A behavioral addiction refers to any activity, object or behavior that a person mainly focuses on and excludes all other activities. These activities can be good or dangerous in that the person poses danger to themselves physically, socially or mentally.
Any activity, substance, object, or behavior that has become the major focus of a person’s life to the exclusion of other activities, or that has begun to harm the individual or others physically, mentally, or socially is considered an addictive behavior. A person can become addicted, dependent, or compulsively obsessed with anything. Some researchers imply that there are similarities between physical addiction to various chemicals, such as alcohol and heroin, and psychological dependence to activities such as compulsive gambling, sex, work, running, shopping, or eating disorders. It is thought that these behavior activities may produce beta-endorphins in the brain, which makes the person feel “high.” Some experts suggest that if a person continues to engage in the activity to achieve this feeling of well-being and euphoria, he/she may get into an addictive cycle. In so doing, he/she becomes physically addicted to his/her own brain chemicals, thus leading to continuation of the behavior even though it may have negative health or social consequences. Others feel that these are just bad habits.
There are signs and symptoms of people who have behavioral addiction. These signs should of course be diagnosed by a medical doctor just to be sure.
There are many common characteristics among the various addictive behaviors:
- The person becomes obsessed (constantly thinks of) the object, activity, or substance.
- Over time, a person needs more of the substance or activity to feel the same euphoric effects. As tolerance increases, so do consequences and negative effects that intensify the feeling of isolation and fear of discovery.
- They will seek out and engage in the behavior even though it is causing harm (physical problems, poor work or study performance, tense relationships).
- The person will engage in the activity, that is, do the activity over and over
- Ceasing the substance or activities results in physical and emotional symptoms of withdrawal. These can include irritability, craving, restlessness or depression.
- The person does not appear to have control as to when, how long, or how much he or she will continue the behavior (They drink 6 beers when they only wanted one, buy 8 pairs of shoes when they only needed a belt, ate the whole box of cookies, etc).
So the question is how does addiction overtake the brain? The brain registers all pleasures no matter the source in the same way. This means that whether it is pleasure from smoking heroin or having sex, the brain simply takes it all in.
The brain registers all pleasures in the same way, whether they originate with a psychoactive drug, a monetary reward, a sexual encounter, or a satisfying meal. In the brain, pleasure has a distinct signature: the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, a cluster of nerve cells lying underneath the cerebral cortex (see illustration). Dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens is so consistently tied with pleasure that neuroscientists refer to the region as the brain’s pleasure center.
All drugs of abuse, from nicotine to heroin, cause a particularly powerful surge of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. The likelihood that the use of a drug or participation in a rewarding activity will lead to addiction is directly linked to the speed with which it promotes dopamine release, the intensity of that release, and the reliability of that release.
Even taking the same drug through different methods of administration can influence how likely it is to lead to addiction. Smoking a drug or injecting it intravenously, as opposed to swallowing it as a pill, for example, generally produces a faster, stronger dopamine signal and is more likely to lead to drug misuse.