Behavioural addictions can be just as serious as drug addictions

For many people the concept of addiction involves taking drugs. However, there is now a growing number of psychologists like myself who view a number of behaviours as potentially addictive including those that don’t involve drugs such as alcohol, nicotine, cocaine and heroin. These include behaviours diverse as gambling, overeating, sex, exercise, videogame playing, internet use, and work. In fact, if the rewards of engaging in the activity are constant, I would argue that some individuals can become addicted to almost anything.

For the past 25 years I have been studying gambling and I passionately believe that gambling at its most extreme is just as addictive as any drug. The social and health costs of problem gambling are large and show many commonalities with more traditional addictions. These can include extreme moodiness and irritability, problems with personal relationships (including divorce), absenteeism from work, neglect of family, domestic violence, and bankruptcy. Adverse health consequences for gamblers and their partner include anxiety and depression disorders, insomnia, intestinal disorders, migraine, stress related disorders, stomach problems, and suicidal ideation. If behaviours like gambling can become a genuine addiction for some people, there is no theoretical reason why some people might not become genuinely addicted to activities like video games, work or exercise.

Research on pathological gamblers has reported at least one physical side effect when they undergo withdrawal, including insomnia, headaches, loss of appetite, physical weakness, heart palpitations, muscle aches, breathing difficulty, and chills. In fact, pathological gamblers appear to experience more physical withdrawal effects when attempting to stop their behaviour when compared directly with drug addicts.

But when does an excessive healthy enthusiasm become an addiction? Excessive behaviour on it’s own does not mean someone is addicted. In fact, I can think of loads of people who engage in excessive activities but I wouldn’t class them as addicts as they don’t appear to experience any detrimental effects in their life as a result of engaging in the behaviour. In a nutshell, the fundamental difference between excessive enthusiasm and addiction is that healthy enthusiasms add to life whereas addiction takes away from it.

For any behaviour to be defined as addictive, I would expect there to be specific consequences as a result of the person’s relationship with the behaviour. More specifically I would expect to see all the following things:

  • Salience (when a particular activity becomes the most important activity in the person’s life)
  • Mood modification (the use of the activity as a way of either getting a ‘high’ or ‘buzz’ and/or using the activity to escape, de-stress or numb)
  • Tolerance (needing more and more of the activity over time to feel the mood modifying effects)
  • Withdrawal symptoms (psychological and/or physiological consequences such as excess moodiness and irritability if unable to engage in the activity)
  • Conflict (with other activities – such as work and hobbies – and personal relationships, that may lead to a loss of control)
  • Relapse (i.e. returning to addictive patterns of use following a period of abstinence)

The way addictions develop – whether chemical or behavioural – is complex. Addictive behaviour develops from a combination of a person’s biological/genetic predisposition, the social environment they were brought up in, their psychological constitution (such as personality factors, attitudes, expectations and beliefs), and the activity itself.

Many behavioural addictions are “hidden” addictions. Unlike (say) alcoholism, there is no slurred speech and no stumbling into work. However, behavioural addiction is a health issue that needs to be taken seriously by all those in the health and medical profession. If the main aim of practitioners is to ensure the health of their patients, then an awareness of behavioural addiction and the issues surrounding it should be an important part of basic knowledge and training.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Psychology Division, Nottingham Trent University, UK

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About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Gambling Studies at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 430 research papers, three books, over 120 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on November 29, 2011, in Addiction and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

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  4. Hello Drmarkgriffiths,
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  7. Alcohol and nicotine are not this dangerous as drug, specially hard drugs like cocaine

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  10. Intervention is a process of bringing together a amalgamation of people who have been affected by the actions of the dependent, in a unbiased site. This party is then urged to address the drug user to tell him as to how each person in the group has been influenced. This expectantly enables the drug abuser to face up to the fact that he has got a problem and to seek help.

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