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Counselling services and supports are inclusive, confidential, and available to all Red Deer Polytechnic students free of charge.

Addiction: Process vs. Chemical

Behavioral science experts believe that all entities capable of stimulating a person can be addictive; and whenever a habit changes into an obligation, it can be considered as an addiction. Researchers believe that there are a number of similarities as well as some differences between chemical addiction and process addiction.

Chemical Addiction

Chemical addiction or dependency is characterized by the repeated, uncontrollable use of alcohol and/or drugs in a way that threatens the individual's physical, mental, and well-being parts of the body, as well as the physical safety and emotional well-being of those around him or her.

Common chemical addictions include but are not limited to: Alcohol, Caffeine, Club Drugs, Cannabis, Opioids, Tobacco & Nicotine

Process Addiction

Process addictions refer to behaviors and activities that can be addictive for some individuals. The idea behind this concept is that the behavior is rewarded by the brain as it activates certain chemicals that produce pleasant feelings, reinforcing that behavior and making it more likely that the person will engage in that process again. The chemicals released by the brain’s reward center are similar or identical to those released when a person consumes a drug, therefore causing a kind of addiction.

Many people have heard of at least a couple different types of process addictions, even if they haven’t heard the term. Common process addictions include but are not limited to: Gambling, Video Gaming, Food, Exercise, Shopping, Sex & Porn.

Chemical Addictions

An alcohol use disorder is a long-term brain condition where an individual can't stop or control their drinking despite negative consequences in social, occupational, academic areas. 

If an individual chooses to drink, the recommendation is no more than one drink a day for females, and no more than two drinks a day for males.


One drink equals:

  • 1.5 ounces of spirits
  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 12 ounces of beer


Individuals may choose to drink because of:

  • social pressure
  • desire to relax
  • coping mechanism 
  • low self-esteem
  • family history of alcohol use


Signs & Symptoms of Alcohol Use

  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Slurred speech
  • Impaired judgement
  • Uncontrollable urge to drink
  • Lack of control over how much you drink
  • Negative thoughts when you're not drinking alcohol
  • Drinking in risky situations
  • Drinking that interferes with things you enjoy
  • Continuing to drink even though it causes problems or makes them worse
  • Stopping important activities or doing them less often because of alcohol



Drinking alcohol, may:

  • Increase anxiety, depression, or other mental health problems
  • Increases the risk of family problems and violence
  • Alter your thoughts, judgment, and decision-making
  • Worsens sleep quality, which makes it more difficult to manage stress


How To Help

If you or someone you know is consuming an unhealthy amount of alcohol they are encouraged to reach out and ask for help. Speak to a qualified professional who can teach you/them the first steps needed in order to over come an alcohol use disorder.

(Centre for Disease Control & Prevention, 2019)

After alcohol, cannabis is the most widely use substance in Canada. Contrary to popular belief, individuals can become addicted to cannabis. Continued, frequent, and heavy cannabis use can cause physical dependency and addiction. About 50-60% of individuals with an addiction to cannabis have some sort of underlying mental health condition, such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, or schizophrenia.


Problematic cannabis use can include some or all of these behaviours:

  • Failing to fulfill major duties at work, school, or home
  • Giving up important social, occupational or recreational activities because of cannabis use
  • Consuming it often and in larger amounts or over a longer period than intended
  • Being unable to cut down on or control cannabis use


The THC in Cannabis can impair the ability to drive safely and operate equipment. It can also increase the risk of falls and other accidents.


THC can affect your:

  • coordination
  • reaction time
  • ability to pay attention
  • decision-making abilities
  • ability to judge distances


Thinking about using Cannabis? Please become informed here

(Government of Canada, 2019)

Caffeine is a bitter, white substance that occurs naturally in more than 60 plants, including coffee beans, tea leaves, and cacao pods. Caffeine is considered to be both a food additive and a drug. Common sources of caffeine are found in coffee, tea, pop, and chocolate. 


People tend to use caffeine to:

  • elevate mood
  • decrease fatigue
  • enable hard work and clearer thinking


Further, caffeine can:

  • help individuals feel less tired
  • increase energy levels
  • burn fat by jump-starting the body's metabolism
  • improve productivity and brain function (eg. memory, reaction times, and general mental function)


Excessive caffeine intake for the average person is more than four or five cups of strong tea or coffee per day.

