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What Is a Behavioural Addiction?

When we talk about addiction, we immediately think about alcohol dependence and illicit substances. However, did you know that there are also addictive behaviours interfering with and negatively affecting a person’s quality of life?

Despite emerging evidence, behavioural addiction is still a fairly new phenomenon being debated by experts. Many still question whether behavioural addiction is considered a “real” addiction

Behavioural Addiction vs Substance Addiction

Behavioural addiction can also be referred to as process addiction or impulse control disorder. Like in substance use disorder, people with this condition continue to engage in the addictive behaviour compulsively and obsessively despite knowing the unpleasant consequences that come with it.

Experts suggest that behavioural addiction influences the same neurological pathways attributable to the brain’s reward and pleasure system, which can be observed in substance addiction as well. The brain chemical dopamine is released as a response to the addictive behaviour, giving them a sense of euphoria or “high” that gets them hooked and makes it impossibly difficult for them to quit, similar to misusing substances. 

Types of Behavioural Addiction

Nowadays, our modern society has a whole Pandora’s box of problematic behaviours that can easily be perceived as addictive. This includes internet addiction, shopping addiction, online gaming addiction, exercise addiction, work addiction, etc. In this section, we list down the most harmful behavioural addictions commonly reported by our patients. 

Gambling Addiction 

Gambling addiction is the only type of behavioural addiction clinically recognized and classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the top authority for psychiatric diagnosis worldwide. 

A person with a gambling addiction feels an insatiable thirst to chase uncalculated risks for the sheer thrill of winning. This behavioural addiction can cause a myriad of devastating ramifications, such as depression and suicide, divorce, financial bankruptcy, physical assault, and theft. But while they’re on a high from winning or excitement, the possibility of these scenarios does not cross their mind.

According to 2018 statistics, 75% of Canadians have participated in some form of gambling, and 2.7% of them were identified as risky gamblers.

Sex and Love Addiction

Someone with sexual addiction craves sexual gratification repeatedly. Most of the time, they tend to engage in highly promiscuous, harmful, and immoral sexual activity, like rape, voyeurism, or incest.

Someone with this type of behavioural addiction may turn to sex as a coping mechanism to numb past emotional trauma or mental illness. They seek out multiple sexual partners and no longer have any sense of control over their sexual behaviours, messing up relationships, compromising their jobs, committing a criminal offence, or making themselves vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases. 

Plastic Surgery Addiction

A surgeon’s hands marking a female patient’s abdomen for a plastic surgery procedure.

While there is nothing wrong with undergoing plastic surgery to achieve aesthetic enhancements, some people with this type of behavioural addiction show an obsession to correct or conceal their physical appearance by going under the knife repeatedly. 

For instance, they initially wanted breast augmentation surgery to accentuate their curves. Once they’ve had it done, they’ll immediately believe in their mind that they have to get butt implants as well because their body now looks weird and out of proportion. It’s an endless cycle that will never make them satisfied.

Experts suggest that this addictive behaviour strongly correlates to body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) or body dysmorphia. This mental health condition makes a person fixate on perceived flaws in their face or body, whether real or imagined. According to the International OCD Foundation, at least 1 to 2% of the population suffers from BDD, and it’s exceptionally prevalent among plastic surgery patients.

Food Addiction 

Food addiction shares profound similarities with binge eating disorders. Those who have this form of behavioural addiction succumb to episodes of a mindless and excessive eating spree, particularly of foods high in sugar, carbs, or fats. This creates intense dysphoria and depression, trapping the person to eat more to get rid of the negative emotions. In some cases, it could be followed by purging akin to individuals diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia. 

How Are Behavioural Addictions Treated? 

Patients during group-based therapy for behavioural addiction.

Aside from gambling addiction, behavioural addictions may still not be clinically recognized. Nevertheless, we know that many people are experiencing its debilitating symptoms and seek treatment to gain control of their lives. Fortunately, behavioural addiction can be addressed using the same evidence-based treatment approaches proven effective for substance addiction. 

Every treatment plan should be customized depending on each patient’s unique circumstances and medical history. Hence, addiction specialists recommend getting a complete psychiatric evaluation from a licensed mental health professional before signing up for any addiction treatment program. 


Psychotherapy plays a pivotal role in getting to the root cause of addiction and discovering and effectively addressing underlying mental health problems, known as concurrent disorders. Most addiction recovery programs incorporate individual and group-based therapy with mental health professionals trained to offer them a safe space and guide them towards achieving emotional recovery.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Addiction 

Cognitive behavioural therapy is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on the patient’s beliefs, ideas, and attitudes and uses them to unlearn harmful behaviours and thought patterns. With CBT, the patient’s brain will be assessed to identify the specific issues. Then, they will be trained to overcome addictive behaviours.


Technically, there are still no prescription or over-the-counter medications developed explicitly for the treatment of behavioural addiction. However, a doctor may prescribe these to address particular psychiatric conditions or symptoms like anxiety or depression to complement therapy.

Alternative Treatment Techniques for Behavioural Addiction

On top of medication and psychotherapy, those dealing with behavioural addiction may also benefit from the following:

Freedom From Addiction

Freedom From Addiction is a private treatment home located in the idyllic Aurora-King City area, just north of Toronto. We follow evidence-based and holistic approaches for the treatment of different types of addiction. Our highly qualified and compassionate team of medical and mental health professionals supports patients every step of the way so they can live a life free from addictions. 

For more information about our addiction treatments, please do not hesitate to reach out to us. Our treatment consultants are available 24/7. Contact us today!   


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