Posted in Addiction on December 15, 2017
Last modified on May 10th, 2019

How Substance & Process Addictions Differ

The differences between substance addiction vs. process addiction are substantial. Most people have never heard the term “process addiction” and erroneously assume it is the same as substance addiction. Here is what you need to know about substance addiction vs. process addiction.

What Is a Substance Addiction?

You’ve probably heard of substance abuse and addiction before. You may have even heard of related terms like tolerance, dependence and withdrawal. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction is “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.” Addictions are common among people who use substances such as prescription opioids, heroin, methamphetamines, cocaine, PCP, ecstasy and alcohol, to name just a few.

While many people debate whether addiction is a brain disease, addiction experts consider it as such because chronic substance abuse actually changes the structure and function of the brain. Many substance abusers develop a dependence to their drug of choice, which occurs when that drug is required in order for the brain to produce essential neurotransmitters and chemicals. When a person who has become dependent on a drug suddenly stops using, he or she may go into withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms are a result of the body struggling to function without the drug.

What Is a Process Addiction?

Process addictions, also referred to as behavioral addictions, are substantially different from substance addictions. Unlike substance addictions, process addictions do not involve drugs. Rather, a person who suffers from a process addiction is addicted to a particular behavior or set of behaviors. Common process addictions include gambling addiction, overeating, internet addiction, compulsive exercising, sex addiction and shopping addiction.

A key difference between process addictions and substance addictions is that there are often no physical signs of process addictions. Process addictions are far more difficult to detect, because many addictive behaviors — like using the internet, exercising or engaging in sexual activity — are a natural part of life. However, researchers argue that process addictions can be just as disruptive to a person’s life as substance addictions because they can begin to impair a person’s ability to function at work, at school, in social relationships and other important life areas. Quitting a process addiction doesn’t typically cause physical withdrawal symptoms, but can cause significant mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and social isolation.

Researchers are still learning more about process addictions and how they affect the human brain. Preliminary studies show evidence that suggests individuals can become addicted to behaviors and the pleasurable sensations they experience as a result of those behaviors, and can still benefit from outpatient treatment to recover from their process addictions.



Alavi, S. S., Ferdosi, M., Jannatifard, F., Eslami, M., Alaghemandan, H., & Setare, M. (2012). Behavioral Addiction versus Substance Addiction: Correspondence of Psychiatric and Psychological Views. International Journal of Preventive Medicine, 3(4), 290-294.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). The Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction: The Basics.

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