Substance Use and Behavioral Addiction: What is the Correlation?

What Is the Difference Between Behavioral Addiction and Substance Use?

In a world where the term addiction often refers only to substance abuse, it is essential to recognize that addiction involves more than just alcohol, opioids, and other substances. While Substance Use Disorders (SUD) remain a significant concern, behavioral addictions present another facet of this complex problem. From compulsive gambling to excessive internet use, these behavioral patterns can affect people with the same intensity as chemical substances. Understanding the nuances between substance use and behavioral addiction is crucial to effectively addressing these challenges.

So, what is the difference between behavioral addiction and substance use? Perhaps their names define the main distinction between these two forms of dependency. Behavioral addiction involves actions or conduct that continue despite their consequences, such as excessive gaming. SUD, on the other hand, entails the consumption of psychoactive substances that also have adverse effects on mental and physical health.

In this blog by Mat Care Clinics, let’s delve a bit deeper into these issues or behaviors that can seem harmless but can actually have a significant impact on our loved ones and society as a whole.

What is Substance Use?

substance use


First, let us understand what each dependency refers to, as well as its characteristics and forms of dependency. According to the American Psychiatric Association, SUD is a complex condition characterized by an individual’s uncontrolled use of a substance(s) despite the harmful consequences it may cause. This disorder often leads to significant distress and impairment in the individual’s daily life. The substances involved can range from alcohol and drugs to other forms of chemicals.

A person with SUD typically has a problematic pattern of substance use, which leads to clinically significant impairment or distress. This impact includes health problems, disability, and failure to meet primary responsibilities at work, school, or home. The severity of the disorder can range from mild to severe, depending on the number of symptoms the person exhibits.

Symptoms of substance use can include:

  • A strong desire or urge to use the substance
  • Unsuccessful attempts to cut down or control its use
  • Spending a lot of time obtaining, using, or recovering from the substance
  • Craving, or a strong desire or urge to use the substance
  • Recurrent use, failing to fulfill significant role obligations at work, school, or home.

What is Behavioral Addiction?

According to the American Addiction Centers, behavioral addiction, also known as process addiction or non-substance-related disorder, is defined as a compulsion to continually engage in behaviors despite the negative impact on one’s health or daily life. These behaviors can trigger the brain’s reward system and become addictive, similar to substance addiction.

Examples of behavioral addiction can include:

  • Gambling
  • Shopping
  • Compulsive television watching
  • Eating
  • Exercise
  • Sex

Although activities such as eating, watching television, or exercising are normal and healthy in moderation, they become a disorder when a person loses control over them and engages in them excessively and compulsively.

Behavioral addiction


Here are some common characteristics that may indicate that a behavior has become a disorder:

  • The individual may face problems in critical areas of their life, such as interpersonal relationships, work, or daily activities due to the addiction.
  • Experience the need to increase the amount of time or effort dedicated to the activity to have the same level of satisfaction.
  • Experiencing physical or emotional discomfort when unable to engage in the activity may lead to the need to engage in it again to alleviate this discomfort.
  • Continue the addictive behavior despite being aware of and experiencing negative consequences, such as health, financial, or legal problems.

Is There a Correlation Between Substance Use and Behavioral Addiction?

Substance use and behavioral addictions represent distinct but correlated challenges, revealing a complex interplay of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Although their manifestations may differ, they share fundamental mechanisms and risk factors that underscore their common causes.

At the core of both addictions lies a dysregulation of the brain’s reward circuitry. This circuitry, primarily involving neurotransmitters such as dopamine, is responsible for processing and reinforcing pleasurable experiences. According to The Lancet, in individuals with addiction, this system becomes hypersensitive to rewarding stimuli, driving compulsive behaviors aimed at seeking gratification. Simultaneously, there’s a weakening of self-control mechanisms, making it increasingly difficult to resist impulses despite adverse consequences.

Genetic predispositions play a significant role in predisposing individuals to develop substance use disorder or behavioral addiction. Certain genetic variations can influence an individual’s susceptibility to addictive behaviors, affecting neurotransmitter functioning and reward processing. Moreover, environmental factors, including early exposure to substances or certain behaviors, family dynamics, peer influences, and societal norms, shape an individual’s vulnerability to addiction.

The study The Genetic Basis of Addictive Disorders suggests that both genetic factors and exposure to addictive agents influence addiction spanning various substances and behaviors like drugs, food, sex, gaming, and gambling. Through family, adoption, and twin studies, researchers have found that genetics play a significant role in addiction development, with heritability rates varying across different substances. These genetic influences involve not only substance-specific genes, like those responsible for metabolizing alcohol or encoding drug receptors, but also genes associated with broader addiction neurobiology, affecting traits like anxiety, impulsivity, and reward processing.

Furthermore, the phenomenon of cross-addiction highlights the interconnected nature of substance use disorders and behavioral addictions. Individuals struggling with one form of addiction are at heightened risk of developing another, suggesting shared underlying vulnerabilities and reinforcing mechanisms. For example, someone recovering from alcohol addiction may develop compulsive gambling habits as a substitute for their previous substance use, illustrating how addictive behaviors can shift across different domains.

Treatment Options

Treatment options exist for each addiction, although the specific approaches may vary depending on the individual and the nature of their dependence. Here are some commonly employed treatment modalities:

Psychotherapy/Counseling – Various forms of psychotherapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing, and contingency management, are widely used in treating both disorders. These therapies aim to address maladaptive thought patterns, develop coping strategies, and modify behaviors associated with addiction.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) – FDA-approved medications help to manage cravings, alleviate withdrawal symptoms, and reduce the likelihood of relapse in individuals with alcohol and opioid use. MAT includes medications like Buprenorphine, Naltrexone, Vivitrol, and Sublocade.

Support Groups – Participate in support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Gamblers Anonymous (GA), or similar groups tailored to specific behavioral addictions, provide individuals with a supportive community, guidance, and accountability in their recovery journey.

Inpatient Treatment – For individuals with severe addiction or those who have struggled to maintain abstinence in outpatient settings, inpatient treatment programs offer intensive, structured support in a controlled environment. These programs typically involve a combination of therapy, education, and group activities aimed at promoting recovery.

Outpatient Programs – These treatment programs allow individuals to receive therapy and support while maintaining their daily routines. They may include individual counseling, group therapy, medication management, and educational sessions tailored to everyone’s needs.

Explore Medication-Assisted Treatment

Contact MAT Care Clinics for Support!

Substance use and behavioral addiction represent multifaceted conditions with overlapping neurobiological, genetic, environmental, and psychological components. Recognizing these shared mechanisms and risk factors is crucial for developing targeted prevention and intervention strategies that address the complex interplay of factors driving addictive behaviors.

At MAT Care Clinics, located in Nashua, NH, we specialize in helping those who are struggling with substance dependence. We understand that addiction can be a challenging and complex issue, which is why we use approved and effective medications to help our patients overcome their use and achieve long-term recovery.

Remember, addiction is not a moral failing but a treatable medical condition. With the proper support and resources, recovery is possible. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help by calling us at (833) 622-0628 or messaging us on our website.


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