5 Addictive Behaviors That Are Not Substance Abuse

Addiction is insidious: it sneaks into almost every person’s behaviors or thought patterns (or both) in the guise of bad habits or even good ones.

Contributing Writer
Updated Jun 18, 2024
5 Addictive Behaviors That Are Not Substance Abuse

Mara Tyler explains: “An addiction is a chronic dysfunction of the brain system that involves reward, motivation, and memory. It’s about the way your body craves a substance or behavior, especially if it causes a compulsive or obsessive pursuit of ‘reward’ and lack of concern over consequences.” We easily judge or feel pity for alcoholics and drug addicts, as though their problem is so far removed from any sin we would ever fall prey to. We regard their problem as an addiction and pat ourselves on the back for NOT having any addictions of our own. But addiction is insidious: it sneaks into almost every person’s behaviors or thought patterns (or both) in the guise of bad habits or even good ones. Perhaps addiction has not taken over your whole life, leaving you helpless and confused, but one thing does invade your thoughts more than any other, and you even recognize signs of withdrawal. Ask God to search and “know if there be any grievous way in me.” (Psalm 139:24). Listen as he reveals your misdirected worship.

Psalm 139:24

1. Are You Addicted to Work?

Someone might call you a workaholic, half-jokingly. Secretly, however, you feel powerless to leave work at the office or to come home at all. There are many excuses. No one else knows how to do your job. Your role is especially important. The overtime is too good to pass up.

Other relationships suffer when work is Number One, especially a person’s relationship with God. He does promote a strong work ethic - 

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” - Colossians 3:23

On the other hand, he reminds us that the results of our work are in his hands, and he expects us to rest. 

“It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” - Psalm 127:2

When family members and friends say they miss you and want to spend more time with you, your response is angry and scornful. No one understands. Taking a day or even a few hours off of work makes you anxious. Others are hurting because they know you care more about your job than them. Any argument from you is futile because the proof is in your actions. Worst of all, work has become your functional god, enslaving you and consuming your thoughts. As relationships fall apart, what you are most anxious about are the hours when you are absent from the office.

2. Do You Have an Anger Addiction?

Whether you grumble quietly or explode with rage, these (and many other subtle actions, like making fists or rolling your eyes) are signs of anger. How do you regard the person in front of you? With respect or scorn? Remember that Jesus equated anger with murder. (Matthew 5:22) Anger is on a spectrum from annoyance to outright rage.

"But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell." - Matthew 5:22

Frequently, we become angry because someone is not following the rules we set. We expect others to agree with us. We demand respect. We feel undervalued and are generally consumed with “self.” Often, an angry person is brittle inside a crispy, unapproachable shell. Do you feed the narrative that you have been wronged, and when you can no longer get riled up about a situation, you look for a new one to make you mad? An angry person does not know his or herself in any other state of mind.

Anger, says Leon F Seltzer PhD, gives you a feeling of “righteousness and control, even dignity and respect." Moreover, anger is accompanied by an adrenaline rush, which “further accentuates your sense of wronged virtue. So naturally, you feel morally superior to whoever or whatever provoked you in the first place.” To this end, the environment around the angry addict emotionally resembles a field of broken glass and landmines.

Are loved ones and co-workers guarded, uncomfortable, or afraid around you, and do you even care? Anger could be your addiction, a crutch to protect yourself. Maybe you will find yourself thinking a lot about the next time someone will make you angry and what you will do then. This is your idol - the object of your worship. A focus on God would lead you to repentance. As Scripture says, 

“The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” - James 1:20

3. Can Exercise Become an Addition?

The body-conscious world we live in promotes and values thin physiques. At the very least, fit people are lauded. We want to be strong in order to live healthy, fulfilling lives through which we help our communities and avoid being a drain on the system. The Christian is concerned to steward his or her body to the glory of God, for,

“You are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you.” - 1 Corinthians 3:16

To that end, we must exercise. Countless websites, apps, gyms, and fitness channels are dedicated to how we can build fitter, leaner bodies, look good in a bathing suit, and live to be 100 while appearing 20 years younger. Firstly, no body or person is to be more greatly esteemed than any other. Romans 2:11 says,

“God shows no partiality.” 

