Behavioral-Addiction Cycle

Join our email newsletter!

Blog Newsletter Signup Sidebar

You know that little red bubble that appears next to your apps on your phone?  It tells you that you have a new email (or 127 new emails) or that someone liked your Facebook photo or that you haven’t logged into Clash of Clans for at least 24 hours.  Who knew something so little and seemingly “cute” could be so powerful?

In this post, I will discuss another facet of recovery from what some call process addictions.  Other names for this category of reward-seeking tendencies may include compulsions, repetitive patterns, and problematic behaviors.  Some of the most common activities that are recognized by any or all of the above names are: 

  • Gambling
  • Gaming (video games and/or app-based games) 
  • Internet and/or social media 
  • Shopping
  • Eating
  • Sexual acting out and/or pornography 
  • Workaholism

What categorizes these behaviors as addictive or compulsive?  Most often, what happens before the behavior begins can be a tell-tale sign that someone you love might be struggling to regain control over their shopping habit or restrictive eating.  Let’s take a look at another variation of the cycle of addiction we briefly touched on in the last blog post.  


Similar to what happens in the cycle of substance use, our brains are rewarded when dopamine is released.  Things that make us feel good like comfort eating, playing the penny slots, winning that Clash battle, and therapy shopping release dopamine in the same way alcohol or nicotine do.  Many times, the cycle is not identified until the ingestion or acting out occurs. But actually, our brain likes the planning of the behavior as much as it does the actual participating in the behavior.  This is called the “ritual” phase. Research shows that our brain is incentivized even in the ritual of planning the next purchase or pornogrpahy viewing or long day at the office as much as, or even more, than swiping the credit card or punching the time clock.  The more dopamine is released, the more we are going to want and need to continue the cycle, often without even recognizing what is happening. Until it’s too late.

After completing the cycle of addictive behavior, a person is often left feeling guilty and very lonely.  Compulsive behaviors require a lot of time and effort! Studies on obsessive gaming show that gamers may play up to 10 hours a day in order to feel fulfilled in that behavior.  Working 12-15 hours a day in the office allows only a few hours of sleep, when most of us need around seven hours to feel well-rested. The constant yo-yo dieting to achieve the optimal body image changes our eating habits tremendously, leaving our bodies always wondering what’s coming next.   

Even worse, when someone is in a repetitive behavior cycle, they are most likely alone.  Whereas drinking alcohol with a group of friends is often socially acceptable, viewing pornography usually does not occur in a group setting.  Sometimes someone who struggles to stop shopping on a daily basis may attend a shopping spree with a group of friends, but the troublesome behavior often occurs late at night or early in the morning when that person is feeling hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.  Or all of the above! This sort of isolation only furthers feelings of guilt and shame and while an individual may “try harder” next time, the triggers keep coming and the cycle never ends.

“But, Lauren, I am on Facebook 8-10 hours a day because I don’t feel lonely when I’m looking at all my friends’ profiles!”  There is some truth to that; social media does a decent job at connecting us with friends who’ve moved away or support groups we may not have access to otherwise.  Then again, every “like” on your post triggers that dopamine release and hooks us to “keep checking.” The more likes, the more pleasure we feel, the more we scroll, the more time we’re looking at our phone, the more we’re NOT talking to people at our job or in our home.  The isolation continues.

So why is it so hard to stop?!  Just like when a person addicted to heroin tries to quit and experiences painful withdrawal symptoms, someone who tries to stop acting out sexually may be in the same boat.  Brain studies show that the type of dopamine release experienced by a cocaine or heroin user is eerily similar to the dopamine release in the brain of a porn/sex addict. Withdrawal symptoms may include insomnia, drastic weight gain or loss, nausea and vomiting, angry outbursts, racing thoughts and heart rate, shakiness, and debilitating depression.  Substance abuse treatment centers have detox programs to help people safely stop drinking or drug use; there are now treatment centers for those wanting to stop compulsive shopping or gambling or eating.  

In the next post, I will discuss how we can help those we love who may be struggling with any type of substance abuse or addictive behavior.  Because of the prevalence of these issues in our communities today, there are many, many resources available for those struggling and their families.   

Quitting a substance or behavior “cold turkey” may work for some people, can be very dangerous and should be monitored by a medical doctor or mental health professional.  If you or someone you know is struggling today, you can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357), call 911, or visit your local hospital. 

Written by Lauren Eisleben