What Are Behavioral Addictions?

Although they don't depend on substances, behavioral addictions can be extremely dangerous and harmful. In this article, we'll talk about the most common ones.
What Are Behavioral Addictions?

Last update: 17 October, 2019

Behavioral addictions don’t involve substances or drugs. People who suffer from them experience considerable deterioration in all areas of their lives. In many ways, they’re very similar to drug or substance addictions in their characteristics and consequences.

According to a study by José de Sola Gutiérrez (2014), the common criteria between the two can be summarized as:

  • Becoming addicted to actions or activities that comfort or satisfy in some way.
  • Excessive concern about actions that give some sort of positive benefit.
  • Temporary satisfaction.
  • Loss of control, where the frequency of the conduct or actions increases continually.
  • Difficulty in stopping or avoiding such actions or activities, despite the serious negative consequences.

The addict enters an “action/behavior – abstinence – craving” loop in which the drug or addictive behavior becomes the center of their life. As a result, virtually all their behavior and actions revolve around this activity.

A stressed woman.

Differences between substance addictions and behavioral addictions

As we already mentioned, the two types share many characteristics. Both chemical and behavioral addictions cause dependence, withdrawal syndrome, and tolerance. However, we must take the main differences into account when considering treatment.

The first difference lies in withdrawal syndrome. In drug addiction, the physiological nature of the substance means that once the substance is consumed, withdrawal syndrome disappears. This doesn’t necessarily happen with behavioral addictions. Withdrawal syndrome often doesn’t disappear, even when the person carries out their addictive behavior.

The second difference has to do with the comorbidity between the substances or sources of addiction. In drug addictions, consumption of several types of drugs is very common. In other addictions, it isn’t common to have several addictions at the same time, for example, gambling and work addiction.

Most common behavioral addictions


The person usually begins to play gradually, and, little by little, the amounts and frequency increase. Combining the financial losses that this produces and the addiction itself, this addiction can make the person go into debt and creates financial, work, familial, and even legal problems. Consequently, the person’s relatives or closest friends often have to take the initiative and force them to get help.

The new online ways of gambling have made it easier for people to start gambling and keep it going. Online gaming rooms and online betting have increased the number of cases and made it more difficult to treat.

Compulsive shopping

This addiction is characterized by the compulsive and impulsive purchase of products without reason or need. Although they’re not usually expensive products, these people tend to make several smaller purchases that ultimately put them in financial trouble. It’s very common in industrialized countries, and this is aggravated by how easy it is to make credit card payments and not physically hand over cash.

Work addiction

Normally, experts define this addiction by the number of hours that a person devotes to work, without there being a real need, financial or otherwise. The person’s number one priority is their work-life, and they put it before all other areas of their lives. They can even put their own life in danger.

Workaholics don’t take vacations or days off. When they’re not at work, they show all the typical withdrawal symptoms. Work addiction is usually more common in industrialized countries.

Sex addiction

This addiction is controversial, as we have to make a distinction between addiction and behavior. Sex addiction can be confirmed if the person meets the requirements mentioned in the first section. People with this addiction really suffer. The reason for this is that carrying out sexual activities doesn’t relieve their craving, but actually drive them to do them again.

Screen addiction

This is one of the so-called “new addictions”, and has a high prevalence among young people and children. For a long time, experts discussed whether or not this should be classified as a behavioral addiction. Finally, though, they were able to clearly justify its inclusion. Screen addiction includes overuse of:

  • Video games
  • Television
  • Social networks
  • Internet
  • Computers
  • Mobile phones
A man with his cellphone in bed.

The role of the consumer industry in addictions

It took a long time for experts to recognize behavioral addictions as a serious matter and truly recognize them as addictions. However, these days it’s still a controversial subject, as there isn’t always clarity as to what is an addiction and what isn’t.

What this does is generate a “moral vacuum” in a society that doesn’t seem to be aware of the problem posed by addictions that don’t involve substances, and, as a result, this only increases the suffering.

It’s so easy to carry out these activities on a daily basis, and, more often than not, several times a day. We’re surrounded by shops and gambling machines in cafés and bars. Instagram is just a click away and our television is always staring us in the face.

However, this only adds to consumerism and benefits the industry. They’re well aware of this and, consequently, they urge the individual to carry out these actions with their incessant advertising campaigns. Actions that, with time, can become increasingly more difficult to treat.

By law, advertising companies have to make us aware of the dangers and negative effects of consuming alcohol and tobacco. In addition to this, drugs and even some processed foods also come with warnings about potential side effects and problems. Companies also have to warn their customers to bet wisely.

Thus, this is a first step that could then be expanded to all the other areas of behavioral addiction in order to raise awareness of this growing issue.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Brezing, C., Derevensky, J. L. y Potenza, M. N. (2010). Non-substance-addictive behaviors in youth: pathological gambling and problematic internet use. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 19, 625-641.
  • Carbonell, X. (2014). La adicción a los videojuegos en el DSM-5. Adicciones, 26, 91-95.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.