Behavioral Addiction in the Brain: Types and Treatment

hand with stop motion saying no to drugs

Do you always buy more than you intended during impromptu shopping sprees? Stay up too late scrolling social media or playing video games? Do you compulsively binge on food or overexercise? Or perhaps you’ve developed a habit of gambling or self-harming.

When they’re uncontrollable and interfering with your life, these activities—and more—fall under the umbrella of behavioral addictions, also called process addictions.

With so many distractions now at our fingertips, it’s no surprise that addiction can taint activities that are considered routine or even beneficial. Tasks like shopping, exercising, eating, working, or sexual activity are normal parts of our lives—but they can spin out of control.

Meanwhile, other activities are known for their inherently addictive nature, such as gambling, social media, internet use, and video games.

One thing that unites each of these behavioral addictions is that they all involve unhealthy brain activity. Here’s what you need to know about behavioral addictions.

Denial is common among all addictions. But when your “drug of choice” is an activity considered socially acceptable in moderate doses, it can be even more difficult to recognize the issue. Click To Tweet


When do certain activities become a problem? Addiction means that someone is engaging in a behavior compulsively, impulsively, or in otherwise uncontrollable ways.

They will often continue to engage in the activity even though it’s detrimental to their lives, interfering with everyday duties or relationships. They can even experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit the behavior.

While many people associate addictions with substances, certain behaviors affect the brain in similar ways. Therefore, instead of binging on cocaine or alcohol, the person experiences a “high” or a rewarding sensation when engaging in the chosen activity.

Afterward, they may struggle with shame, regret, and feelings of “overdoing it” or not being able to control themselves.

Denial is common among all addictions. But when your “drug of choice” is an activity considered socially acceptable in moderate doses, it can be even more difficult to recognize the issue.

That’s unfortunate, because process or behavioral addictions can be just as devastating to lives and families as substance abuse. They create psychological and physical dependence, hijacking the brain in complex ways.


The list of behavioral addictions is long—and still growing. Here’s a quick overview of some of the most common:

  • Gambling addiction affects approximately 2-3% of Americans. These numbers will likely grow due to the increase of access to gambling, including online.
  • Shopping addiction is a danger for the estimated 6% of women and 5.5% of men who struggle with overspending.
  • Food addiction affects people of all ages. But a 2022 poll showed that 13% of adults ages 50-80 met criteria for addiction to highly processed food. Almost half (44%) of them showed at least one symptom of food addiction.
  • Sex and/or pornography addictions may become an issue for the estimated 3-6% of Americans who engage in compulsive sexual behavior. One scientific review that examined porn addiction noted that any level of usage negatively impacted users’ lives.
  • Video gaming addiction was officially declared a mental health condition by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2019. Most Americans (97%) from 12-17 years old play video games. Among all ages, up to 23% of them show signs of addictive gaming behavior.
  • Exercise addiction has been estimated to affect 3% of gym-goers. But marathon runners and triathletes have much higher rates of addiction: 50% and 52%, respectively.
  • Work addicts, also called workaholics, are common in America. Research estimates that 1 in 10 Americans are living with work addiction.
  • Internet addiction and social media addiction are creating major mental health impacts on our youth. An estimated 12% of social media users of any age are addicted to it.
  • Tanning addiction may be related to the feel-good effects of UV light exposure, which generates pain-relieving, mood-boosting endorphin hormones. The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that, according to a 2017 study, 20% of women who tan show signs of dependency.
  • Self-harming can become addictive for the 1 in 5 females and 1 in 7 males who engage in this behavior.

Causes of addiction are complex, and anyone can develop a process addiction. Several factors may play a role. Having a family history of addiction, or experiencing emotional trauma or acute stress, raise the risk. Changes in the brain’s structure or function may also contribute; more research is needed to examine the links between addiction and traumatic brain injury (TBI).

In addition, people with behavioral addictions may have other mental health conditions. These can include:


Some of the core symptoms of process addictions are similar to those of substance use disorders. For example, people may struggle with guilt or shame after engaging in the activity, or when they’re trying to quit.

They may face negative consequences, like physical injury, sleep issues, legal troubles, or deteriorating relationships with loved ones. In behaviors like gambling and shopping addictions, financial repercussions may follow, while food addictions can lead to obesity and other health issues.


In general, behavioral addiction problems are brain problems. This means that we should drop the stigma around them. They are not moral failings or signs of weakness, rather they are the result of unhealthy brain activity patterns.

Based on its database of over 250,000 brain SPECT scans, Amen Clinics has identified 6 types of addiction patterns in the brain:

  • Compulsive Addicts tend to get stuck on obsessive thoughts. They focus on a single course of action and have trouble shifting their attention. This type is associated with increased activity in the brain’s anterior cingulate gyrus, commonly caused by low serotonin levels.
  • Impulsive Addicts are driven by low activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), likely due to low levels of dopamine. An underactive PFC leads to boredom, distraction, and trouble with impulse control. This type is more common in those with ADD/ADHD and in males.
  • Impulsive-Compulsive Addicts combine the previous types. Their SPECT scans typically show both low activity in the PFC and overactivity in the anterior cingulate gyrus. At Amen Clinics, this pattern is commonly seen in the children and grandchildren of alcoholics.
  • Sad or Emotional Addicts use behaviors like binge eating to self-medicate. They may struggle with feelings of depression, boredom, or loneliness. This type (more common among women) often shows increased activity in the deep limbic system and low activity in the PFC.
  • Anxious Addicts are also self-medicating, but their underlying feelings are those of anxiety, tension, nervousness, and fear. They might exhibit physical effects, like rapid heartbeat and muscle tension, or symptoms like excessive shyness. On SPECT scans, these types have too much activity in the basal ganglia, often associated with low levels of GABA.
  • Temporal Lobe Addicts show abnormal activity in the temporal lobes. This can be caused by a head injury, infection, exposure to toxins, or genetics. Common symptoms include issues with temper, learning, memory, and mood swings.


Treating something as complicated as addiction should never be one-size-fits-all. Determining the most effective treatment depends on pinpointing the root causes and the addiction type within those listed above.

Strategies that can be helpful in overcoming behavioral addictions include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: CBT is a form of psychotherapy that helps people understand how their thinking patterns can influence their behaviors. With specific strategies, such as killing the ANTs (automatic negative thoughts), individuals can learn to manage their mind to gain better control over their actions.
  • Brain-healthy lifestyle habits: Because addiction is associated with abnormal brain activity, it’s critical to adopt daily habits that enhance brain function. Eating a healthy diet, exercising, and strengthening social connections are a great way to start.
  • Take brain-directed supplements: To help optimize your brain, take nutraceuticals that are targeted for your addiction type. For example, 5-HTP that boosts serotonin levels in the brain for compulsive types, stimulating supplements like rhodiola or green tea extract for impulsive types, saffron for emotional types, GABA for anxious types, and magnesium for temporal lobe types.
  • Take medication, if needed: For some people, medication may be helpful in accelerating the healing journey. Speak to a mental health professional to find out if you could benefit from prescription medications.
  • Find your purpose: Knowing what you want in life and what gives your life meaning are other crucial parts of the healing process. Spend time identifying what’s driving you to get healthy.

With these strategies, you can begin to balance your brain, so you can regain control over your actions and overcome behavioral addictions.

Behavioral addictions and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 833-543-1401 or visit our contact page here.

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