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    Signs and symptoms of a process addiction

    Despite a lack of awareness around process addictions, certain types of behaviours can be just as addictive as substances, such as drugs and alcohol.

    Process addiction, sometimes referred to as behavioural addiction, is a mental health condition that can severely affect a person’s physical, emotional and mental health.

    What is a process addiction?

    A process addiction can take various forms.

    People with this type of addiction may experience different symptoms depending on factors such as genetics, family history, the presence of other conditions, and traumatic childhood experiences.

    Risky behaviour

    A person with a process addiction engages in specific behaviours despite the harmful or dangerous effects it can have on their personal, emotional or physical well-being.

    Some might say that destructive behaviours such as this are the hallmark of most addictions, partaking in behaviours that are detrimental to one’s health with no regard for the consequences.

    Non-substance related

    Process addictions do not involve drugs, alcohol or any other substance.

    Unlike substance abuse, behaviours provide a person with an emotional high and a substance-free reward.

    Struggling with addiction


    However, despite the lack of substance, process addictions are harmful and can cause many problems for individuals and their loved ones.

    Like any addictive behaviours, people with process addictions cannot stop engaging in specific behaviours and often require treatment and support to help them quit.

    Compulsive behaviours

    Essentially, process addictions are powered by compulsive behaviours and can lead to significant distress and disruption for the person with the addiction and their loved ones.

    Process addictions can negatively impact an individual’s entire life.

    What causes people to engage in process addictions?

    Substances are not always at the heart of addiction – many people have behaviour-related addictions.

    However, drug and alcohol abuse are the most talked about addictions. Hence, many people do not know what behavioural addictions are or that they even exist.

    Substance abuse and process addictions

    There are some parallels between process and substance addictions. For instance, process addictions provide people with an emotional high and are chronic, like substance addiction.

    The emotional high experienced in process addictions keeps the person hooked, where the individual continues engaging in the behaviour, regardless of the consequences.

    According to the research literature, process addictions are characterised by compulsive and addictive behaviour patterns that can harm the individual’s health and well-being.

    Many people who engage in process addictions may experience profound shame and regret after engaging in such behaviours.

    Similar characteristics

    Despite the differences between substance use disorders and process addictions, both conditions share some features and similarities.

    For example, someone with a substance use disorder may sometimes go to great lengths to partake in alcohol or drug abuse – such a pattern is also observed with process addictions.

    Moreover, people with process addictions will continue engaging in a specific behaviour to avoid any unpleasant feelings that may resurface if they stop.

    Indeed, drug and alcohol addictions are fueled by a similar motivation; to avoid (or numb out) uncomfortable feelings, memories and emotions.

    Signs you may have a process addiction.

    One of the hallmarks of process and substance addictions is that people with either condition cannot simply stop, despite the adverse effects these addictions have on their health and overall life.

    Mental health professionals describe process addictions as “compulsive and addictive behaviours that are detrimental to a person’s well-being.”

    If you think you have any signs and symptoms of a process addiction, you must speak to your doctor or mental health professional for advice and treatment.

    Process addiction types

    Gambling Addiction Old Roulette wheel

    The types of process addictions include:

    • Gambling addiction
    • Internet addiction
    • Sex and love addiction
    • Work addiction
    • Exercise addiction
    • Food addiction
    • Porn addiction
    • Video-game addiction
    • Shopping addiction

    Diagnostic and statistical manual

    The diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5), was recently updated to include process addictions.

    However, the manual classifies gambling disorder as the only diagnosed behavioural addiction.

    Positive step forward

    Despite the severity and implications of process addictions, there has been much debate about whether process addictions should be classified as diagnosed mental disorders.

    However, the recent addition of gambling disorder within the DSM-5 is a positive step forward, and behavioural addictions will likely be included in updated editions.


    There are various signs and symptoms of a process addiction, and people may experience symptoms differently.

    Typically, symptoms of a process addiction include:

    • Continuing to engage in a specific behaviour despite the harmful physical or emotional effects
    • Using the behaviour as a coping mechanism to avoid dealing with challenging thoughts and emotions
    • Spending a significant amount of time thinking about or engaging in the behaviour
    • Difficulties in stopping the behaviour, despite various attempts
    • Dismissing or downplaying the severity of the addiction or behaviour
    • Experiencing significant (emotional) withdrawal when abstaining from the behaviour
    • Experiencing other mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, or substance addiction, when stopping the behaviour
    • Building a tolerance to the behaviour, for example, you may need to increase the intensity or frequency of the behaviour to experience an emotional high or pleasure.
    • Being unable to control a behaviour

    Risk factors

    childhood trauma and addiction

    Like alcohol or drug addiction, various factors can put someone at risk of developing a process addiction. These factors include:

    • Genetics – people with a family history of addiction and compulsive behaviours are more likely to develop process addictions.
    • Childhood trauma – including neglect, abuse or a chaotic, unpredictable home environment
    • Spending excessive amounts of time with people who have a process addiction


    Despite minimal awareness, process addictions are a prevalent issue for the worldwide population.

    Studies on process addictions show that:

    • Around 6% of American citizens have a shopping addiction
    • Up to 10 million US citizens have a gambling addiction
    • About 3% of the population who attend the gym have an exercise addiction
    • Approximately 5-10% of people struggle with work addiction

    Co-occurring conditions

    Another significant connection between process addictions and substance use disorders is that both can co-occur.

    Studies show a profound correlation between substance abuse and process addictions such as porn addiction, sex addiction, and gambling addiction.

    Substance use disorders and process addictions frequently co-occur and are fueled by similar feelings, emotions and compulsions.

    Moreover, substance abuse and process addictions are used as inadequate coping mechanisms.

    Back and forth

    Studies show that people with concurrent disorders usually shift between a process and substance addiction, where a person may flit back and forth between both conditions. 

    Process and substance addictions can co-occur or overlap depending on the person and circumstances.

    Prevalence rates and concurrent disorders 

    The prevalence rates of substance and process addictions show that gambling addiction and substance abuse co-occur in between 20 -30% of cases – moreover, sex and love addiction co-occurs with substance addiction in up to 40% of cases.

    Additionally, 10% of people with internet addiction also have co-occurring substance abuse.


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    Treatment for process addiction typically involves psychotherapy – usually with a behavioural treatment intervention such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

    CBT allows patients to address maladaptive thoughts, beliefs and perceptions that may lead to destructive behaviours.

    Addressing (and treating) concurrent disorders

    During treatment, people learn to identify addictive triggers, uncover the root cause of addictive patterns, and adopt healthier coping mechanisms to help them control urges and compulsions.

    People with concurrent disorders may require a more comprehensive treatment plan where the approach is to simultaneously address the process of addiction and co-occurring conditions.

    White River Manor

    We are always here to listen at White River Manor. If you think you may have any of the symptoms of addiction or are concerned about your mental health, contact our specialists who can help.

    Useful resources

    1. Process Addiction: ScienceDirect – from: Biological Research on Addiction, 2013
    2. Counselors’ Understanding of Process Addiction: TPC Journal, A Blind Spot in the Counseling Field, Angie D. Wilson and Pennie Johnson, October 15th, 2014