What Are Process Addictions?

In 2014, The Institute for Addiction Study recognized and included ten addictions to behaviors with dopamine-releasing substances to include in the Periodic Table of the Intoxicants. Due to the problems presented by individuals that met the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) criteria for an addiction, these ten behaviors were added: gambling, media, relationships, codependency, performance, shopping, sex, cults, food/sugar, and rage. When the behaviors are out of control they are called process addictions.

Much has been written about food addicts, compulsive gamblers, workaholics, and those addicted to shopping. Many have also been affected by addictions to video gaming, social media and pornography.

As a Trauma-focused Therapist and Drug and Alcohol Counselor, I began studying process addictions to better help the people who are struggling with these behaviors. Both within these areas and outside of the stated ten process addictions, I have had the privilege of working with clients struggling to understand and control compulsions to acting out sexually, exercising daily to the point of exhaustion, shop-lifting resulting in repeated arrests, extreme self-mutilating (cutting), and under-taking multiple plastic surgeries without achieving desired satisfaction.

What happens when a behavior that used to bring a rush of excitement (releasing dopamine) or provided a place for where one could park anxiety (releasing GABA) becomes an addiction? Similar to the effects of chemical addiction, a process addiction rewires the prefrontal cortex and results in high jacking the rewards process.

A time comes for every person suffering with an addiction or overwhelming compulsion when the consequences are so great or the pain is so bad that they admit life is out of control because of  (fill in the blank).

Sometimes this moment becomes a turning point in an addict’s relationship with their drug of choice. At this point the individual summons the will to reach out and start the recovery process.

As more is understood about how addictions to behaviors take place, the stigma of process addictions is being combated by 12-Step recovery groups, the Fight the New Drug movement, faith-based organizations and newer modalities of therapy focusing on process addictions.

Often those struggling with a process addiction describe a recovery process that removes the addictive behavior leaving a vacuum which leads to isolating, a recurrence of acting out, shame and despair. Without a program incorporating healthy habits, effective coping skills, a solid support system and insight oriented therapies, they often fall back into patterns which result in relapse.

Just as every individual is unique, every compulsion that leads to addiction develops in its own unique way. Each individual struggling with a compulsion deserves an individualized treatment program, a personalized roadmap to recovery. For this reason, it is important that the affected individual find a therapist that understands the manifestations of their particular process compulsion/addiction.


Nancy is a candidate to become a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist. If you or a significant other is struggling with a process addiction please contact Nancy Kirk at (703) 646-7664 x15 or nkirk@insightactiontherapy.com.


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