Understanding Behavioral Addictions

We most commonly associate addiction with a dependence on drugs or alcohol, but addictions can also be behavioral in nature. We can find ourselves forming dependent attachments on certain behaviors such as sex, eating, gaming and gambling, attachments that can be just as intense and detrimental as our attachments to substances. We can become mentally, emotionally and physically dependent just as we do with substance addictions. Using sex as an example, many of us identify as love and sex addicts and form a dependence upon relationships and/or the act of having sex. We often will find ourselves unable to find emotional fulfillment, mental release or physical satisfaction with anything else. We become needy, obsessive and compulsive with our romantic and sexual behaviors. We develop unhealthy relationships that are toxic, codependent and abusive. With eating as an example, we might eat compulsively to fill internal voids we feel unable to cope with. We might overeat because we feel empty, hopeless and depressed. We might use food to distract ourselves from the issues we’re afraid to confront. We often will eat past the point of feeling full, making ourselves sick and causing ourselves physical pain. We might starve ourselves, or binge and purge, developing serious eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.

Any behavior can become addictive whenever it brings us some form of comfort, pleasure or escapism we’re unable to find elsewhere in our lives. When we don’t have the mental and emotional tools to cope with our challenges, we will use behaviors as coping mechanisms, to give ourselves some relief, to take our minds off our troubles, and to bolster our low self-esteem. We might get momentary pleasure and temporarily feel high, just like with a drug, but we find that the high quickly wears off only to be replaced with all of the painful thoughts and feelings we’ve been trying desperately to avoid. They often will be worsened as well, since our avoidance and denial have given them time to compound themselves and get stronger, making our mental illnesses that much more challenging to handle. We fall into cycles of trying to escape our pain rather than facing it head on, and our attachment to our addictive behavior, our need for it, grows stronger. We can find ourselves feeling as though we need the behavior not only to cope with life but to survive altogether, just as we do with drugs and alcohol. Our behavioral addictions can occur alongside other addictions and mental health issues, and gaining more clarity and understanding around them is an important part of our recovery.

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