Defining Behavioral Addictions

Defining Behavioral Addictions

Traditionally, the term addiction has been used to describe dependence on substances, such as alcohol and other drugs. More recently, addiction has been applied to a range of behaviors. Behavioral addictions are patterns of behavior that follow a cycle similar to that of substance dependence. Whether or not behavioral addictions are “real” addictions is a central controversy within the addiction field.

Outside of the world of professional psychiatry and psychology, the media has taken on and embraced the concepts of behavioral addictions. Behavior addiction includes: gambling, sex, food, exercise, shopping, work, computer games or social media networks.

These addictions are real, in that they follow the same pattern as substance-based addictions and they result in problems in many areas of the individual’s life. They have similar effects on relationships, which are often neglected in favor of the addictive behavior, undermining trust and putting pressure on partners and other family members to cover up and make up for difficulties arising from the addiction.

There is increasing evidence that addiction to these behaviors involves similar brain mechanisms to substance-based addictions, although more research is needed to confirm and clarify how this happens.

Behavioral addictions are treated similarly to substance abuse disorders. One method that is used as part of a comprehensive treatment program is mindfulness meditation. To date, empirical investigation of the role of mindfulness in the treatment of behavioral addictions has exclusively focused on addictions to gambling or work. However, based on an assessment and review of the mechanisms underlying the improvements facilitated by the use of mindfulness in problem gamblers, researchers believe that mindfulness approaches are likely to have psychotherapeutic utility across a wider variety of behavioral addictions.

With preventative medicine and patient empowerment being embraced by both professionals and the public as legitimate approaches to addressing healthcare issues, treatments like mindfulness meditation are gaining in popularity and acceptance. The medical community as a whole is moving towards greater recognition of the role of stress and psychological health in addiction. The changes in thought processes and brain function that accompany meditation have contributed to scientists’ understanding of the biological aspect of the addiction process associated with mental health.

Both the classical Buddhist meditation literature and recent empirical findings appear to concur that when correctly practiced and administered, mindfulness meditation is a safe, non-invasive, and cost-effective tool for treating behavioral addictions and for improving psychological health more generally.  If meditation can possibly improve life, why not consider giving it an opportunity and try it out?

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