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Behavioral Addiction

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What is Behavioral Addiction?

The term “addiction” has been used to describe the repeated use of a substance over a period of time, despite the known negative consequences to the well-being of a person. This repeated use leads to physiological dependence. The word, “addict,” is typically used to refer to someone who is dependent on alcohol or drugs. However, doctors and psychologists state that addiction does not need to be limited to substances and can also include the activities or behaviors. This kind of addiction is referred to as a process or behavioral addiction.

Behavioral addictions have the same symptoms as drug addiction and alcholism. Process addictions alter mood by creating a euphoric feeling or a “high”. This feeling is caused by the serotonin or adrenalin released in the brain when a person uses drugs or alcohol or engages in an addictive activity. The brain then seeks to recreate this experience despite any negative consequences related to it. The need to repeatedly go through the experience, to get the chemical high, results in the individual being trapped in a compulsive process.

Causes of Behavioral Addiction

The National Institute of Health states that genetic factors are significant in the development of an addiction. This means that brains are genetically predisposed to dopamine in the brain. Once a certain amount of dopamine is released while engaging in an activity that triggers the release, the brain cells get accustomed to having that amount of dopamine present. As the brain gets accustomed to this stimulation, it requires more and more dopamine to achieve the same effect. When the dopamine producing behavior is finally stopped, the brain isn’t used to the lowered dopamine levels, causing cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

Addicts who use a substance or perform an activity on a regular basis will start to develop a tolerance for the substance. This means that the person will need more and more of the drug or activity in order to feel the desired effects. With a behavioral addictions, that can mean more risk taking to up the dopamine levels, or more frequent participation in the action. Just as in drug addiction, the withdrawal developed in a behavioral addiction refers to the negative physical and emotional reactions felt by the addict when the behavior is stopped. And the relapse syndrome indicates the addict’s inability to reduce or stop indulging in the activity despite negative consequences.

Behavioral addiction may include participating in pathological gambling, shopping, sex, internet, television or food. All these activities are a natural part of many people’s lives and do not have any negative impact. When an individual is unable to control or stop an activity, despite experiencing adverse consequences, there is a good chance they are addicted to it. It’s as though there is an invisible line in which a person has lost the ability to choose. For example they no longer want to shop, but they need to continue to shop to regulate brain chemistry. Very often such a person knows that his impulse is misplaced, wants to stop, but is unable to do so.

Symptoms of Behavioral Addiction

The following criteria were printed in the American Journal of Preventive Psychiatry & Neurology in 1989. The criteria are listed similarly to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by psychiatrists and other psychotherapists to diagnose mental disorders.

The criteria are:

1. Frequent engaging in the behavior to a greater extent or over a longer period than intended.

2. Persistent desire for the behavior or one or more unsuccessful efforts to reduce or control the behavior.

3. Much time spent in activities necessary for the behavior, engaging in the behavior, or recovering from its effects.

4. Frequent preoccupation with the behavior or preparatory activities.

5. Frequent engaging in the behavior when expected to fulfill occupational, academic, domestic, or social obligations.

6. Giving up or limiting important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of the behavior.

7. Continuation of the behavior despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent social, financial, psychological, or physical problem that is caused or exacerbated by the behavior.

8. Need to increase the intensity or frequency of the behavior to achieve the desired effect, or diminished effect with continued behavior of the same intensity.

9. Restlessness or irritability if unable to engage in the behavior.

At least three criteria must be met for diagnosis, and some symptoms of the disturbance must have persisted for at least 1 month or have occurred repeatedly over a longer period.

Treatment for Behavioral Addiction

Treatment of a process or behavioral addiction begins with an individual admitting they have a problem. Denial is a key factor with any addiction and must be overcome. Many treatment centers include psychoeducation, individual therapy, and support groups such as 12 step recovery programs for people with similar additions to break the sense of isolation and shame and to learn new coping skills.