Understanding the Psychology Behind Process Addictions


Recent statistics have revealed there is a significant issue with process addictions (compulsions not involving substances but activities like gambling, shopping, and internet use) in the UK. Much like substance addictions, process addictions harness the brain’s reward system, creating cycles of behaviour that can lead to serious personal and social consequences. 

Experts estimate that 4.9% of the population exhibits compulsive shopping behaviour, and other studies have indicated that more than 420,000 people lose approximately £2,000 annually due to online gambling. Additionally, over 850 individuals have been directed to a treatment centre for video gaming addiction. This trend highlights the pressing need to understand these conditions’ psychological and neurobiological foundations so that treatment providers can adapt to meet client’s needs and help loved ones understand and better support those struggling with this condition.

Below, we explore the psychological underpinnings of non-substance-related addictions, illuminate their similarities to and differences from substance addictions and provide insights into their treatment and management.

Neurobiological Basis of Behavioral Addictions 

Behavioural addictions engage key neurobiological processes similar to those involved in substance addictions, particularly affecting the brain’s neurotransmitter systems. The dopaminergic system plays an essential role in the brain’s reward circuitry; activities such as gambling, shopping, or excessive internet use trigger dopamine release, reinforcing the behaviour and promoting repeated engagement.

This surge in dopamine enhances the feeling of pleasure, similar to the effects of addictive substances. Key brain regions involved include the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex, central to reward processing and decision-making. As these behaviours are repeatedly reinforced, they can alter the brain’s neurochemistry and neural pathways, leading to behavioural dependencies without the physical withdrawal symptoms seen in substance misuse but with deep psychological impacts.

Over time, the need for more intense engagement to achieve the same level of satisfaction can lead to a cycle of compulsive behaviour, mirroring the tolerance seen in drug addiction. This understanding highlights the importance of recognising process addictions as serious conditions which necessitate specific interventions tailored to these unique mechanisms.

The Role of Environment and Life Circumstances 

The environment and life circumstances play significant roles in the development of behavioural addictions. Stressful life events, social isolation, and the availability of potentially addictive activities can significantly influence the onset and progression of an addiction. For instance, people experiencing high levels of stress from work or personal relationships may turn to online gambling or substance use as a coping mechanism to gain temporary relief from their distress.

Social factors, such as peer influence and cultural acceptance of certain behaviours, also significantly impact the likelihood of developing an addiction. For example, in environments where gambling is socially endorsed and widely accessible, there is a higher incidence of gambling addiction.

In addition, digital connectivity introduces new challenges, particularly with the rise of internet addiction. The omnipresence of digital devices provides constant access to potentially addictive activities, such as social media, gaming, and online shopping, increasing the risk for individuals to develop compulsive use patterns.

The Psychology of Process Addictions in Neurodivergent People

Process addictions in neurodivergent individuals, particularly those on the autism spectrum, present unique challenges and characteristics that differ from the neurotypical population. Research indicates that individuals with autism may have distinct interactions with activities like gambling and video gaming, which can sometimes escalate into process addictions.

Autism is associated with unique cognitive patterns that can influence decision-making in gambling. Systematic reviews suggest that while some autistic individuals perform similarly or even better on decision-making tasks compared to their non-autistic counterparts, they often exhibit slower response times on gambling tasks. This slower processing could reflect a more deliberate processing style or difficulties in processing the dynamic and often overwhelming sensory information typical in gambling environments. A key finding from recent studies is the correlation between problem gambling behaviours and higher autism scores among those who engage in gambling. This suggests that cognitive characteristics associated with autism, such as a heightened focus on repetitive activities and difficulties in interpreting these activities, could exacerbate vulnerabilities to gambling addiction for this group.

Similarly, video gaming presents a significant allure for individuals with autism, potentially due to its structured nature and predictable outcomes, which provide a sense of control and escapism. The research points to a higher risk of problematic video game use among youths with autism compared to their peers without autism. Factors like limited social interactions, increased internal issues such as attention difficulties, and fewer external restrictions like parental monitoring significantly contribute to this risk. Also, the immersive and often solitary environment of video gaming can serve as a refuge from the social and sensory challenges faced daily by individuals with autism.

Preventive Measures and Early Detection

Effective prevention and early detection of behavioural addictions focus on identifying risk factors and intervening before these behaviours become deeply ingrained. Key strategies include educational programmes that inform people about the risks and signs of addiction, which can empower them to make informed choices about their behaviour.

Family and educational institutions play important roles in prevention, especially among adolescents. By developing environments that promote healthy social interactions and constructive leisure activities, these institutions can reduce the appeal of potentially addictive behaviours. Additionally, parents and educators can be taught to recognise early signs of addiction, such as changes in mood or behaviour, withdrawal from social interactions, and a decline in academic or work performance.

Early intervention can significantly mitigate the severity of addictions. These approaches often involve counselling and activities designed to build resilience and provide healthier stress and emotional management outlets. For instance, introducing young people to sports, arts, and social clubs can provide alternatives that meet many of the psychological needs that addictive behaviours might otherwise fulfil.

Treatment Approaches

Comprehensive treatment approaches for behavioural addictions incorporate a blend of psychological and therapeutic interventions tailored to address the specific nature of each addiction. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is particularly effective as it helps people develop skills to identify triggers, alter their responses to these triggers, and apply healthier coping mechanisms.

Alongside CBT, other therapeutic modalities may include motivational interviewing, which enhances people’s motivation to change, and family therapy, which involves family members in the treatment process to improve communication and support systems. These therapies are key for creating a supportive environment that can facilitate recovery.

For more severe cases, especially those where behavioural addictions co-occur with mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety, a combination of therapy and pharmacotherapy may be recommended. When necessary, medications can help manage symptoms of co-occurring disorders, making it easier for people to engage in therapy and modify their behaviours.

Group therapy sessions are also beneficial, offering peer support and opportunities to learn from others’ experiences. These sessions can reduce feelings of isolation and stigma while reinforcing the strategies learned in individual therapy.

Get Help for Process Addictions Today

If you or someone you know is struggling with process addictions, The Revoke Programme offers specialised support and treatment tailored to your specific needs. Contact us today to see how we can help.


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