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How Behavioral Addiction and Substance Abuse Treatments Differ

By  Zawn Villines
Behavioral and substance addiction affect the brain in similar ways. Both require treatment that addresses the underlying emotions that led to the addiction, as well as the addiction itself.

Any behavior that feels pleasurable or rewarding can become addictive.

"Unfortunately behavioral addictions have just started to be seriously considered as a mental disorder and not a moral disorder," says Krista Miller-Tsosie, LPC, LADAC, a therapist and addiction counselor. As a result, people with behavioral issues may delay treatment, allowing their addictions to spiral further out of control before they seek care.

Despite their differences, Miller-Tsosie says, treatment for behavioral and substance addictions are substantially similar. "There is not much different in treatment between behavioral and substance addictions. The best practice is to treat behavioral addictions as behaviors that affect the brain," Miller-Tsosie tells WebMD Connect to Care.

Behavioral vs. Substance Addiction: Treatment Differences

With both types of addiction, the focus is on recognizing the harm the addiction causes, addressing the underlying emotions that cause a person to indulge in addictive substances or behaviors, and minimizing exposure to the addiction. Additionally, people with substance abuse addictions may need medical support to manage withdrawal and address the physical after-effects of drugs and alcohol on the body.

Some treatment options for both types of addiction include:

  • therapy, especially behavioral therapy
  • support groups such as 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous or Overeaters Anonymous
  • support from loved ones
  • education about the biology of addiction
  • medication to manage withdrawal or to address underlying depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems

Finding the Right Treatment for Your Addiction

Addiction is a treatable medical condition, whether the addiction is to behaviors or substances. As with other medical conditions, sometimes a condition gets worse before it gets better. Relapse⁠—a return to the addiction⁠—is a common challenge. Many people find they have to experiment with different approaches to recovery to find something that works. Some strategies that can help guide you to the right treatment include:

  • Consider your values. Christians might thrive in 12-step religious programs, while people of other or no faiths might prefer different options.
  • Assess how much support you need. People who have remained employed may do well with outpatient treatment. Those for whom addiction has overtaken every aspect of daily life may need the intensity of inpatient care.
  • Identify all the issues for which you need treatment. Many people with addictions have other disorders, such as depression or anxiety. Ensure you choose treatment that can address each diagnosis.
  • Choose the right treatment facility. Providers who specialize in your specific addiction can offer the best shot at recovery.
  • Wait until you're ready. If you go into treatment only to appease someone else, you are more likely to relapse.
  • Get support. Ask for help from loved ones, and tell them what they can do to support you on your recovery journey.
  • Look into insurance coverage. Mental health parity laws require insurers to cover addiction treatment, but your insurer might not cover all types of treatment, or may limit you to a specific pool of providers.