How to tell when behaviours have become addictive

Defining when behaviours have become addictive and aren't just lifestyle choices can be a very subjective exercise, especially during holiday periods or when there are special occasions. Behaviours that are merely lifestyle choices for one person might be troublesome for someone else. So, how can you decide whether something that you do has become problematical, rather than something that is, most of the time, a healthy expression of your lifestyle?


Diagnostic tools can be helpful, but only up to a point. Gambling, for instance, is the only ‘official’ addiction listed in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), an American Psychiatric Association-published document that is currently in its fifth iteration, with gaming as a behaviour listed for further research.

According to the DSM-5, problem gambling may be diagnosed as a mental disorder if certain diagnostic criteria are present and have been met. But what about other behaviours, such as shopping, social media usage, watching porn, or going to the gym? How can you work out if such behaviours have become a problem in your life?

The four Cs of addiction

It can be useful to refer to the 'four Cs of addiction' when seeking to understand if a behaviour has become problematic.


This is when you might engage in the behaviour when you had not planned to. There was no intentionality, yet you ended up almost consumed by the behaviour anyway. For example, you did not plan to go shopping but somehow ended up in the shops, seemingly by default. 


When your behaviours fail to stick to limits there might be a loss of control. This can occur when someone rationalises their behaviour as being a lifestyle choice when in actual fact, there are increasing problems maintaining balance. An example might be going to the casino because it is considered a social and fun thing to do with friends or work colleagues, but you are spending increasing amounts of time there and ending up in debt.

Continuation (despite negative consequences)

A behaviour ceases to be fun when there are increasingly negative consequences occurring in your life. For example, perhaps your porn use is leading to real-life intimacy issues and your relationship is suffering? It's one thing being sex-positive and leading a lifestyle free from prudish inhibitions, but the fun stops if your relationship, as a result of your behaviours, is at risk.

Craving (or mental obsession)

This term is usually associated with chemical addiction, however, it may be that certain behaviours represent a negative urgency and a form of impulsivity. Can you tolerate the feelings you're experiencing in the present moment, or do you need to escape into a shopping spree?

Mindfulness could be defined as being able to attend to the present moment in a non-judgmental way. Addictive behaviour is very different to mindfulness. Negative urgency can be an addictive process that seeks to escape from having to experience difficult feelings. This deficit in self-control could define when behaviours might have become problematic, rather than representing lifestyle choices. 

Seeking help for problematic behaviours

Rationalisation can be a feature of people living with behavioural addictions. There can always be an explanation to justify excesses. The outward effects of behavioural addictions might be hidden or obscured from view, compared to the more visible appearance of a person addicted to drugs or alcohol, but the inner conflict can be as intense. In spite of this, they can be resistant to change and people might only seek external help if they feel like their backs are really up against the wall. By then, there might be mounting debt, loss of employment, relationship termination, loneliness, poor health and increased emotional desperation.  

Speaking to a therapist can be the start of your journey to explore whether your behaviours are serving your better interests and whether you might want to transform your life and live a different way. Addiction can be a slavish attachment to certain behaviours and can, ultimately, represent a lack of freedom. Addressing your shame could be a way to review your life decisions when past wounds can be explored and healed.

Sometimes, the work in therapy is not to focus on the addiction itself, but to address the emotional pain that led to the need for escape in the first place. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Written by Noel Bell, MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP
London SE1 & SE26

Noel Bell is a UKCP accredited psychotherapist in London who has spent over 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, addictions and inner transformation. Noel is an integrative therapist and draws upon the most effective tools and techniques from the Psychodynamic, CBT, Humanist, Existential and Transpersonal schools.

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