Secondly, good health is a positive goal when addressed holistically—that is when one prioritizes mental and spiritual health as well as physical health. Thirdly, a healthy body does not need to be thin; every person’s body is designed differently. Competitiveness helps us to set goals and motivates us. But it can also turn into an obsession. What starts with breaking personal records for speed, duration, or number of goals scored turns into pressure to workout longer and burn more calories. What are you sacrificing to achieve these things? Just some sweat, maybe an hour every day, or an extra hour of sleep is simply commitment. Then again, did you say “no” to a job, a relationship, or a field trip with your kids because it interfered with aerobics class or the running club’s schedule?

Maybe an hour a day has turned into 2 hours a day, every day, and you use exercise as punishment when you eat something sweet. According to Rosie Woodbridge and Simon Poole, “Performance can be the thing that we live for. We may claim that we are training hard to glorify God, but [...] we can idolize the effect that exercise has on our bodies.” The writer quotes Romans 1:25, in which Paul wrote: 

“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator.”

4. When Does Social Media Become an Addiction?

“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” - Ephesians 4:29

Addiction to social media leads people to forget this teaching. We engage with demeaning posts, post “news” that is really just gossip, and scroll through lies, unkindness, and even tragedy without feeling or thinking a whole lot, as though merely reading a comic book online. Experts say that social media addiction follows the same pattern as substance abuse, which impacts mental health and leads to interpersonal conflict. An individual will require more and more time on a given platform and experience withdrawal during the ever-shortening intervals. “Neuroscientists have compared social media interaction to a syringe of dopamine being injected straight into the system.”

What is the Biblical reference for something that was popularized within the last two decades? Paul Poteat breaks it down by using the Apostle Paul’s teaching in Colossians 3 as a yardstick. He tells us to “put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience [but] social media creates [...] apathy, meanness, pride, self-promotion, and hurry. So putting on that’s necessary, which is actually something that social media is somewhat antithetical to.”

What do you put on when you read or post on social media? Is your social media platform the first thing you look at daily and the last thing you read at night? What does it take for you to drag yourself away from posts and those delicious “pings” that tell you someone liked your post? If you truthfully calculated the number of hours spent online in this way, the result could be a signal that social media is a problem.

5. Are You Addicted to Gossip?

Gossip mixes lies, distortions, and indiscretions. You see two people together and draw the conclusion that they are having an affair, then you tell a few people who are apt to spread the “news,” and soon the two individuals are facing wrathful employers or spouses. At the time, you were only concerned about your longing to feel important because you possessed information no one else had. Fulfilling an immediate need without concern for the consequences is a feature of addiction.

While aiming to disprove the idea of gossip as an addiction, Mark D. Griffiths cited many sources that highlight the connection, including one that suggests that the rumor-monger is erecting a personal defense mechanism or trying to build a social network. In other words, we can make ourselves feel safe by turning the spotlight on someone else’s reputation, and then when others listen to our stories, we gain a connection. Addicts enjoy the rewards, even though they know they should stop telling stories or listening to them. God’s glory is unimportant compared with the thrill of spinning a story. Proverbs 16:28 warns that 

“A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends.” 

No wonder God has commanded, “You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness.” (Exodus 23:1)

Experts might argue that these are not true addictions because there is no real change in brain chemistry. Other professionals would point out the lack of consideration towards others, the cravings, and the anxiety associated with these behaviors. A Christian counselor would also ask about motivation: self-defense, safety, self-importance, or self-punishment, for example. Since we are all broken and needy, apt to worship something or someone other than God, this should keep us humble and motivate our compassion as we guide fellow Christians toward honest self-examination. We are instructed, as members of the Body of Christ, to lovingly offer this service and to gratefully receive the same. 

“Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” - Proverbs 27:5-6

Related Resource: Why Do We Take on More than Our Capacities Will Allow? And What Can We do about It?

In this episode of Thinking Christian, James hosts author and slow-living activist Jodi Grubbs to discuss her book titled Live Slowly: A Gentle Invitation to Exale. Jodi and James discuss the various ways our world pushes us to move more quickly and take on more than our capacities will allow. They also talk about the church and how community, presence, and intentionality are crucial to develop a cadence of life that allows us to know God, others, and ourselves. Listen in, and be sure to subscribe on Apple or Spotify so you never miss an episode!


Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/fizkes

Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.

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