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What Is Process Addiction and Does It Co-Occur With Substance Abuse?



Medically Reviewed by Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.

Alcohol and drugs aren’t the only things that can be addictive.

Process addiction (sometimes called behavioral addiction) refers to specific activities or behaviors that can become addictive for some people. They are patterns of compulsive behavior that resemble substance addiction in many ways. Substance use disorder (SUD) is a treatable disease that affects a person’s brain and behavior, making them unable to control their use of substances. Both process and substance addictions can often be treated with the same therapies.

Common Process Addictions

Even if they are unfamiliar with the term “process addiction,” most people have heard of the most common addictions:

  • Gambling
  • Sex
  • Shopping
  • Internet
  • Video gaming
  • Food
  • Exercise
  • Work

Many other behaviors can become addictive, but these create the most significant reward response.

How Does Process Addiction Work?

In process addiction, the behavior in question is rewarded by the brain — usually as a “feel-good” dopamine rush that reinforces the behavior and makes it more likely that the person will repeat it. This is identical to the high that a person feels when they use a drug and thus can lead to addiction. Process addiction and substance addiction are almost identical in how they affect the brain’s functions, how they develop over time, and how they respond to treatment. The only difference is that process addiction does not cause physical withdrawal symptoms when the addictive behavior is stopped.

Process Addiction Risk Factors

People of any race, age, economic background, or gender can become addicted to a process. However, certain people are more at risk of developing a process addiction. The most common risk factors include:

  • Mental health issues (bipolar, mood, or personality disorders)
  • Substance use disorders
  • Genetics
  • Environment
  • Trauma
  • A current issue (severe stress or anxiety) that triggers the behavior as a coping mechanism.

Unlike SUDs, process addiction is often related to activities necessary in day-to-day life — eating, shopping, and using the Internet. This can make some very difficult to overcome — you cannot abstain from food long term.

Signs & Symptoms Of A Process Addiction

It is not always easy to recognize when routine behaviors have become an addiction. The diagnostic criteria for process addiction are similar to those for substance addiction:

  • The person’s life is dominated by the substance/activity, or thoughts of it
  • The person gets high or feels euphoria as a result of the substance use/activity
  • The person can build a tolerance to the substance/activity
  • The person experiences unpleasant symptoms (physical, mental, or emotional) if they stop the substance use/activity
  • The person experiences negative consequences directly caused by continued or chronic substance use/activity but is unable to stop
  • There is a potential for relapse

Does Process Addiction Co-Occur With Substance Abuse?

Process addictions often appear along with substance addiction or among those who have battled a substance abuse issue, and vice versa. SUDs can encourage process addictions since many substances reduce inhibitions and increase impulsive behavior. The National Library of Medicine published research showing that 21 to 64 percent of individuals with process addictions have another accompanying addiction.

Co-occurring substance and process addictions increase the likelihood of legal, financial, occupational, or interpersonal problems or social stigma sufficient to cause the person to self-medicate with a different addiction. This creates a self-reinforcing feedback loop leading to more profound addiction and increases the risk of developing additional psychological problems, such as depression or anxiety disorder.

The desire to use alcohol or drugs is often coupled with the urge for process addiction, so both addictions must be treated simultaneously. If not, the untreated disorder will likely trigger a relapse of the other or lead to a new addiction entirely. Integrated treatment programs that allow coordinated therapy to address the disorders simultaneously are more effective than treating them individually.

How Is Process Addiction Treated?

Both addictions respond to many of the same therapies. Addiction treatment almost always includes behavioral psychotherapy that helps people manage negative thoughts, alter unhealthy behavior patterns, learn about triggers, and develop healthy coping skills to manage impulses. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) are often used, along with support groups and 12-step programs that help people find support, encouragement, and accountability.

The coping techniques for process addiction are similar to those for substance use:

  • Identify and avoid triggers that bring on the urge to engage in the behavior
  • Create a plan to minimize the impact of unavoidable triggers and deal with the urge to relapse
  • Build a support network of people who genuinely support the desire to avoid relapse

It is possible to become addicted to shopping, eating, gambling, playing video games, sex, or using the Internet. People with process addictions will continue the behavior regardless of the damage it does to their well-being, relationships, finances, and future goals. This compulsion makes behavioral change difficult, but treatments are available.

Further research is needed to uncover the true causes of co-occurring processes and substance addictions, and those with SUDs should be made aware of possible process addictions that may go hand in hand.

You Can Trust Us To Help

Seek professional treatment if you think you may have a behavioral addiction or substance use disorder.

Into Action Recovery Centers takes pride in providing a high level of treatment and a holistic approach to recovery for those who suffer from addiction. Our comfortable facility is designed with the client’s needs foremost in mind. Our staff includes master’s level counselors, licensed chemical dependency counselors, 24-hour nursing professionals, a staff psychiatrist, a staff chef, and direct care personnel. Our counseling staff provides individualized treatment and care for our clients, emphasizing tailoring treatment to each individual’s specific needs. Additionally, our staff provides family counseling, relapse prevention, life skills, and grief and trauma counseling.

We are passionate about helping people live an addiction-free life. Contact us today to learn more.


Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.

Dr. Saeed is a psychiatry specialist with over 40 years of experience in the medical field. He received training in General Psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where he was selected as the Medical Director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. He currently serves as the medical director at Into Action Recovery Centers. Full Bio

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