Understanding addictive behaviour part 1: Emotional needs

Human beings are driven to repeat behaviour which is rewarding in some way. Once we have gained a ‘reward’, or benefit, from some form of behaviour, we are then conditioned, or we learn, to repeat it in order to gain the same benefit.

This mechanism in and of itself, is something which has evolved within humans as an adaptive feature, and is useful in enabling us to get our needs met. Thus, addictive behaviour is a type of behaviour which is both rewarding and reinforcing.

However, this adaptive mechanism can go awry, and habitual behaviour pattern can become an addiction when we continue to engage in the behaviour compulsively, despite the long or short-term adverse consequences.

Addictive behaviour can take many forms. Alcohol and substance addiction are two of the more obvious forms of addictive behaviour, however OCD, eating disorders, co-dependency (unhealthy reliance between people), gambling and addiction to work are also forms of addictive behaviour.

In the 21st century, technological advances also require that we turn our attention to digital devices. For example, mobile phones, video games and even online chat rooms and dating sites, to name a few, have the potential to become addictive.

So, why is it?

When our emotional needs are unmet in some way, we may find that other strategies serve as a means of coping with the related feelings of distress and upset that is caused by having unmet needs. For example, indulging in alcohol may temporarily mask our discomfort caused by unmet needs, and so we learn to repeat the behaviour so that we do not have to face our problems. Or, the online chat room provides short burst of ‘connection’ with other people, though never quite ‘hits the spot’ and so it is necessary to indulge in the behaviour compulsively, while we chase the feeling of emotional connection with another person.

Sometimes our unmet needs may stem from childhood and we simply have not learned how to deploy our innate resources effectively, and get our needs met in a healthy way.  

The first step in the process is for the individual to recognise and accept that their behaviour has become addictive. This can often be deduced by the extent to which the addictive behaviour is impinging on the individual’s ability to carry out their tasks, manage effectively in everyday life, or achieve their goals or dreams.

Regardless of the form which the addictive behaviour takes, it is the role of the counsellor to enable the client to understand their emotional needs by using an emotional needs audit.

The client and the counsellor can then explore ways in which the client can begin to get these needs met. For example, if the chatroom addicted client has identified a lack of emotional connection with others as an unmet need - they may begin to create a list of other ways they could find emotional connection and meet new people, or reconnect with old friends or family.

Thus begins the process of recovery from the addictive behaviour.

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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Stevenage SG1 & Launceston PL15
Written by Keith Abrahams, Emma Jaynes & - The Adept Living Foundation (ALF)
Stevenage SG1 & Launceston PL15

Emma and Keith are collectively experienced senior directors, CEO, business leaders and consultants who now practise as executive coaches, Harley Street therapist and lecture in business.

Our passion is for community in which we volunteer with PTSD sufferers and in social enterprise, encouraging small businesses to thrive.

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