Tag Archives: behavioral addiction

Six steps for addressing behavioral addictions in clinical work

By Amanda Giordano October 5, 2021

The first time I worked with a client who said he was addicted to internet pornography, I had no idea how to respond. I quickly tried to recall material from my master’s-level addictions course, but we had discussed only substance use disorders. I hadn’t learned anything about how to address addictive behaviors. Thankfully, one of my professors was a certified sex addiction therapist and supervised me as I worked with this client through internship.

Since then, I have dedicated myself to learning about behavioral addictions and conducting research in this area. In the process of writing a clinical reference book on the topic, I interviewed dozens of clinicians who specialize in behavioral addictions, as well as members of many 12-step programs, to learn more about the realities of behavioral addictions. What I heard from almost every clinician I interviewed is that they had to seek out their own training related to behavioral addictions. Whether through conference presentations, webinars, books or online training programs, they initially taught themselves how to address addictive behaviors because the topic was not covered in their counselor training programs. As a counselor educator, I fully understand that we cannot cover all important topics in depth in a two- or three-year training program, but it seemed as though the clinicians with whom I spoke would have benefited from at least an introduction to behavioral addictions during their graduate training. 

Since becoming a counselor educator, I have been intentional about infusing content related to behavioral addictions into my courses (e.g., human development, addictions counseling, clinical supervision). I also developed an elective solely dedicated to behavioral addictions. I frequently receive emails from former students that say something along the following lines: 

  • “Thank you for teaching me about internet gaming addiction. I am working with my first high school student with this type of addiction.”
  • “I am using the resources you mentioned in class about sex addiction because I have several clients who have lost control over their sexual activity.”
  • “When my client mentioned gambling, I wasn’t afraid to ask more about it because I had a framework for understanding behavioral addictions.”

An issue for all counselors

I monitor published statistics on the prevalence of behavioral addictions, but more than that, I hear firsthand from former students how frequently clients with addictive behaviors present to counseling. Therefore, my goal in writing this article is to present six steps that all counselors can take to better address behavioral addictions. Whether working in a school, college counseling center, community mental health agency, private practice, hospital, couple and family counseling practice, or another setting, we must be able to recognize and respond effectively to behavioral addictions.

1) We need to have a solid conceptualization of behavioral addictions

Researchers have proposed that addiction is one disorder with a variety of expressions — some that take the form of substance misuse and others that take the form of compulsive engagement in rewarding behaviors. Thus, much of what we know about chemical addiction is relevant to behavioral addictions. For example, both drugs of abuse and hedonic behaviors activate reward circuitry in the brain — specifically, the mesolimbic dopaminergic pathway. 

Although more neuroscience research is needed, it is proposed that highly rewarding behaviors (e.g., sex, gaming, gambling) trigger the release of neurotransmitters implicated in reward (e.g., dopamine, opioids). The activation of reward circuitry can cause pleasurable feelings and provide an escape from negative feelings, both of which serve to reinforce the behavior and increase the likelihood of repeating the activity in the future. For individuals with specific vulnerabilities (e.g., genetic predispositions, histories of adverse childhood experiences, mental health conditions, social learning related to specific behaviors as coping mechanisms), a rewarding behavior can become the primary means of regulating their emotions. Thus, it is the unique interaction between a vulnerable individual and the specific nature of the rewarding behavior that increases the risk of behavioral addictions.

Additionally, the chronic activation of one’s reward circuitry via compulsive engagement in rewarding behaviors may lead to neuroadaptations, or changes in the brain as a result of experience. The chronic overstimulation of the reward system due to behavioral addictions may cause the brain to adapt by decreasing the natural production of dopamine, decreasing the number of dopamine receptors or decreasing the number of dopamine transporters. This downregulation of the dopamine system can lessen an individual’s baseline experience of reward (e.g., at baseline, the individual may feel dysphoric), thereby triggering cravings for addictive behaviors to enhance one’s mood. In this way, the addictive behavior becomes part of a cycle of feeling dysphoric at baseline and then seeking engagement in the addictive behavior to induce positive feelings or ward off withdrawal. 

An understanding of behavioral addictions as a means of regulating emotions with potential neurobiological antecedents and consequences can help us cultivate accurate empathy for our clients and develop effective treatment plans.

2) We need to recognize behavioral addictions in our clinical work

There is a lot of shame around addiction in general and behavioral addictions specifically. Many clients may present with other issues (e.g., depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, relational conflict, low self-esteem) rather than disclose an addiction to sex, gaming, gambling, food, shopping or another behavior. Therefore, it is imperative that counselors consistently ask clients about their engagement in potentially addictive behaviors in a nonevaluative way. For example, when a client discloses difficulty in their lives, a counselor might ask, “I am curious how you cope with these challenges. Some people turn to alcohol, some people escape through sex or pornography, and some people engage in internet gaming to feel better. How do you deal with your negative feelings?” 

Also, including items on one’s intake form related to addictive behaviors can normalize the experience for clients and invite them to disclose early in the course of treatment. As with chemical addiction, it is impossible to recognize a behavioral addiction simply by looking at a client — behavioral addictions occur among clients of all ages, racial and ethnic groups, genders, religious/spiritual affiliations, sexual orientations and socioeconomic statuses. Therefore, counselors need to be intentional and assess for behavioral addictions with all clients. 

Furthermore, it is important for counselors to accurately distinguish between high involvement in a behavior and a behavioral addiction. Definitions of addiction, diagnostic criteria and published research reveal “Four C’s” that can help counselors identify behavioral addictions: 

  • If the behavior is compulsive. 
  • If the individual has lost control over their behavior.
  • If the behavior continues despite negative consequences.
  • If the individual experiences cravings or mental preoccupation with the behavior when not engaging. 

A client who is very enthusiastic about a behavior or highly involved (e.g., a professional gamer) will not demonstrate the Four C’s of addiction (e.g., they can limit or control their engagement, they do not experience negative consequences). However, if the Four C’s are present, it should alert counselors to engage in further assessment for a behavioral addiction. There are many assessment instruments for behavioral addictions, including the Internet Gaming Disorder Scale, the Bergen Social Media Addiction Scale, the Sexual Addiction Screening Test-Revised and the South Oaks Gambling Screen.

3) We need to embrace our responsibility to address behavioral addictions

It is likely that counselors in all settings will encounter clients with behavioral addictions, and we should be prepared and willing to address these addictions. Rather than assuming this type of clinical work requires a brand-new set of skills, counselors need only to add to their previously established clinical skill set to address behavioral addictions. For instance, when working with clients with behavioral addictions, counselors will still rely on their basic counseling skills such as empathy, reflective listening, unconditional positive regard, immediacy, genuineness, open questions, multicultural competence and an understanding of theory. These elements are still necessary for developing rapport, setting goals and engaging in effective interventions with clients with behavioral addictions. 

