Process Addictions Diagnosis and Treatment
Learn everything you need to know about process addiction, including the causes, symptoms, and treatment for this type of disorder.
Table of Contents
What is a Process Addiction?
Most people know it is possible to become addicted to certain substances, but did you know it is also possible to become addicted to a behavior? Process addiction is a mental health condition characterized by a strong impulse to engage in certain behaviors, even if these behaviors cause negative consequences. Those who experience process addiction may feel that their behaviors are uncontrollable, but this is not the case. Just like substance addiction, process addiction can be treated.
How Does a Process Addiction Occur?
Process addictions occur when a habit turns into a compulsion. Contrary to past beliefs that addiction can only involve substances, behavioral scientists now believe that anything that can stimulate a person can be addictive.1
Stanton Peele popularized the notion of a process addiction with his 1979 book Love and Addiction. According to Peele, addiction occurs when individuals are dependent on a specific set of experiences, and substance addiction is only one example of these experiences.2
When an activity feels good, it can cause someone to repeat that behavior or activity, resulting in a process addiction. Process addictions span many behaviors, from compulsive exercising to hoarding. Because process addictions refer to people who engage in compulsive behaviors, it is sometimes also referred to as behavioral addiction.
What Do Process Addiction and Substance Addiction Have in Common?
Process addiction and substance addiction are more similar than they are different. One primary difference is that process addiction involves a behavior or the feeling brought upon by engaging in the behavior. People with substance abuse disorder are addicted to the substance, not the act of using the substance. Another difference is process addiction’s lack of physical signs—unlike the yellowing fingertips from nicotine use or the sores common to amphetamine abuse, process addiction does not often have physical indications.
Similarly, quitting a process addiction does not typically come with the serious physical withdrawal symptoms associated with substance use disorder withdrawal.
There are several similarities between behavioral addictions and substance addictions, one of them being the gradual loss of control someone has over their compulsion. Behavioral addictions also resemble substance addictions in terms of tolerance, in which people must ramp up the frequency of their behavior to get the same result; comorbidity, in which other addictions or mental health issues are present alongside the process addiction; and response to treatment.3
Lastly, process addiction is just as serious as substance addiction and can impact the affected individual’s life just as much as substance addiction.
Types of Process Addictions
- Compulsive gambling
- Sex and love addiction
- Internet addiction
- Exercise addiction
- Compulsive buying addiction
- Gaming addiction
- Food addiction
Compulsive gamblers may get a “high” from the rush of winning money, while those struggling with food addiction may become addicted to the pleasurable feelings derived from eating.
Other behavioral addiction examples include skin-picking, or trichotillomania, which are categorized as process addictions due to the pleasure response that happens in the brain during the addiction process. While the behaviors themselves are different, the compulsive need to engage in the behavior is the same across the board.
Similar to substance use disorder, it is possible to overcome a process addiction and gain back control of your life. Read on to learn more about the symptoms of process addiction and the varying treatment options.
Signs & Symptoms of Process Addiction
Sometimes the signs and symptoms of a behavioral addiction can be difficult to spot. Unlike the physical signs that indicate substance abuse, many people with process addictions have no outward signals that they have an addiction.
Sometimes people with behavioral addictions may even be praised for their addiction by those who do not realize the extent of the problem. An example of this would be exercise addiction. Most people consider exercise a healthy habit, and when it results in muscle tone or weight loss, friends and family may congratulate the individual—unknowingly supporting their behavioral addiction.
With that said, there are some signs and symptoms you may notice in yourself or others who are experiencing a process addiction, including:
Cravings and an Inability to Resist the Impulse
Narrowed Interest Outside the Addiction
Denial That There Is a Problem
Feelings of Shame and Guilt Associated with the Behavior
After giving in to the need to engage in the process addiction, people may feel a sense of guilt or shame for their actions. Once they have satisfied the need to do the activity, the negative repercussions come to the forefront. These negative emotions can be uncomfortable, and that discomfort drives the person to engage in their behavioral addiction to feel better, and then the cycle repeats.
Gamblers, for example, may feel the intense need to gamble, but after they do so, they feel guilty for losing money. To make themselves feel better, they may go back to gambling with the hopes of making up for the previous financial loss (which usually does not work). This cycle is particularly concerning because studies show a link between feelings of shame and addiction.5
Lying About Their Addiction
Hiding the Behavior
Feeling Depressed or Anxious When They Stop Behavior
This issue can be because their addiction is a coping mechanism, and when that coping mechanism is taken away, the individual is flooded with negative feelings, including:
- Mood swings
- Excessive crying
- Agitation or irritability
- Excess sleepiness or insomnia
- Appetite changes
- Weight loss or gain
- Apathy or hopelessness
What Causes Addictive Behavior?
