6 Key Signs Of Addictive Behavior

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Drugs. Alcohol. TikTok. Internet games. Sex. An Ex. Chocolate. Slot machines. Shopping. Can these stimuli be addictive?

The idea of being addicted to a process or behavior is very controversial.

Although addiction is a term historically used by the public to describe substance use and abuse, the term never appeared in the professional diagnostic system used by medical professionals until 2013, when Gambling Disorder was included in the DSM-5 in a section called "Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders."

For the first time in history, mental health professionals could diagnose someone with an addiction to a behavior — in this case, gambling behavior.

Consistent with the DSM-5 diagnosis, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), people struggling with addiction “use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences."

The choice to add gambling disorder to the DSM was made because of a substantial body of research suggesting an overlap in brain origin, physiology, comorbidity, treatment, and the way the behavior manifests compared to problematic substance use.

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In general, mental health professionals look for at least six core features in a behavior to determine whether it's a pathological addiction. As outlined originally by Griffiths, all of these must be present for a behavior to be considered pathologically addictive.

6 Key Signs Of Addictive Behavior

1. It’s the most important thing in your life.

Addictive behaviors have salience — they become centrally important to your life, consuming your time, energy, and attention at the expense of almost anything else.

2. It changes or modifies your mood.

When you use it, it either makes you feel good or keeps you from feeling bad.

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3. You want to use more over time.

Developing tolerance is a key feature of all addictive behavior — you need increased amounts or greater frequency of use to get the same high.

4. You feel bad when you’re not using.

Withdrawal symptoms bring you back for more. When you’re not using it, you’re thinking about it, fantasizing, or planning for the next time you can use.

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5. Its use causes conflict in your life.

Use causes you conflict or problems in life, often related to interpersonal relationships, work or school performance, physical or mental health, legal status, or quality of life.

6. You keep going back even when you want to stop.

Relapse such that attempts to stop eventually fail.

The bottom line is this:

When we become addicted to something—whether it’s to a substance or behavior—we become so intensely focused on their addictive stimuli that we struggle to stop using even when we rationally know that continued use is harmful. In this way, the addictive stimulus dominates our lived experience.

Although diagnosing a behavior as pathologically addictive is relatively new — since 2013 — there are many tools and skills mental health professionals use to help people struggling with addictive behavior of many kinds.

For more information on stopping addictive behaviors, contact your local addiction specialist or the National Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Hotline.

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Cortney Warren, Ph.D., ABPP, is a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV). She is also the author of Letting Go of Your Ex and Lies We Tell Ourselves.