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Substance and behavioural addictions

Published 20 December 2005. Updated 14 October 2009.

You can develop a dependence not only to intoxicants but also to various immediately satisfying activities that do not involve the use of chemical substances. These activities include e.g. gambling, constant changing of sex partners or excessive use of phone sex services, bulimic eating, compulsive physical exercise, shopping or other activities that provide instant gratification.

Similar to intoxicant dependencies, behavioural dependencies involve a strong need or compulsion to engage in the activity, weakening control over the activity and difficulties in stopping it. It is also typical for people with dependencies to continue their activities regardless of the even serious ill-effects. Even though behavioural addictions do not involve the use of chemical substances, the transmitters of the brain produce reactions that are similar to those a person experiences when under the influence of intoxicants.

Behavioural addictions are often compared to obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Both disorders are characterized by their compulsive, repetitive nature and both dominate a person’s other activities. Despite of the ill-effects, it is also very difficult to get rid of these disorders. But behavioural addictions differ from obsessive-compulsive behaviour in many ways. Firstly, addictions give delight whereas obsessive-compulsive behaviour consists of short, schematically repeated actions that do not in themselves give delight; they are only used to avoid assumed negative consequences. Therefore, when a person suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder is prevented from doing the rituals that are typical of him (e.g. washing his hands continuously, cleaning), he feels anxious or might even panic. In the same situation, those who suffer from addictions usually feel frustrated or angry. Even though addictions, too, are closely connected to achieving the goal, the means used may vary very flexibly. Obsessive-compulsive behaviour does also not involve increasing tolerance and withdrawal symptoms, which are very typical of addictions.

Behavioural addictions, like other addictions, serve many needs. Some look for security with the help of addictions, others look for adventure or excitement, others a connection with other people etc. The origins of the various behavioural addictions and how to break away from them may still vary consistently with the type of the addiction. Bulimia, for example, is far more common with women than with men. Many studies have shown that the ratio of bulimic women to bulimic men is 10:1. Intoxicant addictions, on the other hand, are more common with men, and so is gambling. Behavioural addictions do not usually clearly manifest themselves in the physical appearance of the addicts. Therefore, the process of breaking away from a behavioural addiction may also differ a great deal e.g. from the process of putting an end to intoxicant use. For example sex addicts can be found at all levels of society, but such an addiction does not necessarily cause people to slide down the social ladder or to become a part of a subculture, like drug addiction often does. Bulimia, too, often remains a secret known only to the person suffering from it. Most addictions do, however, have similar consequences: as shameful and hidden behavioural models they often isolate the individual – if not physically then at least emotionally – from other people who do not have such problems.

Anja Koski-Jännes
Professor of Social Psychology,
University of Tampere

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