In addition to these foundational skills, counselors should become informed about the specific nature of the addictive behavior (e.g., gambling, gaming, exercise, cybersex), including relevant neuroscience. This can also be helpful when providing psychoeducation to clients and their families. Counselors can gain addiction-specific knowledge through self-study, webinars, conference presentations, attendance at open 12-step meetings, consultation with seasoned professionals and pursuit of certification or relevant credentials. 

Along with gaining addiction-specific knowledge, counselors should apply interventions that have proved to be helpful with behavioral addictions (i.e., those that are evidence based). There is a wealth of research that outlines helpful strategies for working with behavioral addictions (e.g., group interventions, motivational interviewing, dialectical behavior therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, couples counseling interventions, mindfulness-based interventions). Several published studies and manuals exist to help inform and guide counselors who are working with a specific behavioral addiction for the first time. 

All counselors can become more equipped to address behavioral addictions by adding addiction-specific knowledge and evidence-based interventions to their clinical repertoire. There certainly will be times when a referral is in the best interest of the client (e.g., to a residential treatment facility for sex addiction or an intensive outpatient program for gaming addiction), but many times the best (or only) available option will be for counselors themselves to treat clients who have behavioral addictions. In these instances, counselors are encouraged to consult with other clinicians who have experience working with the specific behavioral addiction or to seek supervision. Rather than abdicating the responsibility of addressing behavioral addictions, all counselors should be willing to meet the needs of these clients.

4) We need to understand what abstinence entails for behavioral addictions

Abstinence as it relates to substance use disorders is fairly obvious — stop using drugs of abuse. Abstinence from behavioral addictions is less clear, however. Are clients expected to abstain from sex? Stop shopping? Never use the internet? No, abstinence in relation to behavioral addictions entails identifying and refraining from the out-of-control, compulsive behaviors that lead to negative consequences. 

Twelve-step programs use a variety of tools, such as the three circles technique or the development of bottom lines, middle lines and top lines, to aid in defining abstinence for clients with behavioral addictions. In both techniques, individuals and their sponsors engage in honest evaluation and identify all compulsive, harmful and out-of-control behaviors from which they will abstain (e.g., betting on fantasy sports, engaging in cybersex activities, binge eating when they are not hungry, checking social media while driving, playing or watching internet games). These activities are listed in the innermost of three concentric circles or constitute one’s bottom lines. Next, individuals and their sponsors identify behaviors that are warning signs, triggers or precipitating behaviors to those listed in the inner circle or bottom lines. These activities are then written in the middle circle or serve as one’s middle lines. Finally, behaviors that are encouraged, aspirational, align with the individual’s personal goals and values, and increase wellness are identified and listed in the outer circle or make up the top lines. 

In the realm of behavioral addictions, abstinence is defined by refraining from inner-circle activities or bottom lines. When a middle-circle or middle-line activity takes place, it is not considered a relapse, but rather serves as a warning sign that the individual is nearing the inner-circle (or bottom-line) activities and needs to take action (e.g., call a sponsor, go to a 12-step meeting, use a predetermined coping strategy). Thus, the process of recovery among those with behavioral addictions includes abstaining from inner-circle/bottom-line activities, minimizing middle-circle/middle-line activities and increasing outer-circle/top-line activities.

5) We need to be familiar with the 12-step programs in our area

Twelve-step programs can be extremely valuable (and affordable) resources for our clients with behavioral addictions. The number of 12-step groups dedicated to behavioral addictions (e.g., Computer Gaming Addicts Anonymous, Internet and Technology Addicts Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, Celebrate Recovery) further confirms their prevalence in society. 

Prior to referring clients to a 12-step program, counselors should be familiar with the programs in their area and able to provide details to their clients regarding how to access a meeting, what to expect during a meeting, the mission of the fellowship, and the traditions and common practices of 12-step programs. Many 12-step programs have brochures and literature specifically designed for counselors to help them make referrals to these programs. 

Additionally, in some instances, multiple 12-step programs exist for the same behavioral addiction (e.g., Sex Addicts Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Sexual Compulsives Anonymous; Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous). Counselors should be aware of the differences between the programs so that clients can make an informed decision about which fellowship might be the best fit for them. Almost all of the 12-step programs for behavioral addictions have comprehensive websites, a basic text (e.g., the Sex Addicts Anonymous Green Book) and literature that can help counselors become better informed. Again, counselors are encouraged to attend open meetings themselves to learn more about the programs in their area. 

6) We need to be willing to advocate for clients with behavioral addictions 

Behavioral addictions are not well understood among the general public and often are stigmatized to a greater degree than is chemical addiction (consider potential societal reactions to someone with sex addiction compared with someone with an alcohol use disorder). Counselors, by the nature of their professional identities, are advocates and serve to remove barriers to clients’ wellness. Several prominent barriers exist among those with behavioral addictions. These barriers include societal and internalized stigma, public misinformation and bias, lack of available (and affordable) treatment options, lack of insurance coverage, lack of trained clinicians, and the prominence of the moral model of addiction (i.e., addiction is the result of a moral failing) rather than the biopsychosocial model of addiction (i.e., addiction is influenced by one’s genetic makeup, psychological factors, personal experiences and environment). 

Practical means of advocating for individuals with behavioral addictions include: 

  • Ensuring that all counselors receive training (either during or after graduate school) to recognize and respond to behavioral addictions
  • Ensuring that all local communities have counselors who are equipped to address behavioral addictions (e.g., certified sex addiction therapists, credentialing from the International Gambling Counselor Certification Board)
  • Conducting research regarding behavioral addictions to support their inclusion in diagnostic manuals and to increase empirical evidence
  • Engaging in efforts to ensure insurance coverage for behavioral addictions treatment
  • Becoming involved in legislation related to the regulation of potentially addictive behaviors
  • Dispelling myths and raising public awareness about the realities of behavioral addictions
  • All counselors can engage at the individual, community or public level to advocate for clients with addictive behaviors. 

In sum, behavioral addictions are prevalent in today’s society and affect individuals across the life span. All counselors should be familiar with behavioral addictions so that they are able to recognize them among clients and respond appropriately (whether that means addressing the behavioral addiction themselves or referring clients to another level of care). 

As we become more informed and receive more training, we can best attend to the needs of clients with behavioral addictions and ensure that they receive competent, effective care. The steps detailed in this article are not the responsibility of a select group of clinicians but rather a responsibility for all counselors so that we can best support clients with behavioral addictions.

tommaso79/Shutterstock.com

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Amanda Giordano is a licensed professional counselor, an associate professor at the University of Georgia and the author of A Clinical Guide to Treating Behavioral Addictions: Conceptualizations, Assessments, and Clinical Strategies. Visit her author page at facebook.com/amandaleegiordano.

 

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, visit ct.counseling.org/feedback.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Internet gaming disorder: A real mental health issue on the rise in adolescents and young adults

By Doyle L. Raymer Jr. September 1, 2021

I grew up playing video games and have followed their technological evolution through the years. As such, video games have been a big part of my life and remain so to this day. These games are a source of entertainment and relaxation, and they can even provide opportunities for social interaction and connection. They can contribute to improving a person’s cognitive skills, creativity, communication and reflexes. Many people use them as a healthy coping mechanism to decompress.