Signs and symptoms of over use of caffeine include:

  • Headache
  • Nervousness
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Racing hearts
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Dehydration
  • Feeling shaky


Limiting Caffeine Use

To successfully reduce your caffeine intake, gradually reduce the amount of coffee, tea, soda, and energy drinks you have each day. Begin to substitute cold caffeinated beverages with water. Water is a healthy choice and satisfies the need for drinking a liquid. Water also naturally flushes caffeine from your body and keeps you hydrated.

Gradually reducing your caffeine consumption over a period of 2 to 3 weeks will help you successfully change your habit without causing withdrawal symptoms.

Club drugs are illicit drugs that are typically used at parties, nightclubs, and raves. Examples include flunitrazepam (roofies), GHB (liquid ecstasy), ketamine (special K), LSD (acid), MDMA (ecstasy or molly), and methamphetamine (meth).

Club drugs contain a combination of agents that affect your brain and central nervous system. All of them can lead individuals to make choices or do things you wouldn’t otherwise do. Often, these types of drugs are mixed with alcohol, which can be particularly dangerous.

  • Stimulants make you excitable. They can cause you to feel open, aroused, and unafraid.
  • Depressants slow your nervous system and affect your ability to react.
  • Hallucinogens affect your ability to think, feel, judge, and act. They make it hard to know what’s real or not. They can cause you to forget periods of time.
  • Methamphetamines are stimulants that cause excitement. They can make you hyper, anxious, or paranoid.


Everyone reacts differently to club drugs. Symptoms vary depending on the person, the drug, and the dose of the drug. Side effects often appear 10 to 20 minutes after use. 

Signs & Symptoms

  • drowsiness
  • dizziness
  • blurred vision
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • loss of muscle control
  • changes in heart rate and blood pressure
  • trouble breathing
  • aggressive behaviour
  • impaired memory and judgment
  • hallucinations
  • loss of consciousness
  • seizures
  • coma
  • death



  • Don’t accept drinks, food, or substances from other people.
  • Don’t drink or eat anything you didn't pour or open yourself. 
  • Keep drinks with you and in your sight at all times. 

(Continuum Recovery Centre, 2020; Family Doctor, 2019)

Tobacco and vaping devices contain nicotine, an ingredient that can lead to addiction, which is why many individuals who smoke or vape find it difficult to quit.

Withdrawal Signs & Symptoms

  • Anxiety
  • Cravings
  • Depression
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Impaired performance
  • Increased appetite and weight gain
  • Irritability, frustration, and anger
  • Restlessness and impatience
  • Sleep disturbances


Nicotine & The Brain

The nicotine in any tobacco product readily absorbs into the blood when a person uses it. Upon entering the blood, nicotine immediately stimulates the adrenal glands to release the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline). Epinephrine stimulates the central nervous system and increases blood pressure, breathing, and heart rate. As with drugs such as cocaine and heroin, nicotine activates the brain’s reward circuits and also increases levels of the chemical messenger dopamine, which reinforces rewarding behaviours.


Health Risks

Although nicotine is addictive, most of the severe health effects of tobacco use comes from other chemicals. Tobacco smoking can lead to lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema. It increases the risk of heart disease, which can lead to stroke or heart attack. Smoking has also been linked to other cancers, leukemia, cataracts, Type 2 Diabetes, and pneumonia. That being said, smokeless tobacco increases the risk of cancer, especially mouth cancers



Both behavioural treatments and medications can help people quit smoking, but the combination of medication with counselling is more effective than either alone.

(National Institute of Drug Abuse, 2020)

A class of drugs naturally found in the opium poppy plant. Some prescription opioids are made from the plant directly, and others are made by scientists in labs using the same chemical structure. 

Opioids are often used as medicines because they contain chemicals that relax the body and relieve pain moderate to severe pain.

Types of Opioids are Vicodin, Oxycodone, Codeine, Fentanyl, Morphine, and Percocet. 

Opioid use can stem from a combination of conditions, such as health conditions, chromic pain, lifestyle factors, and environmental conditions. 


Signs & Symptoms

  • Mixing with different groups of people or changing friends
  • Spending time alone and avoiding time with family and friends
  • Losing interest in activities
  • Not bathing, changing clothes or brushing their teeth
  • Being very tired and sad
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Being overly energetic, talking fast and saying things that don’t make sense
  • Being nervous or cranky
  • Quickly changing moods
  • Sleeping at odd hours
  • Missing important appointments
  • Getting into trouble with the law
  • Attending work or school on an erratic schedule
  • Experiencing financial hardship


Decrease Your Use

Put it in writing. Making a list of the reasons to curtail your substance use—such as feeling healthier, sleeping better, or improving your relationships—can motivate you.

