Behavioral Addictions

Unlike traditional psychiatry, which rarely looks at the brain, Amen Clinics uses brain imaging technology to identify brain patterns associated with behavioral addictions.

What are Behavioral Addictions?

When most people think of addictions, their mind automatically goes to alcohol or drug abuse, but there are other types of addictions too. Behavioral addictions, also referred to as process addictions, involve engaging in harmful habits despite the consequences. You may find the behavior temporarily rewarding—a cheap hit of happy—but you may be filled with shame and regret later due to the repercussions of those actions. Like substance use disorders (SUD), behavioral addictions can ruin lives and devastate families, and they need to be taken seriously.

Who has Behavioral Addictions?

Anyone can have a behavioral addiction. Many everyday habits and activities that people engage in on a regular basis can become obsessions or obligations. Some of the most common behavioral addictions listed below. (Please also see below for more information about these common behavioral addictions.)

  • Gambling
  • Shopping
  • Food
  • Sex and Pornography
  • Gaming
  • Exercise
  • Work
  • Internet/Social Media
  • Self-Harm


What are the Core Symptoms?

There are many signs that indicate a favorite activity has gone too far, including:

  • Psychological problems, such as feeling guilty as a result of being unable to stop the behavior.
  • Physical issue due to the behavior, such as becoming obese from overeating, getting injuries from over-exercising, or having sleep problems from too much gaming.
  • Family dysfunction due to your habit getting in the way of responsibilities and time that could be spent with loved ones.
  • Relationship problems because of affairs or obsession with pornography.
  • Financial problems related to overspending or gambling away your house or savings.
  • Legal troubles due to repeated behaviors, such as paying for sex with prostitutes or failing to pay debts.


What Causes Behavioral Addictions?

Although there is no single cause for behavioral addictions, experts have identified numerous contributing factors. These include a genetic predisposition for addictive behaviors, changes in the structure and function of the brain, emotional trauma, and acute stress.

Many people with behavioral addictions also have co-existing conditions, such as:

Why Choose Amen Clinics for Treating Your Behavioral Addictions?

At Amen Clinics, our brain imaging work has helped us identify 6 types of brain patterns associated with behavioral addictions. When it comes to treatment, one size does not fit all! What works for one person with a behavioral addiction may not work for another—or could even make your symptoms worse! Based on your addiction type, we can create a personalized treatment plan using the least toxic, most effective therapies and strategies to optimize your brain and help you regain control of your life.

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Addicted Brains Work Differently

Brain dysfunction is the #1 reason why people fall victim to addiction. Your brain plays a central role in your vulnerability to addiction and your ability to recover and avoid harmful behaviors. Behavioral addictions involve multiple areas of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex (PFC), anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG), nucleus accumbens, amygdala, and hippocampus.

Healthy Brain Scan

Addicted Brain Scan

SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) is a nuclear medicine study that evaluates blood flow and activity in the brain. Basically, it shows three things: healthy activity, too little activity, or too much activity. The healthy surface brain SPECT scan on the left shows full, even, symmetrical activity. The brain scan on the right from a person with sex addiction, brain trauma, ADHD, and cocaine abuse shows lower overall activity, including in the PFC. Low activity in the PFC is associated with impulsive behavior.

Ready to learn more? Speak to a care coordinator today!

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6 Types of Behavioral Addictions

Behavioral addiction is not a single or simple condition. There are multiple types, and each type requires its own targeted treatment plan. Giving everyone with a behavioral addiction the same treatment will never work. You can learn about the 6 types of behavioral addicts in the section below.


People with this type have trouble shifting their attention and tend to get stuck on obsessive thoughts of gambling, internet porn, food, or some other behavior. Regardless of what these people are addicted to, the thinking pattern and basic mechanism are the same. They tend to get locked into one course of action and have trouble seeing options. The most common brain SPECT finding in this type is increased anterior cingulate gyrus activity, which is most commonly caused by low brain serotonin levels.


People with this type have trouble with impulse control even though they may start each day with the intention of refraining from their addictive behaviors. The most common SPECT finding for this type is low activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), likely due to low levels of dopamine.

The PFC acts as the brain’s supervisor and is involved in impulse control, judgment, planning, follow through, decision-making, and attention. When the PFC is underactive, people can be easily distracted, bored, inattentive, and impulsive. This type is often seen in conjunction with ADD/ADHD and is more common in males.


People with this type have a combination of both impulsive and compulsive features. The brain SPECT scans tend to show low activity in the prefrontal cortex (associated with impulsivity, likely due to low dopamine levels) and too much activity in the anterior cingulate gyrus (associated with compulsivity and low serotonin levels). This pattern is common in the children and grandchildren of alcoholics.


People with this type often engage in behaviors or use food to medicate underlying feelings of depression, boredom, or loneliness. This type is more commonly seen in women. The typical SPECT findings associated with this type are increased activity in the deep limbic system and low activity in the prefrontal cortex.


People with this type tend to engage in behaviors or use food to medicate underlying feelings of anxiety, tension, nervousness, and fear. More commonly seen in women, this type tends to suffer physical symptoms of anxiety, such as muscle tension, headaches, stomachaches, and heart palpitations. People with this type tend to predict the worst and may be excessively shy or easily startled. The SPECT finding that correlates to this type is too much activity in the basal ganglia, likely due to low levels of GABA.


People with this type tend to have problems with temper, mood swings, learning, and memory. Abnormal activity in the temporal lobes is commonly due to past head injuries, infections, a lack of oxygen, exposure to environmental toxins (such as toxic mold), or it may be inherited. The SPECT findings typically show decreased activity in the temporal lobes, although sometimes increased activity is present.


“You are not stuck with the brain you have.”

– Daniel G. Amen, M.D.


Common Behavioral Addictions

Many everyday habits and activities that people engage in on a regular basis can become obsessions or obligations. Some of the most common behavioral addictions include:

  • Gambling: Approximately 2-3% of Americans have a gambling problem.
  • Shopping: An estimated 6% of women and 5.5% of men struggle with overspending.
  • Food: It’s unclear exactly how many people suffer from food addictions, but over one-third of American adults and 18.5% of kids and adolescents are obese.
  • Sex and pornography: An estimated 3-6% of Americans engage in compulsive sexual behavior, and although there are no definitive statistics on pornography addiction, a growing number of men are seeking help for the condition.
  • Gaming: A 2016 study on 3,389 video gamers found that 1.4% of them were addicted to gaming and 7.3% were considered problem gamers.
  • Exercise: Among people who go to the gym, about 3% are estimated to be addicted to working out. Among marathon runners and triathletes, the rate of addiction to exercise jumps to 50% and 52%, respectively.
  • Work: The U.S. has some of the highest rates in the world of workaholics, or compulsive workers. This behavior prevents them from partaking in other activities (such as being with their family).
  • Internet/social media: It is estimated that about 12% of social media users have an addiction.
  • Self-harm: Approximately 2 million reports of self-harm are made each year in the U.S. It is more common in women, with about 1 in 5 females engaging in the behavior compared with 1 in 7 males.


“With A Better Brain Comes A Better Life”

– Daniel G. Amen, M.D.


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