Are Behavioral Addictions “Real” Addictions?


In addition, these same participants were also more likely to meet criteria for alcohol abuse and to have more emotion regulation deficits, which have been previously linked with substance addiction and other types of psychopathology.

“Taken together, our findings thus suggest that there may be shared mechanisms underlying both substance and non-substance addictions–in other words, patients with a substance addiction may be at heightened risk for developing comorbid behavioral addictions and vice versa,” she noted.

A longitudinal study3 published in BMC Psychiatry in January sheds additional light on the nature of some of the proposed behavioral addictions. Researchers from several Canadian universities followed up annually with 4,121 adults over a period of five years to assess the course of six self-identified excessive behaviors: exercise, sexual activity, shopping, online chatting, video gaming and eating. Their findings show that the majority of participants reported problematic engagement in their reported behavior only once during the study period, and that there was a decrease in symptom severity over time.

This latter finding, though certainly only preliminary, suggests that such excessive activity might be transient for many people, which is “inconsistent with conceptualizations of addictions as progressive in nature, unless treated.”3 This does not necessarily mean these are not “true” addictions, but that the definition of addiction may need to be reevaluated.

“I think these results direct our attention to the importance of progressivity and chronicity in the definition of addictions,” study co-author Barna Konkolÿ-Thege, PhD, who is now a professor of medical psychology at the Institute of Behavioral Sciences at Semmelweis University in Budapest, Hungary, told Psychiatry Advisor. “If these findings are confirmed by other studies, we will have to rethink whether to integrate these ‘excessive behaviors’ into the addiction spectrum, or to omit progressivity and chronicity from the conceptualization of addictions in general.”