Set a goal for reducing or stopping use. Set a limit on how much you will use.

Keep a diary of your substance use. For three to four weeks, keep track of every time you use. Include information about what and how much you used as well as where. Compare this to your goal. If you’re having trouble sticking to your goal, discuss it with your doctor or counsellor.

Don’t keep substance of choice in your house. Having no substances in your home can help limit your use.

Choose substance-free days. Decide not to use substance a day or two each week. You might want to abstain for a week or a month to see how you feel physically and emotionally.

Watch for peer pressure. Practice ways to say no politely. You do not have to use just because others are, and you shouldn’t feel obligated to accept every time you’re offered to. Stay away from people who encourage you to use.

Ask for support. Cutting down on your opioid use may not always be easy. Let friends and family members know that you need their support. Your doctor, counsellor, or therapist may also be able to offer help; several medications are available to help curb the urge to use opioids.

Guard against temptation. Steer clear of people and places that make you want to use drugs.

(Centre for Behavioural Health Statistics and Quality, Harvard Health, Statistics Canada)

Process Addictions

Engaging in physical activity is healthy in order to sustain or improve health and fitness. However, exercise can become unhealthy when individuals begin to become obsessed with physical activity. This is often occurs as a result of body image disorders and eating disorders. Individuals with exercise addictions display traits similar to those of other substance use disorders, such as:

  • obsessing over the behaviour
  • engaging in the behaviour even though it’s causing physical harm
  • engaging in the behaviour despite wanting to stop
  • engaging in the behaviour in secret

Many people exercise because it releases endorphins and dopamine. These are the same neurotransmitters released during drug use. An individual who is addicted to exercise feels reward and joy when exercising. When individuals stop exercising, these neurotransmitters are not released, therefore the go away and people have to exercise more to trigger the chemical release.

Signs & Symptoms

  • feeling buzzed after exercising
  • experiencing withdrawal symptoms after long periods without exercise
  • experiencing uncontrollable desires to exercise
  • reducing activities in other areas of life to make time for exercise
  • spending long periods of time preparing for, and recovering from, exercise
  • experiencing an inability to stick with a reduced exercise routine


Managing Exercise Addiction

In most cases, self-control is necessary to treat exercise addiction. An individual must acknowledge that they have a problem and take steps to control exercise activity.

Some individuals will switch to new forms of exercise or moderate their current workouts. They may need to stop exercising for a period of time to gain control of the desire to exercise.

(HealthLink, 2020)

Oniomania, also known as shopping addiction, is a behavioural addiction that involves compulsive buying as a way to feel good and avoid negative feelings. Similar to other behavioural addictions, shopping addiction can take over as a preoccupation that leads to problems in other areas of an individuals life. As with other addictions, those who over-shop become preoccupied with spending and devote significant time and money to the activity.


Compulsive vs. Impulsive Shopping 

Impulse buying is an unplanned purchase that happens on the spur of the moment in reaction to the immediate desire to have something you see in a shop. Impulse buying is a little different from compulsive buying, which is typically more pre-planned as a way of escaping negative feelings. Individuals with a shopping addiction may engage in both types of addictive buying.



Signs & Symptoms

  • Spending more than they can afford
  • Shopping as a reaction to feeling stressed, angry, or depressed
  • Shopping as a way to feel less guilty about a previous shopping spree
  • Harming relationships due to spending or shopping too much
  • Losing control of the shopping behaviour
  • Obsess over making purchases on a daily or weekly basis
  • Max out credit cards or open new ones without paying off previous balances
  • Intense euphoria or excitement after making purchases
  • Regret or remorse over purchases, but continue to shop
  • Unable to pay off debt or manage money
  • Declining financial situation
  • Hiding of receipts or billing statements 


Overcoming Oniomania

Overcoming any addiction requires learning alternative ways of managing stress and distress. Also, developing your own spending plan can help guide the purchases you make. There are many ways to accomplish this on your own, but often individuals benefit from counselling or therapy. 