On the flip side, there is growing concern about the potential of negative mental health consequences associated with playing video games. Some of these concerns include gaming addiction, negative coping mechanisms, unhealthy lifestyles, loneliness and isolation, depression and even suicidal ideation.

As someone who still plays video games, I have met an alarming number of individuals who struggle with these concerns. In many cases, these individuals have no support system or don’t know how (or when) to seek professional help. My concern is that many counseling professionals are unaware of the devastating impact that gaming can have on a person’s life — just as any form of addiction can.

The evolution of gaming

As a gamer myself, I have always been fascinated by what draws people to play games and how games can affect and influence individuals, from their thoughts to their worldviews to their social identity. It raises a question: How does playing a game give meaning to one’s life?

Playing a game is not simply playing a game. A lot is going on in the player’s mind as they are playing, which often presents a hidden meaning behind gaming interactions. As the world continues to develop and evolve around technology, video games will also continue to develop and evolve. Video game addiction has grown at alarming rates over the past few years, and this trend will likely continue. For this reason, concern is growing in the mental health community around video game addiction and the gaming population.

Video games have been around for decades, and as time has gone by, their popularity has increased exponentially, as has the size of the gaming community. As of 2020, it was estimated that more than 2 billion people around the world played video games. In the U.S. alone, 160 million Americans engage in online gaming daily, making the gaming industry worth over $90 billion.

Video games have developed into esports and are being more widely recognized as electronic but real sports. Both share many of the same principles of competition, including professional players, recognized teams and huge audiences of fans. Stadiums fill with fans as professional esports teams face off, competing for prizes in excess of $1 million. In 2017, more than 250 million online viewers watched popular online games such as League of Legends and Overwatch, generating $756 million in revenue that year (for more, see Internet Gaming Disorder: Theory, Assessment, Treatment and Prevention by Daniel L. King and Paul H. Delfabbro).

In addition, many video gamers make a living playing games by streaming to online platforms such as Twitch to thousands of viewers. As the video game industry has developed, it has gained popularity and will continue to do so.

Mental health impact

As the popularity of video games has grown and the community of players has expanded, certain negative consequences and mental health impacts have become increasingly evident. In the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), internet gaming disorder was included in the section recommending conditions for further research. Gaming disorder was defined in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as a “pattern of gaming behavior (digital-gaming or video-gaming) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”

Internet gaming disorder was not classified as a unique mental disorder in the DSM-5 due to a lack of research in the field and debates regarding the recognition of behavioral addiction, but I believe recognition could help millions in need. At the same time, the opposing side argues that inclusion of internet gaming disorder in the DSM-5 would only generate unnecessary concern and lead to a stigma around such behavior.

Meanwhile, gambling disorder is recognized by the DSM-5 as a form of behavioral addiction, and it shares many similar characteristics with gaming disorder. So, I ask, why is this issue being ignored? Countries such as South Korea and China, where gaming addiction numbers are very high, have already recognized this as a serious disorder and developed treatment programs.

sezer66/Shutterstock.com

Factors that can lead to addiction

Video gaming is a fun activity for many people, in large part because of the positive reinforcement players receive for the split-second decisions they make while playing the games. From clicking a mouse button or controller to moving a character, from slaying the enemy to leveling up, games provide constant and instant feedback to their players.

Games also contain online environments where real-time players can connect with other players or join a guild. This gives players a social identity and can provide feelings of self-worth. Many players experience a sense of meaning in-game because they are constantly presented with objectives to achieve or obstacles to conquer.

In addition, massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) provide players with endless opportunities, scenarios and outcomes from quests, intense guild battles, endless levels and intense competition to be the strongest player on the server. But such games motivate players to spend long hours playing a game that has no ending, potentially leading to poor sleep habits, unhealthy diets, isolation from others and the real world, and addiction.

Perhaps the most important factor leading to video game addiction is the increased dopamine levels experienced during play. This is where the concern originates because it can lead to maladaptive behaviors, unhealthy coping mechanisms and, potentially, addiction. Given the constant feeling of reward for in-game decision-making and the often-endless levels or possible outcomes in a game environment, gaming can become addictive. It can end up serving as an alternate reality and an escape from real life because the game provides the player with a “better” version of it.

According to the DSM-5, the presence of five or more of the following symptoms over the period of 12 months characterizes such behavior as concerning and maladaptive. These nine symptoms include:

1) Preoccupation with internet games

2) Withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, anxiety and sadness

3) Tolerance or the need to increase time in gaming

4) Unsuccessful attempts to stop gaming

5) Loss of interest in other activities

6) Psychosocial problems due to excessive gaming

7) Deceiving family members, therapists or others on the amount of time spent gaming

8) Use of internet gaming to escape or relieve negative moods

9) Jeopardizing or losing a significant relationship, education, job or career opportunity because of online gaming

Three stages

The process of gaming addiction occurs in three stages. In stage one, the game is played actively for fun. In stage two, games are no longer “fun,” but the individual still spends many hours playing to remove negative emotions such as stress, sadness and worry. In stage three, the game is no longer fun and no longer removes negative emotions.

During stage three, biological addiction occurs due to constant and persistently high levels of dopamine release, leading to a state of dopamine exhaustion. When dopamine exhaustion is reached, not only do games lose their potential for fun and pleasure, but so do other areas and activities. At this stage, individuals often find themselves feeling apathetic, directionless and without meaning in life. We can compare this evolution to alcoholism, in which the effects of alcohol decrease over time, requiring more alcohol to achieve the same effect.

Treatments and theoretical approaches

An effective way to reestablish normal functioning, regulate dopamine levels and improve quality of life is simply to take a break from gaming. During this period, which can take three weeks to two months, those who are addicted are encouraged to explore other activities and hobbies of interest as an alternative to gaming while dopamine levels reset.

What separates gaming from other addictions is that the addiction does not require quitting games forever. Instead, recovery focuses on learning to control time spent playing games. Strategies such as creating a schedule that incorporates healthy gaming habits into a routine while prioritizing other aspects of life have proved effective.

Much research is still needed about video game addiction to address the most efficient treatments and theoretical approaches for working with this population. When considering intervention strategies in counseling for gaming addictions, it is important to remember that no one-size-fits-all approach works. What works great for one individual may not work well for another. No single treatment has proved superior or most efficient yet. Cognitive behavior therapy has been the standard approach for many professionals, according to King and Delfabbro.

Professionals have also had positive results treating video gaming addiction with narrative therapy, especially with children and adolescents. As Alice Morgan writes in the book What Is Narrative Therapy? An Easy-to-Read Introduction, such therapy is effective because it “views problems as separate from people and assumes people have many skills, competencies, beliefs, values, commitments, and abilities that will assist them in reducing the influence of problems in their lives.” Narrative therapy might address strengths involving achievements in a game, such as being among the top players or leading the team to victory. It further explores these strengths and skills by incorporating them into real-life scenarios. It is equally important to assess the level of addiction as mild, moderate or severe by analyzing the severity of symptoms and the negative impact of gaming behavior.

