Substance Addiction vs Behavioral Addiction

The word addiction has been quite tricky. Usually, in layman language, slight indulgence or experimentation with inappropriate behavior is called an addiction. People often call themselves shopaholics (meaning shopping addicts), or being addicted to some TV shows, and so on.

Therefore, not every behavior can be called an addiction. It is just a way of expressing the repeated pattern of doing something, but just a repeated pattern of doing a thing cannot be called addiction.


On the other hand, just experimentation with a substance or behavior- be it alcohol or gaming, doesn’t necessarily mean it is an addiction.

True, that, behaviors and aspects related to addiction are almost usually maladaptive in nature, however, maintaining self-control and boundaries surely make a difference.

Substance addiction is the most commonly heard and discussed sort of addiction, and also because substance addiction came into recognition a long time ago.

Whereas, the other sort of addiction- behavior addiction has been recently recognized. However, people are still unaware and ignorant about it.

To begin with, it is important to understand what is addiction, and how a behavior turns addictive or sets as an addiction

Addiction as defined technically is referred to any behaviour, which is out of control in a certain way. For example, if someone says, I love coffee and cannot survive without it, I am addicted, and I when I don’t take coffee my head hurts. However, it is important to note that any experience of pleasure, or enjoyment and withdrawal, doesn’t necessarily mean addiction.

American Society of Addiction Medicine, defines Addiction as a “treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences.”

It is a unique neurobiological condition, induced by an individual’s habit formation- determined by bio-psycho-social factors.

Research by Savage et al in 2003 emphasized addiction to be characterized by – impaired control, compulsive use in spite of the harm caused, and craving. Some researchers further summarized as addiction to be characterized by 4 Cs-

  • Craving
  • Loss of Control of amount or frequency of use
  • Compulsion to use
  • Use despite Consequences

Understanding Substance Addiction and Behaviour Addiction

Addiction of chemical substances have been clinically recognized- dependence on drugs like alcohol, nicotine, heroin, cocaine and other such substances are common, however according to the behaviour scientist anything or source that is capable of stimulating an individual, could become addictive.

The non -substance related addictive behaviour have been recently recognized to be a mental health concerned. Common non substance related addiction includes – gambling, internet, gaming, porn addiction and so on.

The idea is when habits turn into an obligatory behaviour, it sets the development of addiction.

Stages of Addiction

Addiction doesn’t just happen over time, and also as mentioned, mere indulgence into a maladaptive behaviour. It has certain stages, of how addiction occurs.

  • First use or initiation
  • Regular Pattern
  • Risky use
  • Dependence
  • First Use or Initiation-Addiction begins with initiation or first use- that is, trying out as an experimentation or out of curiosity.
  • Regular pattern – This next leads to developing a regular pattern of use, for example indulging during weekends, or when with friends or when alone and so on
  • Risky Use – As the pattern of use deepens, it leads to a risky pattern of use. For example- addiction impacting socio- occupational functioning of the individual. Social relationships; with family, friends, or partners also get affected.
  • Dependence – by this stage the individual develops a tolerance towards the substance or the behaviour; meaning the individual needs more of the substance or the behaviour to maintain the same pleasure. Also, by now the individual would be so much dependent that abstinence would cause withdrawal symptoms.

A lot of times, people keep indulging in maladaptive behavior just in order to avoid the dreaded withdrawal symptoms.

Substance addiction

Thus, this entire cycle of process symbolizes addiction.

Diagnostic Criteria for Behaviour Addiction as quoted by Goodman (1990)

Difference between substance addiction or chemical addiction and behaviour addiction

The major difference that we see in the two forms of addiction is the ingestion of substance. Whereas, in substance or chemical addiction requires a chemical ingestion in the body, the same isn’t true in case of behaviour addiction.

Behaviour addiction largely involves heightened emotions and feelings brought about certain activities and habits.

The other difference between the two is, substance or chemical addiction brings about more of physiological symptoms- such as trembling, and other autonomic symptoms- which are generally not found in behavioural addiction.

behaviour addiction.

However, autonomic symptoms would be present if there is any comorbid condition along with behaviour addiction.

How are substance or chemical addiction and behaviour addiction similar?

But the mental health challenges involved in both the conditions are highly similar and go through the same cycle of development.

The seriousness of both the conditions is equally alarming and concerning. Only because there is no external chemical being ingested in the body when it comes to behavioural addiction, doesn’t mean that behaviour addiction is less harmful.

Recovery from both substance or chemical addiction and behaviour addiction has always been challenging and requires adequate professional help. It has the same cycle of use, abuse, dependence, tolerance and withdrawal.

The intervention at the bio-psycho-social levels remains very similar. Further both types of addiction have been a result of maladaptive coping mechanism. People resort of substance or an addictive behaviour for immediate relief of stress.  

Psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy are equally important, depending upon the demand of the case.


Our experts continually monitor the wellness space, and we update our articles when new information becomes available.

Current Version

Reviewed by: Priyanka Bhattacharjee

licensed and practicing Clinical Psychologist

Update by: Deepak Sengar

08 – Feb – 2022

Written by : Priyanka Bhattacharjee

Edited by : Charles

07 – Feb – 2022

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Priyanka Bhattacharjee

Priyanka Bhattacharjee, a licensed Clinical Psychologist, has dedicated over seven years to addressing diverse mental health issues across age groups. A gold medalist in her master's program in Clinical Psychology, her expertise spans Addiction, Personality Disorders, Mood and Affective Disorders, and Children and Adolescents' Mental Health. Passionate about mental health advocacy, she focuses on primary prevention and early intervention. Priyanka also specializes in Couple Intervention and Workplace Mental Health issues, contributing significantly to the field.