga, exercise, nutrition therapy, animal therapy, psychodrama, journaling and a range of holistic therapies that help you find new ways to cope with stressors and triggers.

Group therapy: Group therapy is a great place to connect with peers who are struggling with a similar problem. It feels good knowing that someone else understands you and it’s a source of moral support and motivation. You learn from the shared experiences of others as well as enjoy a safe space to discuss your issues.

Getting care

Process addiction is a real mental health problem that could affect every area of your life. If you’ve noticed any signs, you need to get in touch with an addiction helpline. A counsellor will help you find a rehab centre that provides support for your addiction. The longer you wait, the more likely you are to develop a co-occurring disorder such as body image issues, depression, anxiety and PTSD.

Process Addiction Statistics, Facts, and Data

  • 4-7% of teens are struggling with gambling addiction
  • One in ten teenagers are addicted to video games
  • 5% of men and 6% of women struggle with a shopping addiction
  • 6% of the US population have a shopping addiction that began in late adolescence.
  • 38% of UK adults play video games
  • Food addiction and binge eating disorder are not the same
  • Most people who have sex addiction are dealing with co-occurring mental health issues such as borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder
  • Women make up 25% of the total population of people who have a gambling disorder
  • In the early stages, before it becomes an addiction, problematic social media use leads to anxiety, agitation and discomfort


What therapies are used in treating process addiction?

Some of the therapies used in treating behavioural addictions include family therapy, personal therapy, holistic therapies and support groups.

How can a family help a member with a process addiction?

Family members can be the positive agent of change, instrumental to the individual’s acceptance of the problem and the need to enrol in a treatment programme. They will also participate in family therapy sessions, learn more about the unique addiction and how to help maintain abstinence from process addiction.

Are there medications that can help treat process addiction?

There are some process addictions where medication for treating specific withdrawal symptoms, such as antidepressants, will be useful. However, medication is not the focus of treatment but helps to make the transition from addiction to sobriety easy. Therapy is the main focus, and the primary treatment model used to treat behavioural addictions.

What support groups exist for process addictions?

There is a support group for any behavioural addiction you’re struggling with. Most of them offer support either online or in-person. Examples include Gamblers Anonymous, Love and Sex Addicts Anonymous, Food Addicts in Recovery, Shopaholic Anonymous and Sex Addicts Anonymous.

Are addictive behaviours hereditary?

Not necessarily. However, in some cases, having a family member that struggled with an addiction might increase your risk of struggling with the same problem. Yet, you could have family members without a genetic predisposition to behavioural addiction and still develop one.

Is there a difference between ‘process’ and ‘behavioural’ relating to addiction?

Both are the same because they refer to a compulsive behavioural action that has a negative impact on the individual. They also describe the lack of control over these behaviours or processes.

What types of process addictions are there?

Sex addiction, porn addiction, love addiction, gambling addiction, exercise addiction, shopping addiction, food addiction and internet addiction.

When is it time to intervene and how?

It’s time to intervene when the behaviour becomes an activity you can’t control. If it affects your ability to work, engage in activities you previously enjoyed, spend time with loved ones or go to school, it’s time to intervene.

What are the underlying causes for process addictions?

Unlike a substance addiction, it’s difficult to identify the definite factor responsible for a behavioural addiction. Scientists agree that it involves two or more factors such as trauma, genetic predisposition, stress that drives you to cope with behavioural addiction, environmental factors and human biology.

What kinds of relapse preventions skills exist for process addictions?

It is difficult to avoid relapse, especially given the fact that most of these process addictions are a part of life, such as food and exercise. However, a few tips include: eliminating the triggers as much as possible, identifying feelings, people and places that fuel the behaviour; developing a plan of action to deal with the urges when they come up and to move past relapse if it happens; and building a support cycle made up of people who have the same recovery goals.

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