The Difference Between Drug Addiction & Process Addiction

Process Addiction is a relatively new way of describing an addiction to an activity, or a process, that does not involve taking brain-affecting substances such as cannabis, alcohol, cigarettes or hard drugs. The term Process Addiction covers addictions such as over-eating, compulsive shopping, the compulsive need for sex (sex addiction), or porn (porn addiction), compulsive gambling (gambling addiction), or compulsive computer game playing (computer game addiction).  Although Substance Addiction and Process Addiction describe two types of addiction, they are similar in many ways.

The only real difference between Substance or Drug Addiction and Process Addiction, is that being addicted to a physical drug carries the additional harm of the direct affects of the drug itself, in addition to the changes in the brain that happen with both types of addiction.

And certainly, both types of addiction cause similar harm to a person’s social and emotional life, and the lives of those around them.

All addictions, whether Process Addictions or Substance Addictions, involve similar malfunctions in the original, normal, neuro-chemical Reward and Gratification Systems of the brain that we are all born with.  Therefore, all addiction is fundamentally a mental health issue, no matter what type of addiction is involved.

It is never a moral weakness, or a lack of willpower, or because someone is basically ‘no good’, ‘weak’, or ‘bad’.

Cravings, Rewards, and Reduced Satisfaction

Studies have shown, that if the brain activity of non-addicted people is compared to the brains of those who do have an addiction, the Reward Centers in the brains of addicted people are abnormally over-excited at the thought of receiving the desired reward, compared with the lower (normal) level of brain excitement experienced by non-addicted people.

But also, when the ‘reward’ is actually received by someone with an addiction, the Gratification, or Satisfaction Centres in the brains of addicted people are much less ‘pleased’ or satisfied, than for non-addicted people.

So there are these 2 abnormal forces driving addicts to continue with their addiction:

  • vastly increased intensity of mental and emotional cravings
  • plus the need for more and more of the drugs or activity to get the level of satisfaction that they crave.

These factors are two of the main reasons why the hallmark of addiction is loss of control over behaviour, and it’s why it’s pretty much impossible for addicted people to control their addictions, even when they try.

If you have an addiction, your addiction has hi-jacked your brain and you struggle for control, but fail, constantly.

It’s an overpowering and accelerating downward spiral that often leads to depression, shame, humiliation, isolation and even suicide.

Addiction is hell

No one ever enjoys having an addiction

If you have an addiction of any sort, or you know someone who does, you will already know this from experience.  Addicted people will go to almost any lengths to gratify their specific needs.  And even though they know it will cause them personal harm, and distress to those who care about them, they seem powerless to control their behavior, even when they wish they could.

It makes little difference if it’s a Process Addiction to gambling, or shopping, or eating because of stress, or eating for no apparent reason at all – mentally, psychologically, and emotionally, it is no different to the compulsions that drive drug addiction and substance abuse.

Many people find it difficult to understand why a person with a Process Addiction doesn’t just stop doing the harmful activity.  They sometimes think that Process Addictions are not as difficult to control as drug addictions because there is no addictive substance involved.

While it’s true that drug addiction produces additional physical chemical dependency from the drug itself, the neuro-chemical and psychological processes in the brain that drive both types of addiction are real, visible on brain scans, and basically the same.

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The Difference Between Drug Addiction & Process Addiction — 18 Comments

  1. I would like to thank you a whole lot for your work you have made in writing this piece of writing. I am hoping the same perfect job by you in the future as well.

    • Thanks Lynn, I’m glad you appreciate the information. I certainly intend to do my best to continue giving reliable and understandable information.

      Addiction is very difficult to understand by anyone, and particularly for anyone affected by it.

      But if the enemy can be understood, it makes fighting it easier.


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  3. Hey the things are much interesting. According to me, the word “addiction” usually brings to mind substance abuse. An individual with a drug addiction or alcohol problem might slowly fall apart over time. Medically speaking, when people speak of a person having behavioral problems, they are often referring to process addictions like gambling, hoarding or eating disorders. The signs of these involve any behaviors or rituals that are repeated over and over again, no matter what the final outcome is. Keep up the good work.

  4. Very enlightening article. When I went into substance addiction recovery 23 years ago, I was given a “no-no” list that included things like prescription meds, and any drug that would affect the brain, but I don’t remember hearing to much about process addiction. This will be very helpful because over the years I have discovered that many people with substance addictions either engage process addictions during their substance addiction, or process addictions emerge very shortly after recovery. If you go to any substance recovery meeting you will find three things: Coffee, cigarettes, and food(namely sweets) in abundance.

    • Hi Elaine, congratulations on beating your substance addiction. That’s not easy to do, and even when in Recovery, there are still temptations everywhere. Stay strong and best wishes.


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  6. Great description of process and substance addiction. I am in an addiction certification program at Capella University, this article helped greatly.The sad part is I fall into every category of the addictions you describe. I fight the cravings everyday of my life, with Gods good graces I will win. Thank you

    • Hi Alisa, sorry to hear you have troubles with addiction. And well done on studying anything – and studying addiction is a great way to understand ‘the enemy’ better – knowledge is power! Good luck with your efforts.

  7. I’m thrilled to have found this definition and discussion of “Process Addiction.” I think this aptly applies to my sister’s soon-to-be-Ex-husband. We believe he’s a “Rage-o-holic,” and this certainly fits his behavior. The one problem is that he doesn’t think he has a problem. He denies the things he has done during his rages (like blackouts, really), and he dismisses anyone’s efforts to talk about it. So he doesn’t fall into the category of “can’t stop even if he wanted to” — we’ve never seen ANY sign that he wants to stop. He’s a “right fighter,” and believes every word of his own rhetoric — he’s right, so *we’re* the ones with the problem. It’s very sad to see him like this (and throwing yet another marriage out the window), but we’re finding forgiveness because clearly he is very sick / damaged.

    • Hi Sue, yes denial has to stop before any change can happen. It sounds like our sister is probably doing the right thing because her personal safety is the first priority. I would guess that her husband has ‘anger control’ issues which is not strictly an addiction (either Process or Substance addiction). However, whatever the label, it sounds like your sister needs to keep at a safe distance from him until (if ever) her husband decides to get professional help and becomes safe to be near.
      Carol recently posted…Have You Fallen in Love With Your Addiction?My Profile

      • Thank you, Carol, for your input. I’m happy to say that my sister’s divorce is final, and they are no longer together. We’ve talked with some of his friends of 30 years, and it seems he has a “shelf life” of about 3 years with women. His courtship with my sister was awesome, and then… At the 3-year mark, everything started to come apart. It was like he couldn’t keep it together but for so long. I agree it doesn’t matter if his is an “addiction” or “control issue,” but it had all the unpleasant earmarks we see with addicts (whatever it is!), so she’s GLAD she’s out of that. When they do see each other “around,” he’s very pleasant. Gee, go figure. :-)

        • Hi Sue, yes relationships are complicated! Often it is lack of self awareness by all sides in relationships that is at the heart of many problems. True self awareness requires honesty about oneself and that is maybe the hardest thing for anyone to do. It’s hard enough to have honest self awareness about ourselves, let alone others! The first step is to try, but often, the other side either cannot or will not do the same. I’m glad your sister is happy with her decision – well done her…and you too for standing by her.

          Sorry to take so long to answer! I found your post in my spam folder yesterday and wondered how things had turned out for you and your sister.
          Carol recently posted…Have You Fallen in Love With Your Addiction?My Profile

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