It is important to establish trust and rapport during initial sessions. One effective way of developing rapport and trust with such clients, especially those who are resistant, is to mindfully disclose any experience the counselor has with video games. The counselor and client can find common ground through such shared interests and experiences. In contrast with substance abuse and alcohol addiction, the ultimate goal with gaming addiction is often not to eliminate gaming once and for all but rather to effectively control and reduce time spent playing video games. The goal is to normalize behavior that does not negatively interfere and affect other areas of life and overall physical and mental health.

As we rapidly move into technological and online environments in many aspects of our daily lives, video games will continue developing exponentially, and gaming communities’ growth will follow. Mental health issues are also rising among this growing body of diverse gamers. Using games as a coping strategy for other underlying issues can lead to an addiction, as real life is replaced with a virtual and more favorable one. Research in this area will continue to develop, and so will the emphasis placed on this issue and population by mental health professionals. More awareness of internet gaming disorder and the struggles faced by this population is needed to promote mental health and well-being.

 

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Doyle L. Raymer Jr. is a mental health counseling student at Walden University. As a gamer himself, he has a deep interest in internet gaming addiction. It is his deep desire to advocate and create awareness to help improve the overall mental health of members of the gaming community. Contact him at doyle.raymer@waldenu.edu.

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Related reading, from Counseling Today‘s October magazine: “Six steps for addressing behavioral addictions in clinical work

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Helping clients develop a healthy relationship with social media

By Bethany Bray September 24, 2020

When a user opens Facebook, Twitter or many other social media platforms, there is a slight delay before an icon illuminates to indicate that the person has a notification, signaling that someone has liked or interacted with one of the user’s posts.

That moment of delay is purposely designed into social media apps to create an alluring cycle of anticipation and reward, according to Amanda L. Giordano, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) whose main area of research is behavioral addictions, including addictions to technology and social media. “Social media is made to be irresistible. It taps into the pleasure centers of the brain. It’s designed to keep you on it as long as it can,” says Giordano, an associate professor at the University of Georgia. “They operate from the variable ratio reinforcement scenario. That’s the most powerful reinforcement schedule there is. [Social media’s draw] is like gambling, knowing that there could be a big payout at any time, so you keep playing. Users know that they’re going to get some kind of reward, but they don’t know when it’s coming. There is a strong dopamine response [to that].”

That drive to seek the rewards that are triggered by social media can lead to compulsive and problematic use. But by providing psychoeducation about the ways that social media platforms are designed to affect neural pathways, counselors can help clients achieve a healthy balance with their social media use, says Giordano, a member of the American Counseling Association. This is especially true with child and adolescent clients, who are digital natives who have been exposed to technology all of their lives but may not yet possess the maturity to recognize the control that social media can exert over them, she adds.

Providing psychoeducation is just one of many ways that counselors can assist clients in flipping their perspectives and using social media to get what they want out of the experience rather than vice versa. Taking simple actions such as changing a smartphone’s color scheme to gray scale can render Facebook’s notification icon — a red bell — less powerful, Giordano notes.

“By becoming aware of all of that, and understanding how social media is tapping into some of these more primitive brain responses, clients can be empowered by the knowledge and take more control over their use,” she says.

Part of life

According to the Pew Research Center, 72% of American adults use at least one social media site “to connect with one another, engage with news content, share information and entertain themselves.” Pew found that those ages 18-29 had the highest usage at 90%, followed by 30- to 49-year-olds at 82%, 50- to 64-year-olds at 69%, and those 65 and older at 40%.

Pew’s data collection in early 2019 found that more than half of adults who used Instagram, YouTube or Snapchat visited those sites at least once per day. Facebook was pinpointed as the most popular social media site, with 69% of adults using the social networking platform. In addition, 74% of Facebook users visited the site daily.

These statistics point to a hard-to-ignore conclusion: Social media is a very real part of the fabric of people’s lives today. Regardless of counselors’ personal feelings about social media — whether they view its impact and influence as a net positive or a net negative — they must do their best to understand it and the role it plays in their clients’ lives.

Don’t discount the positives

Social media use can factor into any number of presenting issues and challenges that clients bring to counseling, from relationship friction discussed in couples counseling to self-esteem or body image issues in clients who struggle with perfectionism, eating disorders, social anxiety or other conditions. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer to this issue, as many people are quarantined or otherwise spending more time at home, feeling isolated and turning to social media to find connection or quell boredom.

As it relates to their clients’ lives, professional counselors may first think of the potential negative implications of social media use. However, the counselors interviewed for this article emphasize that there are both good and bad aspects of social media use. And for many people, the pluses can far outweigh the minuses.

“It’s an area that many counselors shy away from. … A lot of times, it feels like folks demonize social media. There are a lot of ways to keep from using it in an unhealthy way and to use it to your benefit,” says Kertesha B. Riley, a career coach at the University of Tennessee’s Center for Career Development and Academic Exploration, where she is working on a doctorate in counselor education. “There are hundreds and thousands of examples where social media is not a good thing at all, but I don’t let that outweigh the good that can come from it.”

Riley is active on Twitter, using the platform to stay up to date professionally, follow leaders in the field and forge connections. In the realm of career counseling, social media sites such as LinkedIn can play an integral role in clients’ job searches, Riley says, adding that she often talks with her clients about leveraging social media to enhance their career development. Creating posts with hashtags such as #jobs and #hireme can catch the attention of potential employers, while clients can follow hashtags within their own industries to stay abreast of trends or connect with colleagues.

“It can help [clients] to stay in the know and connect with people, but also further their career goals in a way that propels them a lot quicker than without [using social media],” says Riley, a member of ACA. “For networking, follow leaders and movers and shakers in your industry, and see who they follow. See what gets you noticed on this platform, and in your field.”

Social media can also serve as a tool to find and connect with professionals with whom clients relate, Riley notes. “Especially for those who are having feelings of doubt or mention that they’re not seeing people who look like them in the field, they can follow people they admire and identify with.”

As a Black doctoral student, this is the case for Riley. Although she doesn’t have many Black colleagues at her university, she follows and interacts with many Black doctoral students and professors via social media.

ACA member Jordan Elliott saw how social media could play a beneficial role in her work as a residential counselor at a treatment facility for women with substance use disorders. Many of the women at the facility had extensive trauma histories. Elliott, an LPC intern and licensed chemical dependency counselor in San Antonio, often worked with clients to create social media plans for after they were discharged. In many cases, this included joining social media groups and following pages with others in recovery.

These connections helped the women support each other and keep moving forward in their recovery after discharge, Elliott says. If a friend began to relapse, they would often recognize the signs in the person’s social media posts — or lack of posts — and reach out to check on one another.

