Addiction comes in many shapes and forms. For some people, it’s drugs. For others, it’s gambling. Some people even consider obsessive behavior, like the obsession with falling in and out of love, to be a kind of addiction. Sometimes addiction also comes in the form of some of the things we all love – sex and food, for example. For some, it’s hard to imagine the line between loving sex and food and being addicted to it – but if you have ever seen someone struggling with the issue of food or sex addiction, you’ll know that there is absolutely no mistaking it.
How Addiction Works
Addiction works similarly across the board, with differences here and there in terms of circumstances, triggers, and reasons. For example: while there is a myriad of risk factors that contribute to why someone might get addicted, their actual reasons may only include peer pressure, and genetics.
Drugs are commonly more addictive than habits because they’re designed to be addictive. Their effects on the brain create a powerful craving and make you more susceptible to addiction than anything else through the unnatural and high release of dopamine.
But behavior can be just as addictive under the right circumstances, given the right emotional and psychological condition, and the right genetic makeup. Gambling, video games, sex, food, thrills – there are a million enjoyable things in life, all of which give you a “natural high”, which can potentially become addictive under the right circumstances.
Addiction is affected by the addictiveness of the drug or activity (some habits, like food, are naturally enjoyable, while others like gambling and certain video games are purposefully designed to create addiction and “customer retention”), the genetic makeup of a person (people with family histories of addiction are more prone to it), their mental state (self-medicating after a trauma or during a depression is a gateway to a larger problem), environmental factors (high-stress work environment, getting fired, an abusive household), and peer pressure.
The mechanism for addiction takes place in the pleasure centers of the brain: pathways of nerves that activate and respond to behavior by rewarding or punishing you, in order to make you learn or adapt to certain situations. For example: your brain rewards you for high-calorie foods but punishes you with pain for doing something risky. Your natural instinct will make you crave the food and be reluctant about repeating the risky activity.
With addiction, that part of the brain is overstimulated by a massive release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that triggers joy, as well as a series of other reactions in the brain triggering the characteristics of the high. Alcohol and sedatives like barbiturates/benzodiazepine affect the GABA neurotransmitter, making you sluggish, sleepy, and lowering your inhibition. On the other hand, opioids slow your breathing and kill off pain.
For some people, activities can produce a similarly powerful effect, as well as a subsequent craving, and with time, an addiction.
What is Behavioral Addiction
Behavioral addictions do not involve the use of substances and revolve around an unnatural obsession with a specific activity, to the point that it becomes ruinous for you. An addiction is most reliably characterized by how much of your life it touches and threatens, and how far you’re willing to go to hide it, and deny its existence, while being unable or seemingly unwilling to give it up.
The final straw is when you do try to stop and find out that you can’t.
These addictions are not easier to break than substance abuse just because they lack a chemical component that ties them to the pleasure center of the brain. In some cases, people are simply extremely susceptible to an abnormal release of dopamine to certain activities, or their addiction might be driven by an outside factor, such as a comorbidity with depression, or a hormone imbalance causing hypersexuality and sex addiction.
A behavioral addiction can only reliably be diagnosed by a professional, like any other disease or condition, but it is safe to say that if your hobby or habit has grown from being a constructive part of your life to becoming a major source of stress and obsession, then you’re on the verge of a big problem. If you or your loved ones are exhibiting an inability to stop their destructive behavior, even after multiple warnings and consequences, professional help may be warranted.
What a Sex Addiction Looks Like
Sex addiction can be exceptionally brutal, because of how quickly it destroys relationships and ruins relations with people in general. Sex addicts will be heavily tempted to sacrifice everything they’ve worked for to get off, including cheating on multiple partners, jeopardizing important business with inappropriate behavior and sexual conduct, and engaging in incredibly risky sex despite the potential consequences.
Sex addiction and hypersexuality are two different things. There is nothing wrong with having a specific kink or sharing in a healthy sexual relationship. Two people with matching libidos who agree to an open relationship may be highly sexually active, but as long as they can operate within boundaries set by both parties and respect the concepts of consent and limitations, they are in control of their desires and ultimately have the ability to draw the line when they feel that their behavior is having severe consequences on the relationships they care about.
Someone suffering from sex addiction is unable to control their behavior, or their urges. Their libido is no longer high, it is driven by an obsession with getting off at all costs, no matter what the consequences might be. And, unlike many who feel the ability to be confident in their sexual choices, no matter how unorthodox, sex addicts often feel shame because of an inability to control how they feel or what they want.
Addiction Treatment for Behavioral Addiction
Addictive behavior is not inherently bad. Gambling can cause addiction, which is why it is regulated – but it isn’t illegal, and for a good reason. Video games can be addictive, but they have their share of benefits, and can be excellent devices of stress relief. And sex is arguably an important part of a successful relationship, and a natural thing to desire, to the point where a low libido can be a problem for many.
But sex addiction is more than desire – it’s an unmitigated problem. Thankfully, addiction treatment works for behavioral addictions as well, giving people the tools they need to tackle their obsessions and overcome them.