Several factors contribute to the development of addictive behavior. Genetic predisposition, personality traits, and substance use can lead to addiction.
Personality traits like high impulsivity and high sensation-seeking are associated with a higher risk for process addiction. Though there is no specific personality type that can be identified as an addictive personality, there are shared personality traits among people with addiction issues.
Genetics play a much larger role than some people realize—up to 64% of the risk of developing both a gambling addiction and an alcohol addiction comes down to genetics.6 Additionally, those who have relatives with addiction issues are more likely to develop an addiction themselves.
Misdiagnosis of a Behavioral Addiction
According to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 40.7% of the 20.7 million Americans who had a substance use disorder in the previous year were also diagnosed with a co-occurring mental health condition.7
In addition to the co-occurring mental conditions, process addictions can be difficult to spot because the symptoms are harder to identify compared to substance addiction. Some process addictions may seem like normal behavior (exercise, internet use, etc.), and unless the patient explicitly tells their doctor that the behavior is excessive, the process addiction may not be identified or treated. The misuse of substances can mask an underlying mood or anxiety disorder. Skilled and caring clinicians understand how common dual diagnosis occurs and go to great lengths to ensure that the treatment will be appropriate for everyone.
Differentiating between a process addiction and another mental health condition comes down to a skilled clinician who knows what to look out for and a patient who is willing to be open and honest about their past and their symptoms. Understanding the patient’s history, getting a comprehensive list of the patient’s symptoms, and asking less obvious, more complex questions—about childhood trauma or other traumatic events that could cause mental conditions to develop—can all help to avoid misdiagnosis.
The Effects of Misdiagnosis
Confusion is a main component of misdiagnosis. Someone with undiagnosed hypothyroidism being treated for depression may be confused and frustrated that their symptoms persist despite treatment. Many people don’t know how to differentiate between symptoms of mental health conditions. On top of that, patients typically trust their doctor’s diagnosis, so they may blame themselves if treatment isn’t working.
Another problem that comes with misdiagnosis is the prescription of the wrong medication. It can be ineffective at best and dangerous at worst; people prescribed medications they don’t need can have long-lasting impairments. It can also lead to the patient experiencing the negative side effects of medications without getting any of the benefits. Unsurprisingly, this situation can exacerbate the patient’s confusion and distress.
Perhaps the worst outcome of misdiagnosis is not discovering the root of the patient’s problem, often causing the condition to worsen. When a mental health condition is misdiagnosed—or not diagnosed at all—the patient is likely to experience a worsening of their condition.
Treatment for Process Addictions
Researchers have found that many of the same treatments used for substance abuse disorder are also effective in treating behavioral addictions. Treatment may vary based on the individual’s needs, but often include a combination of therapeutic and medical approaches.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy aims to equip the patient with the mental fortitude to shut down self-sabotaging thoughts and ultimately lessen or cease addictive behaviors.8
Psychotherapy or talk therapy can also be useful for patients struggling with process addiction, particularly if the patient experienced childhood trauma or other traumatic life events. Psychotherapy focuses less on “solving a problem” and more on the unconscious processes that manifest in the patient’s life through behaviors and thoughts, leading the patient to better understand their problems.
JFHI Concierge Approach to Diagnosis and Treatment
JFHI provides a comprehensive, customized process addiction assessment to uncover the root cause of a patient’s condition—even in complex situations where diagnoses are hard to pinpoint. Your evaluation at JFHI could also include:
- Comprehensive medical evaluation
- Spiritual assessment and counsel
- Executive blood panel
- Chronic pain evaluation
- Lifestyle assessment
- Psychological diagnostic testing
- Neuropsychological testing and brain mapping
Benefits of Concierge Medical Services
Another benefit of concierge medical services includes minimal wait times and immediate access to care. Concierge medicine also provides evidence-based solutions from a team of specialists who work together to get to the root of patients’ problems.
The interdisciplinary treatment team may include:
- Medical doctors
- Interventional pain specialists
- Trauma specialists
- Mental health and addiction therapists
- Physical therapists
- Fitness professionals
- Wellness providers
Concierge medical services at JFHI are intensively structured, holistic plans of treatment based on a client’s unique recovery needs. They provide evidence-based solutions from top specialists who work together to treat underlying conditions, providing patients with support, guidance, and effective treatment.