“They often found intense connections with each other once in treatment. They were already drawn to connect with each other, and they wanted to continue that after they were discharged,” recalls Elliott, a doctoral student in counselor education at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). “This was huge for them, to stay in contact with one another through social media. … Social media has such a healing capability because it helps people connect and stay connected with each other.”

“When working with clients who have experienced extreme disconnection, via addiction, loss and grief, trauma or other ways, think of the power [social media] can have to bring people together and find connection,” Elliott continues. “In counseling, the relationship is key — we are relational creatures and drawn to connect. Think of how social media can be a connective intervention for clients.”

Getting up to speed

Counselors who aren’t familiar or comfortable with social media should think of it as “just one more way to connect with clients,” Elliott says.

“It’s our responsibility to keep up with it and how it is changing. It can be difficult to keep up with everything, but take that initiative to educate yourself on these platforms as much as you can,” Elliott urges. “For counselors who don’t feel as comfortable with technology, think of it as a creative intervention [to reach clients], and it might not be as intimidating.”

Giordano agrees, noting that counselors have a duty to bring themselves up to speed on social media to better help their clients. Having even a basic knowledge of the different platforms and their varying attributes will help practitioners ask the right questions to connect with clients,
she says.

“The best way is to ask clients, ‘What does it [a particular social media platform] do for you? Escape boredom? Find identity? Connect with peers?’ It’s really important to have a nonjudgmental view of it because, in large part, people have a good experience and find benefits,” Giordano says.

Counselors who want to learn more about social media can begin by doing an internet search on the different platforms and the terms they hear clients using in session. In some cases, counselors might want to consider creating a profile themselves so that they can log in and explore a platform further. Erin Mason, an LPC and assistant professor at Georgia State University, notes that some of the school counselors she knows have created TikTok accounts to better understand the video-sharing platform that is particularly popular among teens and young adults.

Mason, an ACA member, has maintained an active presence on Twitter, professionally, for nine years. She says it helps her stay up to date on trends and developments in the field of school counseling.

Riley recommends that counselors “stay open-minded and talk with someone in your personal or professional life who does use social media. Talk with your clients. Ask what draws them to it and what are some challenges that they’ve encountered. Hearing some firsthand perspective can help pull the wall down against social media,” she says. “[Social media] is a living, breathing, evolving entity, and because of that, there’s a place for everyone if you choose to look for it.

“If a client really loves TikTok, have them walk you through it: What do they like about it? What makes a good video [post]? What do they engage with the most? This helps open them up and tells you a lot about why and how they engage. … It gives you a better idea about their motivation, their mindset and their personality based on the type of platform and how they engage [with it].”

When it becomes a problem

There are no uniform diagnostic criteria for social media addiction, either in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) or through the World Health Organization or other agencies, Giordano notes. However, she says, it is estimated that between 5% and 10% of adults have a “problematic relationship” with social media — a prevalence that is comparable with most other behavioral addictions.

“What we know is that it’s prevalent among adolescents, adults and young adults across the globe,” Giordano says. “In the United States, researchers have found that almost 10% of undergrads have social media dependence.”

With that in mind, Giordano urges counselor clinicians to complete thorough assessments of clients’ relationships with social media. The frequency and amount of time they spend on the platforms are good places to start, but there are many more nuanced indicators to consider. Giordano recommends that practitioners check in with all adolescent and adult clients about their motives for engaging with social media, their compulsivity levels, how social media use affects their moods and the emotions that they associate with it. For example, does it disrupt their sleep cycles? Do they experience envy, a lack of belonging or self-loathing?

“When the client is not on social media, do they have an urge to check it? Are they craving it? Do they have FOMO [fear of missing out]? Is it creating anxiety when they’re not on it?” asks Giordano, co-author of an upcoming article on cyberbullying and adolescent social media use that will appear in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Counseling.

Practitioners should note that using social media while driving is a red flag that can indicate social media addiction, Giordano adds. There is also a documented link between social media use and nonsuicidal self-injury — so much so that many of the major platforms have created guidelines for banning photos and posts that glorify self-injury, she says.

Overall, people with poor regulation skills are at higher risk for social media addiction, Giordano says, whereas those who have healthy regulation skills are better able to self-regulate their emotions rather than relying on social media to manage their moods. Counselors should listen for the hallmarks of addiction in the ways that clients describe their social media use, she says. Among the possible warning signs are:

  • When clients’ social media use becomes compulsive and they find themselves checking it when they didn’t plan to
  • When clients have a loss of control, staying on social media longer than they intended
  • When clients continue to engage in the behavior even after experiencing negative consequences such as cyberbullying, family or relational conflict over their social media use, or disruptive sleep patterns

Practitioners can use several assessment tools and questionnaires to screen clients for social media addiction, Giordano notes. More information on these tools can be found in “Investigating psychometric properties of social media addiction measures among adolescents,” an article that Giordano co-wrote with Joshua C. Watson and Elizabeth A. Prosek for the October issue of the Journal of Counseling & Development.

Elliott emphasizes the importance of assessing each client individually because what a healthy relationship with social media looks like will differ for each person. “One client could say that they only use social media six hours per day — but they used to use it for 12. Shift your perspective to meet them where they’re at with their social media use, and don’t pathologize it. … Don’t have a set idea of what it would or should look like, thinking you know what’s best for them. Let them be the judge of how they interact with these platforms instead of us placing our perceptions on them,” says Elliott, who co-presented a session with Stacy Speedlin titled “Healing the Brave New World: Resolving Trauma Issues for Millennials Using Social Media” (available at https://imis.counseling.org/store/detail.aspx?id=PEES19010) at the ACA 2019 Conference & Expo in New Orleans.

For Riley, a general indicator that a client has an unhealthy relationship with social media is when its use begins to interfere with the person’s daily life and functioning. If clients talk about choosing activities because they might result in posts or photos that will garner likes or attention on social media, that should prompt further questioning from the counselor, she says.

“It’s not as simple as the amount of time you spend on [social media]. That can be an indicator, but not necessarily. … Right now, with everyone at home [because of COVID-19], use will be higher,” Riley says. “If it’s impacting the time you [the client] are spending on self-care, or time with loved ones, being in nature or in your community, and you’re finding it’s taking time away from the things you want to do, then it might be approaching an unhealthy relationship. … Asking [clients] about their time spent on social media is a way to start the conversation. But from there, flesh out what is behind that. What is compelling them to spend so much time on social media?”

Cold turkey isn’t the answer

A recommendation that clients delete their social media accounts or discontinue their use altogether may be appropriate for the small percentage of individuals who truly struggle with social media addiction, Giordano says, but it might not be helpful — or even possible — for many other clients.

“There are a lot of benefits to social media, from building relationships and social connectivity to advocacy,” Giordano says. “The answer is not to stop using social media. The answer is for clients to take more control of their social media use so they’re not just going along with whatever impulses they have but [instead] being intentional.”

Counselor clinicians should also keep in mind that social media may be part of a client’s livelihood, adds Mason, so it would not be feasible for the person to quit the platforms entirely.

