What is non-substance-based addiction and how can it be treated?


Addiction is an obsessive and compulsive indulgence involving consumption of a substance (such as alcohol or other chemicals) or a behavior pattern. The substances or drugs are mood altering and the individual gets a “high” or a pleasurable sensation in the brain.

Similarly, some activities induce a significant pleasure in the individual and she or he may repeatedly indulge in this sort of behavior. Examples are:

  • Spending
  • Gambling
  • Shopping
  • Eating
  • Sexual activity
  • Social media/ internet
  • Gaming

Spending disorder :

Spending disorder or being a shopaholic makes the person get a high from continually buying things – much more than he or she will ever need or use. The individual hordes stuff and gets into a financial mess, but still chases products in malls or online.

Such compulsive activity can wreak havoc in the individual’s life. Most of the times, the person may appear normal during casual contact. The physical impact of using alcohol or drugs is missing. However, the person is under huge stress and causes damages to his or her finances, career, credit card rating and relationships. The individual is never satisfied and all time in a state of anxiety. In some cases, the individual may be in danger of breaking the law.

Eating disorder :

Eating disorder, or anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa and binge eating affects significant portion of the population. According to one study, over five million American women and men are impacted by eating disorders. Fifteen percent of young women have significantly distorted attitudes toward eating and associated behaviours. In US, more than 1,000 women die each year from anorexia nervosa. Eating disorders are associated with a distorted self-image and adversely impacts the individual’s health.

Gambling addiction :

Gambling addiction, or problem gambling, is another issue that affects large number of people. According to a Harvard study, an estimated 16 million Americans suffer from gambling addiction, out of which more than one-half (8 million) are adolescents. Many suffer from gambling addiction along with alcoholism or drug addiction. This compounds the problem. The thinking in both problems is similar – “I’ll recover my losses in the next game” or “Today I’ll limit my drink”. The next sober moment or win never comes, but the addict relentlessly pursues his dream.

Sexual addiction :

Sexual addiction is described as “a progressive intimacy disorder characterized by compulsive sexual thoughts and acts.” Like all addictions, its negative consequences on the addict and on his/ her family members increases as the disorder progresses. As time goes by, the addict may have to intensify the sexual behaviour to achieve the same high.

The sexual activity may include compulsive masturbation or prolonged usage of pornography.Sex addicts are in danger of “acting out” their fantasies, and may even involve more dangerous activities such as exhibitionism, voyeurism, child molestation or rape.

Internet/ social media addiction :

Internet/ social media addiction is a growing problem in today’s world. While technology has placed the whole world in our hand in form of a smartphone, the obsessive usage of internet for social media (such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat) are interfering with our normal and healthy functioning. These are pushing us into a virtual world that is unreal, and individuals are increasing getting dependent on gratifications from this world in form of “Likes” or sharing. Meaningful human interactions are being replaced with unreal exchanges. This is causing increasing break downs of relationships including marriages. Productive functioning at office or school and sleep patterns are adversely impacted and performance is compromised. Some individuals develop personality issues that indicate and reinforce low self-worth and other disorders.

Gaming addiction :

Gaming addiction is similar to internet and social media addiction. It involves huge dependence on gadgets that drown the individual in a make-believe world. Their well being is dependent on winning or losing in a virtual world.  The affected person gets defocussed from real life issues, cocooned in an unreal world. This adversely affects their relationships, health, work performance and self-esteem.

Treatment for non-substance addictions

Recovery from non-substance-based addictions are quite similar to substance abuse treatment. An effective method is the 12 Steps, so there is Gamblers Anonymous for gambling addiction, Shopaholics Anonymous for spending obsession, Sex Anonymous for sexual addiction and so on.

The first step, of course, is to separate the addiction from the addict. Like in substance abuse, this will cause withdrawal symptoms along with craving. Therefore, a rehab or treatment facility is a good option for the initial stages of recovery.

Professional support is critical. A psychiatric evaluation will determine if there are any co-occurring addictions, such as shopping along with substance abuse or other psychiatric disorders such as depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Psychological inputs such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), motivational interviewing, group therapy are helpful.

Any addiction creates devastation,not only in the addict’s life, but in the lives of all those around him or her. Recovery can be a slow and often difficult process. But it is worth it!