Two teens spending excessive time on their phones

What is Process or Behavioral Addiction?

5 min.

You’ve probably heard of process addictions without realizing what they were. Shopping, social media, exercise—these can all be examples of process addiction, also called behavioral addiction.

By: Alex Bachert, MPH

August 15, 2022


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What is process addiction?

Process addiction is defined as a compulsive indulgence in a specific behavior that has the potential to cause harm. In most cases, the person is unable to manage or modify the specific behaviors without treatment. These addictions often begin during adolescence and can lead to an increased risk of psychological and social problems later in life.

Below, we’ll review several common process addictions seen in teens and solutions for coping with these unhealthy habits.

Types of process addiction

Social media addiction

Charlie Health has previously written about the consequences of overusing social media, but did you know that checking Instagram or TikTok could actually become an addiction?

If you notice that you or a friend are spending hours taking photos for social media, constantly commenting on or resharing content, or methodically refreshing your page for likes, then you might want to take a minute to evaluate that behavior. Social media is a great way to stay connected, but it shouldn’t interfere with a person’s self-worth or ability to make meaningful in-person connections.

Video game addiction

Video games are pretty common among teenagers and adolescents, but what happens when a person’s playing transitions from fun to fanatical? Video game addiction, which is often linked to internet addiction, is becoming increasingly common among teens, especially males. A recent study of 3,000 students in China found that 19 percent of males and 7.8 percent of females were classified as having internet gaming disorder, and a report from earlier this year found that U.S. teens spent an average of one hour and 46 minutes gaming on a computer, mobile device, or console last year. 

In addition to consuming valuable time each day, video game addiction has been linked to increased levels of anxiety, depression, and negative consequences on a teen’s school work and relationships.

Food addiction

Food addiction is described as the compulsive need to eat large amounts of foods that are high in salt, fat, and sugar, even when a person isn’t hungry. Food addiction is said to be associated with obesity and disordered eating, including anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. 

Someone living with a food addiction might eat more than they intended (one cookie turns into 12), struggle with self-control, and even hide their junk food consumption from others. As you can imagine, this could be difficult for teens who are already working through self-esteem and body image issues. 

Exercise addiction

Disordered eating is sometimes accompanied by another behavioral issue called exercise addiction. Exercise addiction is characterized by excessive and obsessive fitness patterns that can eventually contribute to physical and mental distress. While exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, compulsive exercising can lead to injuries, anxiety, depression, social isolation, and unhealthy weight loss behaviors. 

Not sure if you or a friend have exercise addiction? A few common signs include: refusing to skip a workout, even when sick or injured; avoiding friends or other activities to make time for exercise; associating self-worth with the quality of a workout; never being satisfied with physical achievements.

Shopping addiction

Have you ever had thoughts like “There is no way I could pass on this amazing sale” or “This top would be perfect if we decide to go to the beach next weekend”? Compulsive shopping is less about buying items you like or need, and more about the “high” of acquiring something new. 

Research points to several factors which may contribute to the addictive nature of shopping, including: increased accessibility of goods (such as the proliferation of online shopping), no delay between impulse and purchase (also made easier by the ability to buy just about anything online), and overstimulating marketing techniques that spike dopamine levels in the brain (the “feel-good” chemical often linked to addictive behavior patterns).

Gambling addiction

Gambling may seem like an “adult problem” but some counts show that rates of gambling addiction in adolescents are two to four times higher than in adults. One reason might be because tweens and teens tend to try gambling earlier (the average age is 12 years) than alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs. Gambling comes in many forms and card games, lottery tickets, and sports bets (including online sports betting) all fall under the umbrella.

Teenager looking at his phone

Signs of process addiction

So how do you know if someone simply has a penchant for shopping or a passion for fitness versus an actual process addiction? We’ve listed some of the most common indicators that someone is struggling with a behavioral addiction below.

  • Spending an excessive amount of time thinking about or engaging in the specific behavior
  • Inability to control a behavior 
  • Using the behavior as a coping method for tough emotions and feelings
  • Continuing to partake in behavior even if it results in negative consequences
  • Ignoring other responsibilities, such as school and family, to engage in the behavior
  • Downplaying the problem
  • Developing anxiety, irritability, depression, or substance addiction once the behavior stops

Causes of process addiction

Process addiction isn’t based on any one underlying cause. Instead, it’s likely a combination of issues, such as:

  • A genetic predisposition to addiction disorders 
  • Childhood trauma that alters brain function
  • Biology
  • Being in an environment that allows or even encourages the behavior

Treatment for process addiction 

Although these interests may seem harmless to start, process addictions can have a devastating effect on a teen’s personal, academic, and social life if they’re not addressed and treated. 

One of the leading treatments for process addiction is cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as CBT. Cognitive behavioral therapy is designed to help a person develop the skills to manage negative thoughts and behavior patterns, as well as the circumstances that cause them.

CBT interventions are personalized for each individual, but the idea is that by understanding the why and how of negative thought cycles, you’ll be better prepared to overcome any related challenges. Whether it’s a shopping addiction or an unhealthy fixation on video games, CBT can help a person to understand triggers for the addiction, unpack how and why the addiction occurs, and learn healthy coping skills to manage their impulses.

Find process addiction support with Charlie Health

When left untreated, addiction and other mental health conditions can be incredibly damaging for a developing teen. That’s why Charlie Health’s team of compassionate professionals are here to provide a safe, supportive environment for teens and young adults to cope with their process addiction. 

At Charlie Health, our personalized treatment programs are designed to help clients and families meet their goals in a supportive intensive outpatient setting. With our Intensive Outpatient Program, you can connect with an experienced therapist and peers going through similar struggles from the comfort of home, on your schedule. 

Contact us today to learn more.

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