The same holds true in the realm of addictions recovery, notes Elliott, who counsels mostly adult clients at UTSA’s Sarabia Family Counseling Center, which offers free community services. Deleting one’s accounts would mean severing contact with those who support them during recovery. Social media “is often their lifeline to each other,” she says. “Say they relapse. It’s so important to have that network that they can plug back into. If they’ve deleted all their accounts, how are they going to do that?”

“I think the best way to help someone learn to have a healthy relationship with social media is [for them] to use it,” agrees Riley. “There can be instances where it can be helpful for clients to step back for a time, but for me it’s important to help them engage with it in a healthy way, and that’s not as easy if you go cold turkey.”

“I have a love-hate relationship with this idea, but social media is ingrained in our society,” Riley continues. “Not using it is lessening your engagement with the world, especially for those in rural or isolated areas. It’s a way to see the world without leaving your ZIP code and engage and learn from those who aren’t around you.”

Getting to the why

Researchers from Harvard University, in a November 2019 study published in Health Education & Behavior, found that routine use of social media could have positive health outcomes on social well-being, mental health and self-rated health. At the same time, researchers found that having an emotional connection to social media use could generate negative health outcomes, such as increased anxiety, depression, loneliness and FOMO.

Having a healthy relationship with social media involves understanding why one uses the platforms, and counselors can play a key role in helping clients explore that perspective. It’s most important for clients to decide on and create their own goals rather than counselors making suggestions, Giordano stresses.

“They probably already have people in their life telling them that they spend too much time on social media, so that’s not helpful to say. Instead, help them find their own motives for making change. From there, come from a nonjudgmental stance [and] use the client’s own motivation for making change rather than just imposing rules,” she says.

Giordano finds motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral techniques helpful when engaging in this work with clients, but she says that counselors can adapt whatever framework they prefer to address this issue.

Practitioners can start by helping clients “give voice” to the pros and cons of their social media use. Giordano suggests asking clients in session why they use it, what they like about it and what they wish they could get out of it.

Giordano notes that research studies on the function of social media in people’s lives have pinpointed that people turn to it to meet three main needs:

  • The need to belong
  • The need for self-presentation
  • The need for emotion regulation or mood modification

She suggests that practitioners ask clients about their thoughts and beliefs prior to using social media, during social media use and after social media use. Then, listen for language that could indicate deeper issues or maladaptive core beliefs that might be motivating clients’ behavior. For example, a client who struggles with self-esteem may mention feeling inadequate or self-critical if they don’t post a witty response to a friend’s post.

Elliott emphasizes that the client should be the driver in this process. “I’m a huge advocate for meeting clients where they’re at. If they’re presenting with negative side effects of social media or an unhealthy relationship with it, ask them about their relationship, what is its role in their life and how is it affecting them. Enhance that conversation instead of challenging it head-on. [If you say], ‘It sounds like you’re addicted to social media,’ that’s not going to help. Fall back on motivational interviewing techniques to have them evaluate what it is giving to them versus taking from them.

“Social media is good because you get to choose who you’re connected to. There’s so much freedom. A counselor can help with flipping that perspective: [Clients] have control of who they’re friends with and what they might see in their feed.”

Perspective shift

Counselors can help clients move toward intentionality and control over their social media use. A good way to start this process is to prompt clients to talk about what social media gives them and what it takes from them — and how or whether they’d like to change those benchmarks, Elliott says.

Elliott recalls one client with whom she worked at the residential treatment center in San Antonio. Social media was a prevalent part of the woman’s life, and she had more than 1,000 “friends” on Facebook.

Clients were not allowed to have cellphones while they were in recovery treatment. As this particular client neared discharge, Elliott allowed her to turn on her phone — for the first time in two months — as part of creating a social media plan in a session.

Elliott sat with the client as she went through her social media contact lists, blocking, unfollowing and severing ties with people who had previously been part of her life of substance abuse. Many of them had sent her messages, knowing full well she was in a recovery program, to ask her to contact them once she was out.

“If she had looked at those messages at the beginning of her treatment, she might not have stayed. There were a lot of unhealthy people in her life,” Elliott says. “It was a really important exercise to do. In hindsight, I can’t imagine what would have happened if we didn’t address this together. Would she have left treatment, turned on her phone and been bombarded with all these messages?”

Instead, in session, Elliott and the client talked about setting boundaries with social media and processed each friend decision together. They talked about why she wanted to block some people and unfollow yet remain connected with others — those to whom she could be a help, Elliott recalls.

The client also was able to add women from the treatment program to her social media accounts. This greatly broadened her pool of friends, adding people of different ages and backgrounds. The process represented “a complete reframe” for the woman as she exerted control over her social media and decided what role she wanted it to play in her life and her healing moving forward, Elliott says.

This process was often part of creating social media plans with clients at the facility, Elliott says. She served as a support as clients deleted or began to follow accounts, set boundaries and rethought their social media use.

For example, if a client followed a page that glorified drug use, such as the account of an artist or musician, Elliott and the client would process that choice together. “I would talk it through with them: ‘How will it affect you to see that? If so, what are you going to do about it?’ We would evaluate which of these things [the people and pages the client followed] are worth it to them and which things aren’t, as well as knowing their triggers and making a plan for if they were triggered by social media. For example, ‘What if you go on to social media and find that someone has passed away [from an overdose]?’ I would talk all of that through with clients.”

Setting boundaries

Exerting control over one’s relationship with social media often involves setting boundaries and limits. Counselor clinicians can support clients in this process by helping them create a social media plan in counseling sessions. Giordano says this can be particularly helpful for adolescent clients, who may benefit from writing down parameters to which they can refer back outside of sessions.

Social media plans should delineate specific times that clients do not want to use social media, such as during mealtimes, while driving, right after waking up in the mornings or within two hours of going to bed at night, says Giordano, who is writing a book on behavioral addictions that is slated to be published next year. Part of a client’s social media plan might include deciding not to engage in phubbing, a term for when people are glued to their smartphones while gathered together with others — in essence, snubbing people in favor of their phone.

Offering psychoeducation about the triggering aspects of social media can also be helpful during this process, Giordano says. For example, discussing the brain’s dopamine response to a phone’s notification alerts might lead clients to deactivate the notifications for their social media apps. Similarly, explaining how the blue light emitted from digital screens can disrupt sleep cycles might prompt some clients to set a goal of putting their phones in another room when they sleep, thus removing the temptation to check it while in bed.

There are also numerous apps and programs available that limit the amount of time a user can spend on a particular website, including social media. Giordano recommends an app called Offtime, whereas Mason uses Freedom, which is available both as an app and a Chrome plugin. In both cases, the user selects the amount of time they’d like to allow themselves to use certain sites each day, or they have the option to block sites entirely.

“One of the things that makes social media so different from reading a book or watching a movie is that a book and a movie have a set end. With social media, you can scroll without end, so you have to be intentional,” Giordano says. “Clients and counselors can decide [as part of making a social media plan] to only use social media when the results are positive and to do emotional check-ins on how using social media is making them feel.”

