Sex Addiction, Pathological Gambling, And Other Mental Health Disorders

Understanding Process (Behavioral) Addictions

Although most people think of substances when the word "addiction" is mentioned, process addictions (also known as behavioral addictions) can be equally destructive. With process addictions, a person feels a severe compulsion to engage in an activity repeatedly, even at the expense of their own physical, mental, relational, or financial wellbeing. Two of the most common examples of process addictions include sexual addiction and pathological gambling although many other forms exist as well.

Sex addiction, sometimes referred to as hypersexuality or nymphomania, is a recurring obsession with and urge to engage in sexual acts. A person may sleep with multiple (often anonymous) partners over a short period of time or avoid personal commitments in favor of sexual gratification. Excessive engagement with pornography or masturbation may also be aspects of sex addiction; behaviors like exhibitionism, fetishism, and voyeurism are sometimes involved as well.

Pathological gambling is an uncontrollable compulsive urge to continue gambling despite the financial and social toll it may take on the person's life. The individual may increase his/her gambling habits to the point of financial distress, often sacrificing commitments and responsibilities to get more money and gamble it.

Signs And Symptoms

Process addictions can be difficult to precisely define because many people have habits that take up a significant portion of free time. However, individuals who are addicted to a behavior display a recurring inability to control the behavior or participation in the activity, despite significant damaging consequences.

Behavioral addictions can take many forms, but common symptoms include:

  • Difficulty controlling impulses in general, sometimes formally classified as an impulse control disorder
  • Repetitive habits that are continued despite significant negative consequences
  • Feelings of loneliness, depression, anxiety, or high stress
  • Difficulty sustaining relationships
  • Hiding or lying about impulsive habits
  • Taking increasingly big risks

Causes And Risk Factors

Many behavioral addictions are thought to be related to mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and substance addictions, but the mechanisms behind their development still are not fully understood.

Risk factors include:

  • Alcohol or substance abuse problems
  • Pre-existing mental health conditions, such as mood disorders or impulse control disorders (like ADHD)
  • Age (Typically young although seniors are increasingly becoming pathological gamblers)
  • Sex (Males are at higher risk than females)
  • A family history of behavioral or substance addictions

Diagnosing Process Addictions

In the past, substance addictions that cause physical and/or psychological dependence were the only addictions officially recognized by the medical community. The diagnostic criteria for process addictions are ambiguous, and many "behavioral addictions," such as pathological gambling, are technically categorized as impulse control disorders rather than addictions. However, regardless of the exact terminology applied, the medical community has acknowledged the damaging nature and mental health component of these behaviors.

Process Addictions And Other Mental Health Conditions

As mentioned, process addictions often coexist with other morbidities related to mental health: substance addictions, depression, PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder, OCD, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and many others. In many cases, it is difficult to determine which condition developed first although oftentimes the disorders feed off of each other. Historically, doctors have attempted to treat these conditions independently; however, research is increasingly demonstrating the importance of targeting all disorders together in order to effectively address all causes.


Most treatments for behavioral addictions involve some psychotherapy, group therapy, and possibly medications. When behavioral addictions occur in conjunction with mood, anxiety, or impulse-control disorders, treating all conditions concurrently can relieve the symptoms of both. To begin the process of recovery, schedule an appointment with the UCLA Dual Diagnosis Program at your earliest convenience.