Process Addiction

Process Addiction

Authored by Pin Ng PhD

Edited by Hugh Soames

Reviewed by Michael Por, MD

Process addiction

A process addiction is, in short, an addiction to a process rather than a substance. While not all process addictions are recognized by the medical profession, they all share similar traits with each other and, indeed, with substance addictions. Essentially, an action or behavior creates a reward that develops into a compulsive behavior.1

The old and new models of process addiction

The traditional model of addiction was simplistic. An individual would use a drug, for example, and experience a positive effect. Over time, they would develop a tolerance and need more and more to achieve the same positive effect. This would result in dependence on the drug and become addiction.

While this model has the benefit of simplicity it does not explain behaviors that are recognized as addictive but involve no substance. Gambling, for example, is a recognized addiction, and it is estimated 1-3% of people have a severe gambling problem. But gambling is purely a process and there no physical dependence or withdrawal symptoms.2


Modern understanding of addiction has developed, and now recognizes that it is the brain, and not the substance, that creates the addiction. While drugs can create a physical dependence, it’s actually the brain’s own neuroplasticity that is believed to create the addiction.


When the brain’s reward centers are activated, the brain started to create pathways to them. This happens with the gambler betting just as much as it does with a cocaine user taking a hit. The brain creates the addiction by creating a compulsion for the behavior that stimulates the reward centers, whether that’s a drug or process.

How is process addiction diagnosed?

One of the problems of defining process addictions is that they involve behaviors that the majority of people exhibit without addiction. Not everyone gambles, everyone has to eat, most people will shop, use the internet, play video games or have sex. But these are all behaviors that some people suggest can be addictive.


The discussion is further complicated by the cultural or moral judgements that some people might make. Someone who is culturally conservative, for example, might take a different view of what constitutes sex addiction than someone who was culturally liberal.


However, while there are still discussions over which of these are truly addictions, scans, using technology like fMRI, have shown similar brain activity between process and substance addicts. But, without the resources to routinely scan people’s brains we have, instead, to look at the effect the addiction has on the individual and the need that the behavior satisfies for them.

What are the symptoms of process addiction?

Like most mental health problems, many process addictions can be diagnosed using various questionnaires that have been developed. However, for almost all process addictions there are a series of symptoms that are fairly common to any type of addiction.


Behavior changes are a common effect of addiction. This will often relate to the addiction, so the addict might show irritability if they are not indulging in the addictive behavior or respond with anger when they are challenged about their addiction. They might take steps to hide their addiction, for example, avoiding being with people, so they can play video games.


In severe cases the behavior changes might start having an impact on other parts of their life. Compulsive gamblers, for example, might neglect work or family duties to spend time gambling. Those with an internet addiction might neglect relationships with real-life friends, preferring time online or connecting with people they only know through the computer.


Finally, addicts might also suffer from problems caused by their addiction in addition to those cause by neglect of other parts of their life. Debt problems are common with gamblers, for example, and in severe cases some resort to criminality to fund their bets. Those with shopping compulsion may also have an issue with debt, or even hoarding as their unused purchases take up more and more space. And those with a sex addiction might engage in risky sexual behavior, acquiring STIs.

What are some common process addictions?

Although the label addiction is often applied to many negative behaviors, they are not all recognized by the medical profession as addictions. However, those commonly suggested as process addictions include things like sex, shopping, video gaming and the internet, food, gambling, and even exercise. One of the difficulties in identifying addictions is that many of these behaviors are normal, some essential, and some usually seen as beneficial.


Where these become a problem it’s usually because the need it serves has become different to most peoples, or the way that need is fulfilled is different to most people. With food, for example, the addiction may be to specific types of food, usually processed, that provide a quick hit for the compulsive eater. Someone addicted to exercise will be doing it not to improve their fitness or train for a specific event or sport, but instead simply for the release of endorphins and dopamine, the effect commonly known as the runners’ high.


One current concern is that process addictions can act as a gateway. By creating the neural pathways, it means that people might be more susceptible to other addictions. Many are particularly concerned because some of these processes are acceptable for children — it’s sometimes suggested that around 18% of children have a video gaming problem — and this might leave them susceptible to addictive behavior when they are older.

Can process addiction be treated?

Process addictions are highly treatable. However, in most cases, because the behavior is one that cannot be avoided the treatment will focus on developing a positive relationship instead, which can be particularly true when treating compulsive sexual disorder.


Inpatient treatment can be used as a last resort if the addition is particularly severe. This can be effective in ending the addictive behavior because the environment can be controlled. However, inpatient treatment will still need to focus on changing relationship and behaviors to prepare the individual for when they leave. Inpatients will need to have a strong support structure when they leave to help them.


The most common treatment for process addictions will be therapy. This might be individual CBT or group therapy, which can be very effective. There are also twelve-step programs for many process addictions where addicts can get the support of peers.


However, whatever treatment option is used, it is important to undertake treatment in a way that can handle other problems that might arise. Many process addictions may have developed as a way of coping with other problems, like depression or trauma, and these can resurface if the addictive behavior is removed.

References: Process Addiction

  1. Potenza MN. Should addictive disorders include non-substance-related conditions? Addiction. 2006;101 (Suppl 1):142–151.[]
  2. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc; 2000. text revision (DSM-IV-TR) []
  3. Ledgerwood DM, Weinstock J, Morasco BJ, Petry NM. Clinical features and treatment prognosis of pathological gamblers with and without recent gambling-related illegal behavior. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 2007;35(3):294–301. []
  4. Odlaug BL, Grant JE, Chamberlain SR. Motor inhibition and cognitive flexibility in process addiction. Prog Neuropharm Biol Psych. 2009 Nov 13; [Epub ahead of print] []
  5. Zack M, Poulos CX. A D2 antagonist enhances the rewarding and priming effects of a gambling episode in pathological gamblers. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2007;32(8):1678–1686. []

Alexander Bentley is the Chairman & CEO of Remedy Wellbeing™ as well as the creator & pioneer behind Tripnotherapy™, embracing ‘NextGen’ psychedelic bio-pharmaceuticals to treat burnout, addiction, depression, anxiety and psychological unease.

Under his leadership as CEO, Remedy Wellbeing™ received the accolade of Overall Winner: Worlds Best Rehab 2022 by Worlds Best Rehab Magazine. Because of his incredible work, the clinic is the world’s first $1 million-plus exclusive rehab center providing an escape for individuals and families requiring absolute discretion such as Celebrities, Sportspeople, Executives, Royalty, Entrepreneurs and those subject to intense media scrutiny.

Process Addiction
Article Name
Process Addiction
A process addiction is, in short, an addiction to a process rather than a substance. While not all process addictions are recognized by the medical profession, they all share similar traits with each other and, indeed, with substance addictions. Essentially, an action or behavior creates a reward that develops into a compulsive behavior.
Publisher Name
Worlds Best Rehab
Publisher Logo
At Worlds Best Rehab, we strive to provide the most up-to-date and accurate Addiction Recovery and Rehab information on the web so our readers can make informed decisions about their healthcare.
Our reviewers are credentialed subject matter experts specializing in addiction treatment and behavioral healthcare. We follow strict guidelines when fact-checking information and only use credible sources when citing statistics and medical information. Look for the medically reviewed badge Worlds Best Rehab on our articles for the most up-to-date and accurate information.
If you feel that any of our content is inaccurate or out-of-date, please let us know via our Contact Page