 

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Social media and youth: Taking a proactive role as a counselor

For counselors who work with young clients or in school settings, part of staying up to date with social media includes becoming knowledgeable about cyberbullying, says Erin Mason, an assistant professor at Georgia State University.

Cyberbullying, or harassment via digital means, including through social media, is a complex topic. It can take place both during and outside of the school day and both on and outside of school property. In school settings, the responsibilities of counselors and administrators regarding cyberbullying can vary significantly from school to school, as can the consequences imposed on students, notes Mason, who was previously a school counselor.

Mason recommends that counselors visit Common Sense Media (commonsensemedia.org) to stay updated on the latest trends in social media and its use among children and adolescents. The site’s many resources include detailed descriptions and ratings of TV shows, movies, apps, video games and other media for parents and educators.

Mason emphasizes that counselors need to take a proactive role — rather than a punitive one — when it comes to cyberbullying. Efforts should go toward fostering a healthy school culture that includes a focus on positive social-emotional behavior, she says.

“Counselors need to be really vigilant about what’s trending at their schools. Sometimes the trends start in schools and then filter out and become problems in lots of places [in the community],” Mason says. “This is where partnerships are really important — partnering with other school staff, local police and families, and making sure everyone’s on the same page with what’s happening.”

In a trend that was brought to Mason’s attention by one of her graduate students, a problem arose at a school where students were exchanging and sharing messages via Google Docs. The students would type a message and change the font color to white so that any parent or school staff person who intercepted the document would just see a blank page. This method was a way to conceal cyberbullying among students, Mason says.

“Kids figure out the workarounds, ways to trick the system or at least trick the adults,” Mason says. “It’s a lot for educators to stay on top of, and it’s a lot for families to stay on top of.”

On the flip side of the coin, Mason says she has seen social media used as a positive tool in schools. One of her colleagues was running a small group for female students in high school that was focused on empowerment, confidence and positive body image. She created a Pinterest board, and the teens were able to “pin” inspiring quotes and positive messages to share with one another. This activity bolstered the group’s cohesion, Mason says. The young women would add to the board outside of sessions, and the group would discuss the posts when they met in person.

“Some of this comes down to generational differences, and I wonder if over time we will see more of a shift in understanding how social media and these kinds of tools can be helpful, because they are so integrated in people’s lives,” Mason says. “Over time, the negatives won’t diminish, but the advantages will begin to outweigh the negatives, and counselors have a role to play in that — with families and in school settings. We need to be thinking about how social media can contribute positively to school environments.”

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

ACA Code of Ethics (counseling.org/resources/aca-code-of-ethics)

  • Section H: Distance Counseling, Technology and Social Media

Continuing education

 

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Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Addicted to sex?

By Amanda L. Giordano and Craig S. Cashwell August 7, 2018

Sex and sexuality are necessary, healthy and, arguably, sacred aspects of the human experience. What happens, though, when sex is used not to enhance intimacy and connection with others but, rather, becomes out of control? What happens when a person describes a clear set of personal values around sexual behavior yet consistently crosses his or her own boundaries and compromises personal sexual values? What happens when a person continues a pattern of sexual behavior despite detrimental consequences? Can a person be addicted to sex?

Although most forms of sexual expression are healthy, the sex addiction model posits that some individuals may develop compulsive, dependent relationships with sex. Critics of the sex addiction model suggest that the addiction label pathologizes nonnormative sexual behaviors (e.g., fetish, kink), yet true proponents of the model do not claim to define morally appropriate forms or frequencies of sexual acts. The focus, rather, is on one’s relationship with sex.

Just because a sexual behavior violates an individual’s personal values, religious or spiritual beliefs, or societal norms does not make it an addiction. Instead, sex addiction has specific defining characteristics:

  • Loss of control
  • Continued engagement despite negative consequences
  • Mental preoccupation or cravings

Thus, rather than being sex-negative, advocates of the sex addiction model work to identify those who are unable to control their sexual behavior, are experiencing distressing outcomes and are mentally preoccupied or craving sex. Once sex addiction is determined, individuals then can get the treatment and support they need to establish healthy sexuality. 

A topic for debate

The notion that sex can be addictive still is debated among mental health professionals. Instead of addiction, alternative explanations for problematic sexual behaviors include impulse-control issues, obsessive-compulsive disorder, neuroticism, learned behavior, a form of sensation seeking, internalized sex-negative messages or manifestations of a mental health issue such as bipolar disorder.

The addiction model, however, purports that the primary issue is an out-of-control relationship with sex resulting from changes in chemical messengers in the brain. Specifically, naturally reinforced behaviors, such as eating and sex, are linked to the release of neurotransmitters (i.e., dopamine) related to pleasure and reinforcement. A naturally rewarding behavior such as sex can become a supernormal stimulus leading to dysregulation in the dopaminergic system. The resulting neuroadaptations affect reward, memory, attention and motivation. Thus, from an addiction model perspective, sex can hijack the natural functioning of the reward pathway in some individuals, leading to addictive behavior.

The sex addiction model contends that in addition to being positively reinforcing through the release of dopamine and other neurotransmitters, sex can be negatively reinforcing. Over time, sex can become addictive when it is used as the primary or, sometimes, sole method of regulating undesirable emotions. In other words, sexual behavior can be negatively reinforcing when it functions as an avoidance strategy and is used to escape emotional pain. In a negative feedback loop, however, the individual often feels shame as a result of his or her out-of-control sexual behavior. Paradoxically, this shame may become part of the undesirable emotions that the person then strives to regulate through sexual acts. From an attachment perspective, it is likely that these individuals never learned to coregulate emotionally and, instead, try to autoregulate emotions.

Scholars who primarily emphasize the negative reinforcement of sexual behavior often argue for terminology other than sex addiction, such as compulsive behavior or hypersexuality. However, the fact that sex provides both negative reinforcement (i.e., escape) and positive reinforcement (i.e., pleasure) seems to give credence to the addiction model.

Although controversy remains, the mental health field is steadily embracing the notion that behaviors can become addictive. For example, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) included the diagnosis for gambling disorder in a chapter titled “Substance Use and Addictive Disorders.” In addition, internet gaming disorder and nonsuicidal self-injury (which some conceptualize as a behavioral addiction) were included in Section III as conditions in need of further study.

A diagnosis of hypersexual disorder was considered for the DSM-5 but ultimately was not included. The American Society of Addiction Medicine, however, revised its official definition of addiction to include both chemicals and naturally reinforcing behaviors. Furthermore, within the World Health Organization, the Working Group on Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders for the 11th version of the International Classification of Diseases has recommended a diagnosis of compulsive sexual behavior. The organization determined the need for additional research to classify sexual behavior as addictive but clearly recognizes that out-of-control sexual behavior is a public health issue.

