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When Substance Abuse Addiction Becomes Behavioral

Discussions about addiction are often centered around addictive substances like alcohol, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, opiates, or various other classes of drugs. However, addiction itself doesn’t only manifest within the confines of these substances. It is just as possible that someone can develop behavioral addictions that impact their daily lives. These behavioral addictions can even cause a number of similar effects on one’s work life or personal life as someone begins to prioritize a behavioral addiction over other aspects of their lives. They can be just as dangerous and affect the brain in similar ways to substance abuse, making it difficult to address these addictions without professional help. Addressing these behavioral addictions is important not just to open conversations about them and the serious problems that they may pose, but also in understanding how they can develop even after someone has seemingly recovered from a substance addiction.

Examples of Behavioral Addictions

Behavioral addictions can often go unseen for much longer than their substance-based counterparts. While conversations around addictions often center around drugs and alcohol, behavioral addictions can feel less normalized to those suffering from them. Social media addiction, pornography addiction, and food addiction are just a few ways in which these kinds of behavioral addictions can manifest, alongside other behaviors like sex or shopping. These kinds of addictions can have a direct effect on someone’s brain and can hijack the reward circuitry in the brain in the same way that an addiction to drugs or alcohol can. Discussing these behavioral addictions can help each person get the help they may need with addressing their behavioral addiction, as well as introduce a broader class of addictions to common discourse.

However, these addictions can be more difficult to spot in the early stages as they develop. For someone in recovery from an addiction to drugs or alcohol, they may find therapeutic value in being able to go to the mall and buy themselves something nice to reward them for their sobriety. This kind of replacement can be beneficial, but it is important to watch how someone uses their coping mechanisms in order to help them recognize if they are beginning to replace one addiction with another, instead of balancing their use of any one recovery strategy. Replacement and addictive personality are important to monitor as someone chases not just the cessation of the use of a substance or practice, but the transformational, healthy lifestyle needed to combat all kinds of addictions. 

Breaking Down Addiction 


These addictions will also cause someone to begin to feel withdrawal symptoms if they aren’t able to partake in the behavior. For someone suffering from an addiction to social media, they can begin to feel times of anxiety, panic, or depression if they are away from their phones or computers for too long, or may begin to experience mood swings if they are forced away from their social media outlets. These symptoms can also manifest as someone continues to develop a tolerance for the behavior. For example, someone may need to engage in more and more sexual behaviors before achieving their “high,” or having their brains release the dopamine that helps someone feel happy. 

So can social media become an addiction? Absolutely. It is possible that someone can begin to view their engagement with social media as an integral part of their day, and an instrument to their own happiness. This kind of dependent relationship, coupled with its attachment to the brain’s reward circuitry or an addictive personality disorder, can cause someone to develop an intense craving and addiction to engage with social media, and may even begin to forgo other parts of their days or health in order to force the time needed to engage with social media across its various platforms.

The Interplay Between Social Media and Drugs

While substance and behavioral addictions do share a number of similarities, it is also common to see one begin to bleed into another. For example, someone may cease their use of drugs, but instead begin to develop other habits as a coping mechanism, such as social media engagement, sex, or shopping. The cessation of one’s use of drugs or alcohol can often leave someone wanting to fill that time and energy with another action. While therapies and coping strategies are helpful in this part of recovery, it is also possible that someone will want to replace their use of drugs or alcohol with something else at a one-to-one ratio. This is called replacement. 

Replacement occurs when someone puts an overreliance on one single aspect of their recovery, and can overall inhibit the recovery process. While someone may, on the surface, seem to have maintained their sobriety, they may not have done so in a healthy, progressive way, and instead replaced their need with a different addiction that isn’t as overt. Replacing substances with behavioral addictions may seem like progress at first, as it does give someone the time needed in order for their bodies to begin to heal from years of drug or alcohol abuse, but it does not allow for someone to give their brains the same luxury. In someone’s replacement of drugs or alcohol with a behavioral addiction, they may overcome many of the physical barriers in their lives, but leave their psychological or self-actualization needs unmet, and thus may seek other behavioral addictions or alternatives in order to continue seeking this need. This replacement can cause someone to continue to crave, develop tolerances, and overall sacrifice their own personal or professional wellbeing in order to continue to participate in behaviors such as social media addiction, pornography addiction, sex addiction, or shopping or gambling addictions. 

While someone can develop any of these behavioral addictions as a result of a desire to replace a substance in their lives, social media is particularly dangerous. Not only is social media not often talked about as an addiction to the frequency that it needs to be, but social media is also incredibly influential throughout the entire recovery process. Social media is not just readily available at all times, it is also filled with various advertisements for alcohol that may be stressors on their own. Social media can also cause those using it too frequently, or without the proper intent, to begin to unfairly compare themselves to others’ lives, and develop even more difficult hurdles in their coping strategies. Drugs and social media can go hand-in-hand, and it is common for each of these aspects to influence each other. Therefore, it is important to address these multiple kinds of addiction at the same time, rather than solely focusing on just one’s drug use.

How Addiction Rewards the Brain

Knowing how the brain is programmed to release the chemical dopamine can help someone further understand the nature of both substance addictions and behavioral addictions. Whenever someone does anything, whether it be taking a drug, drinking a soda, or buying a gift for one’s self, their brains may release dopamine which tells them that they are happy with what they have done. Not only does this “feel-good” chemical reward help reinforce the action, but it also begins to draw a relationship between that high, happy feeling and whatever practice caused the brain to release the chemical. 

Addictions hijack this rewards system by having someone’s use of alcohol, drugs, social media, shopping, porn, or any other kind of addiction be able to almost solely dictate how the brain releases this chemical. As someone begins to believe that their own happiness and rewards are linked to this action, they will begin to develop tolerances, forcing each person to partake in more and more of the substance or action in order to achieve the same feeling of happiness or chemical reward. However, this dopamine release and brain reward circuitry can be dictated by whatever is causing someone to release dopamine in the first place and isn’t only tied to substances. 

Understanding Addictive Personality Disorder

addiction effects the brain

Drugs and alcohol are just the beginning of how addictions can develop, and how they can influence someone’s everyday life. Understanding that it is possible to develop addictions to everyday activities, such as engaging in social media, internet, or eating is just part of understanding the wider world of addiction and all the various ways in which it can manifest. For those already in recovery from drugs or alcohol and are used to reengaging with one practice repeatedly, replacement with these other kinds of addictions can become a great risk. It is important to address these behavioral addictions with professionals in the same way that someone would seek aid for their substance addiction, and begin working to give the brain the proper time and techniques it needs to break down its own rewards system and begin to reform into a healthy, balanced mindset. 


Addiction is a complicated topic that encompasses many aspects of life, from one’s use of drugs or alcohol to the way they interact with other daily routines. To learn how behavioral addictions like social media are addictive, or if you or a loved one are struggling with a substance addiction, behavioral addiction, or a combination, Chateau Recovery can help. We can help you take the first step towards addressing your needs in a holistic way. Prioritizing each individual and their unique stories, your program can be personalized to address your needs, coping mechanisms, strengths, and goals in recovery in order to help you learn the right skills to lead a balanced and healthy life. For more information on the various programs offered at Chateau Recovery, or to speak to a caring, trained staff member about your unique situation and the way that a program can be personalized for you, call us today at (435) 222-5225.
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