(HealthLink, 2020)

Problem gambling is not just about losing money. Gambling problems can affect a person’s whole life. Gambling is a problem when it:

  • Gets in the way of work, school or other activities
  • Harms the person’s mental or physical health
  • Hurts the person financially
  • Damages the person’s reputation
  • Causes problems with family or friends


Behavioural Signs & Symptoms

  • Stops engaging in previously enjoyed things
  • Misses family events
  • Changes patterns of sleep, eating or sex
  • Ignores self-care, work, school or family tasks
  • Conflicts with other people over money
  • Thinks about gambling all the time
  • Less willing to spend money on things other than gambling
  • Late for work or school
  • Gone for long, unexplained periods of time


Emotional Signs & Symptoms

  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Anxious, or has difficulty paying attention
  • Mood swings and sudden outbursts of anger
  • Complains of boredom or restlessness


Financial Signs & Symptoms

  • Frequently borrows money or asks for salary advances
  • Takes a second job without a change in finances
  • Cashes in savings accounts, RRSPs or insurance plans
  • Alternates between being broke and flashing money


Physical Signs & Symptoms

  • Headaches
  • Stomach and bowel problems
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Overeating or loss of appetite


Managing Gambling Addiction

Specialized counselling is always a good option for gambling problems. In addition, telephone counselling and a self-help guides are also available online. Credit and debt counselling services, family counselling, and other resources may also be helpful. 

(CAMH, 2020)

The consumption of food is normally enjoyable to humans. It contains protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, water and minerals. Like many addictive substances, highly palatable foods trigger feel-good brain chemicals such as dopamine. Once people experience pleasure associated with increased dopamine transmission in the brain's reward pathway from eating certain foods, they quickly feel the need to eat again.

Signs & Symptoms

  • Eating to the point of feeling ill
  • Continuing to eating certain foods even if you’re no longer hungry
  • Hiding eating from others
  • Eating until you are stuffed, feeling guilty about it, and then doing it again soon
  • Unable to quit despite physical problems 


Managing Food Addiction

A Nutritionist, Counsellor or Doctor who is educated about food addiction may be able to help you break the cycle of compulsive overeating. Further, there are a growing number of 12 steps programs readily available for those who struggle with over-eating.

Sex addiction refers to a range of behaviours that are done in excess and significantly impact one’s life in a negative way. Addiction to porn is considered to be a type of sex addiction and can manifest itself differently than other types of sex addiction. Specifically, porn addiction is a process of addiction which includes a compulsive behaviour patten where an individual engages in an activity despite negative consequences.




People may use porn to combat sexual curiosity, loneliness, poor self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, attempt to relieve emotional pain, anger and sexual education .


Continued porn use can have profound psychological effects, such as feelings of shame, inadequacy, and emotional distress.






Signs & Symptoms

  • Using porn in greater amounts or over longer periods of time than intended.
  • Need fo more extreme pornography to get the same release that less extreme porn once offered. 
  • Frustrated or ashamed after viewing porn but continue to do so. 
  • They want to stop using pornography but feel unable to do so.
  • Use to cope with sadness, anxiety, insomnia or other mental health issues. 
  • Using porn in situations that impose physical dangers. 
  • Continuing to use porn despite negative effects on work or relationships. 


Getting Help

If you can relate to the symptoms mentioned above, or know somebody who meets these criteria, do not hesitate to ask for help. Call to speak to a treatment support specialist or counsellor who can provide you with more information.

(PsychGuides, 2020)

A gaming disorder is the problematic and compulsive use of video games that results in significant impairment to an individual's ability to function in various life domains over a prolonged period of time. 

Video games can become so addictive because they are designed in a way to challenge people to continue playing but not enough that the player will give up. 

Emotional Symptoms

  • Feelings of restlessness and/or irritability when unable to play
  • Preoccupation with thoughts of previous online activity or anticipation of the next online session
  • Lying to friends or family members regarding the amount of time spent playing
  • Isolation from others in order to spend more time gaming




Physical Symptoms 

  • Fatigue
  • Migraines due to intense concentration or eye strain
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome caused by the overuse of a controller or computer mouse
  • Poor personal hygiene 


Decrease the amount of time spent gaming. Do this by:

  • Setting time limits for play and stick to them
  • Keeping phones and other gadgets out of the bedroom so you won't play into the night
  • Engaging in other activities every day (eg. Exercise)

(, Web MD)

Text4Hope - Addiction Support

To subscribe, text OPEN2CHANGE to 393939.

This support is designed to help Albertans who are managing psychological issues related to addiction.