Can You Really Be Addicted to a Behavior?

Erin Snow

When people hear the word addiction, they typically think about alcohol or drugs. Often, they are surprised to learn that certain behaviors can also be addictive. Even people who work in the mental health field sometimes struggle with the concept of behaviors as potentially addictive. So, there can be a good deal of confusion when it comes to understanding, identifying, and treating behavioral addictions—also referred to as process addictions—including increasingly common issues like sex and porn addiction.

This confusion is largely unnecessary when one understands the basic neurobiology of addiction. Stated very simply, addictive substances and addictive behaviors trigger the same basic neurochemical pleasure response, and that response is used by addicts of all types not to have a good time but to escape emotional discomfort. Addictions are not about feeling good; they’re about feeling less.

Over time, as individuals learn to use the neurochemical pleasure response generated by substances or certain behaviors to distract themselves from unwanted thoughts and feelings, they can become addicted, meaning they use this neurobiological escape as their go-to coping mechanism for stress, boredom, loneliness, shame, and anything else they’d prefer to not feel.

The only real difference between substance and behavioral addictions is that substance addicts ingest alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, opiates, or some other drug to create a pleasurable and, therefore, emotionally escapist neurochemical reaction, while behavioral addicts rely on a fantasy or behavior (like viewing porn).

To further understand the link between substance and behavioral addictions, consider a cocaine addict on payday. After receiving his check, he runs to the bank to exchange it for cash, perhaps skipping out of work early to do so. Then he dashes off to his dealer’s house to spend money that he really ought to set aside for food and rent. As he approaches his dealer’s house, his heart races, he’s sweating, and he is so obsessed and preoccupied with using that he doesn’t even notice the police car parked half a block away. He is so completely focused on cocaine that the day-to-day world, with all its problems and obligations, has temporarily receded.

From a neurochemical perspective, this individual is high already. It doesn’t matter that there are no actual drugs in his system because his brain is behaving as if there are. He is experiencing an anticipatory high. Simply thinking or fantasizing about cocaine gets him high—the same as using it. This escapist neurobiological state, no matter how it is induced, is the goal with all addictions.

Again, addictions of all types are about the neurobiological manipulation of feelings and emotions, which can occur with or without an addictive substance. Sex and porn addicts, in particular, get high based on anticipation and fantasy more than anything else. 

* * * * * * * * * *

If you or a loved one are struggling with sex, porn, or substance/sex addiction, Seeking Integrity can help. In addition to residential rehab, we offer low-cost online workgroups for male sex addicts and male porn addicts new to recovery. Click HERE for information on our Sex Addiction Workgroup. Click HERE for information on our Porn Addiction workgroup.