• John Roesch

Addiction Without Drugs: Trapped by Compulsive Behavior

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Are pattern-based addictions such as sex addiction or gambling addiction different from substance-based addiction to drugs like heroin or cocaine? Sure, substance-based addiction certainly presents a greater immediate health risk. And with the opioid crisis finally making the front page and overdose rates continuing to rise, the harm done by substance-based addictions is well-publicized, with many treatment options available.

But what about pattern-based addictions? While compulsive behaviors aren’t primarily physically addictive, the mental high produced by acting out on compulsive behaviors produces chemical dependencies in the brain– dependency on the brain’s own pleasure chemicals, dopamine and serotonin. The result of this dependence is a chemically-driven compulsion that is nearly identical to the compulsion felt by drug addicts and alcoholics. Pattern-based addiction and compulsive behavior are simply another strain of the disease of addiction.

Many behaviors that are considered “normal” have the potential to become an addiction, a compulsion, or a full-blown obsession. But because many of these behaviors are generally ignored when done in moderation, compulsive pattern-based addictions are often overlooked by people, both inside the recovery community and out. Chemically speaking, the brain activity of addicts suffering from compulsive or pattern-based addiction is almost identical to the brain activity of a cocaine or heroin addict. This is because neural pathways have been formed in the addict’s brain, linking certain behaviors to dopamine and serotonin receptors in the brain’s pleasure center. This is why, when a compulsive shoplifter steals something, the pleasure center of that addict’s brain reacts as though it has just been exposed to alcohol or drugs, creating a high that can be just as dangerous as drug use.

Substance-based drug addiction is considered by medical professionals to be a brain disease. Drug use causes damage to the brain, resulting in destructive behavior patterns and painful emotional distress. This is what causes addicts to act in ways they themselves don’t understand– when the disease of addiction takes away the addict’s free will and inhibition. Pattern-based addictions create the same result, and many lives have been destroyed by addiction to sex, gambling, romance, shopping, stealing, eating disorders, and more.

The symptoms of addiction are as pervasive as the disease itself. Warning signs of addiction –any type of addiction– include the following:

  • Cravings for unhealthy behaviors

  • Inability to resist impulses

  • Avoidance of friends and family members

  • Isolation and narrowed interests

  • Irritability when access is limited (withdrawal)

  • Decreased pleasure over time (tolerance)

  • Increased risky behavior

  • Depression/anxiety

  • Feelings of guilt

  • Lying and hiding behavior

  • Family, professional or financial problems

  • Repeated attempts to quit or cut back

  • Denial

These behavior patterns overtake the brain's reward system and cause the release of feel-good chemicals dopamine and serotonin into the brain. With repeated behavior, the brain learns that the behavior will lead to feeling good, and a new neural pathway is formed. At this point the addict begins to seek out specific behaviors, with increasingly risky or harmful behaviors that increase the level of pleasure. Unfortunately, treatment for these lesser known pattern-based addictions is limited. Only in the past few years have some inpatient rehabs and treatment facilities created departments for gambling and sex addiction, and research into non-drug addictions is somewhat limited.

Luckily, a licensed addiction treatment specialist like a Certified Recovery Coach or drug and alcohol counselor can help patients treat and defeat their pattern-based addiction too. These professionals are uniquely qualified to recognize and treat compulsive, addictive behaviors, no matter what the root cause is.

-- John Roesch for Life Assurance Recovery, 2017

If you or a loved one is suffering from a substance- or pattern-based addiction, or for more information about diagnosing and treating addictions of any kind, please visit and fill out our contact form. A Certified Recovery Coach will contact you and answer questions about substance-based addiction recovery, pattern-based addiction recovery, and provide treatment options so you or your family member can begin healing today. Life Assurance Recovery is here to help you defeat the disease of addiction - in any form.

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