In addition, the recent surge of public concern related to pornography use and related erectile dysfunction among relatively young men (as evidenced by high traffic on websites dedicated to helping individuals “reboot” or discontinue use of pornography) has contributed to the influx of neuroimaging studies exploring addiction to pornography. Researchers have confirmed that the same regions of the brain activated by drug stimuli also are activated by online sexual stimuli and that addictive sexual behavior may be associated with decreased gray matter and diminished connectivity in the brain.

Types of sex addiction

Scholars conceptualize two types of sex addiction. The profile for the classic type includes early attachment wounds, family-of-origin issues and trauma histories, culminating in insecure attachment strategies in adulthood. Research shows a clear link between problematic sexual behavior and insecure attachment styles, and the majority of individuals in treatment for sex addiction have experienced trauma. For individuals with classic sex addiction, their sexual behavior may have been a primary means to fulfill attachment needs or escape emotional pain. Over time, however, the behavior became compulsive and out of control as the natural longing for sex became a need and then an addiction. 

Recently, a second contemporary type of sex addiction has been identified among individuals without the classic profile of trauma or attachment wounds. Instead, the contemporary type emerges as a result of chronic, excessive exposure to sexual stimuli, especially in the form of pornography or cybersex, made more readily available when the internet became ubiquitous. Sex researcher Alvin Cooper referred to cybersex as a triple-A engine, offering affordability, anonymity and accessibility to users.

Online sexual images and videos are pervasive, and current estimates suggest that the average age of first exposure to pornography is 11. This initial exposure is often accidental on the part of the child, with pornography sites known to purchase domain names of commonly misspelled children’s websites (referred to as cybersquatting). Over time, however, pornography becomes a supernormal stimulus reshaping the brain by repetitive experiences of pleasure associated with online sexual images. The brain responds to this hyperactivity in the reward pathway by decreasing natural dopamine production and receptors. Consequently, with decreased natural dopamine production, those with sex addiction may feel mildly depressed at baseline, inducing cravings for sexual behavior to alleviate the negative mood. Thus, whether classic or contemporary, sex addiction leads to changes in brain circuitry, which, in turn, perpetuates the addictive cycle.

The nature of sex addiction

Among individuals for whom sex has become addictive, the condition is all-consuming. When those with sex addiction are not engaging in sexual behaviors (acting out), they likely are thinking about them (fantasy and mental preoccupation), getting ready for them (preparation and ritualization) or recovering from the consequences (physically and emotionally).

Sensitization caused by neuroadaptations may lead individuals to seek novel or more intense sexual stimuli to achieve the desired effect (otherwise known as tolerance). For example, an individual may shift from nonviolent to violent pornography or change from streaming cybersex to partnered anonymous sex. Those with sex addiction begin to live a double life as they hide their out-of-control sexual behaviors from others, withdraw and isolate. Furthermore, many people with sex addiction lose sexual interest in their romantic partners and experience sexual dysfunction because of classic conditioning in which arousal is paired with alternative stimuli such as a computer. The addiction affects the individual physically, psychologically, spiritually, relationally and emotionally. Although sex addiction begins to control these individuals’ lives, they often are reluctant to tell anyone about their experience because of intense feelings of shame and self-loathing.

Addictive sexual behavior can manifest in a variety of ways, from compulsive masturbation, anonymous sex and prostitution to compulsive sexual relationships, voyeurism or rape. Indeed, some sexual acting-out behaviors can cross the legal line and fall into the realm of sexual offenses, but the majority of those with sex addiction do not offend; rather, they engage in legal forms of compulsive sexual behavior.

Sex offenders generally have distinct profiles from sex-addicted nonoffenders. Specifically, sex offenders are more impulsive; engage in more intrusive behaviors; respond to offenses with hatred, anger and entitlement; and have low remorse. This profile differs from the progressive trajectory of sex addiction that tends to include more frequent, yet less intrusive, acting out; triggers shame, despair and powerlessness; and is met with high remorse. When sexual acting-out behaviors cross the line of legal offense, those who are sexually addicted are legally responsible for the consequences of their actions despite having an addiction (much like someone with alcohol addiction who injures another person while driving under the influence).

Although individuals with addiction are not responsible for “giving themselves” sex addiction, they are responsible for their recovery through seeking help and working a treatment program. Increasing public awareness about sex addiction can help promote early access to professional treatment, with the hope being that this step will aid in avoiding decades of negative consequences both for individuals with sex addiction and for others who may be affected.

Clinical considerations

Given that sex addiction can include myriad sexual behaviors, it is important for clinicians to assess and screen appropriately. Most sex addiction emerges in late adolescence and young adulthood, so school counselors and community clinicians working with young clients can provide early intervention by regularly screening for sex addiction. Counselors are encouraged to broach the subject of sex in counseling and explore clients’ relationships with their sexual activities, such as masturbating, sexting, hooking up, using pornography, engaging in cybersex, using sexual apps and engaging in compulsive sexual relationships.

Despite the fact that sex addiction emerges early, most individuals do not seek professional treatment until later in life as a result of experiencing often extreme negative consequences (i.e., “hitting rock bottom”). Accordingly, all clinicians should be screening for a loss of control over sexual behaviors, continued engagement in sexual behaviors despite negative consequences, and mental preoccupation or cravings. Along with informal screening and exploration, many formal assessments for sexual compulsivity and addiction exist, including the Sexual Addiction Screening Test, the Sexual Compulsivity Scale and the Sexual Dependency Inventory. The use of these instruments can help clinicians better understand their clients and coconstruct appropriate treatment goals.

Once counselors identify the presence of sex addiction, they have many tools and treatment programs to assist in helping clients reach long-term recovery. Unlike recovery from chemical addictions, the goal of sex addiction treatment is not abstinence from all sexual acts, but rather the development of healthy sexuality. It is the compulsive, detrimental sexual behavior that counselors and clients work to eradicate.

To help clarify recovery from sex addiction, many clinicians and 12-step recovery programs (such as Sex Addicts Anonymous) use the three-circles activity. With a sponsor or counselor, those with sex addiction draw three concentric circles. In the innermost circle, the client lists all unhealthy sexual behaviors that have led to negative consequences and over which the individual has lost control. These are the behaviors from which the client is choosing to abstain.

In the middle circle, the client lists behaviors that may lead to sexual acting out. Identifying middle-circle behaviors is important from a neurological perspective. The amygdala is responsible for emotional memory; thus, it remembers stimuli associated with the experience of pleasure. After years of sex addiction, individuals likely have associated specific locations, sounds, sights, smells and actions with sexual pleasure. The middle circle, therefore, includes any stimuli, such as excessive fantasizing, cruising or sexually objectifying others, that may trigger the amygdala and lead to sexual craving.

Finally, the client uses the outermost circle to identify healthy behaviors that will support the individual’s recovery. These behaviors might include participating in 12-step groups, engaging in counseling, fostering spiritual practices, exercising, eating healthy, keeping home and work spaces nonchaotic, spending time doing recreational activities and increasing healthy social support.

Many counseling approaches and interventions, including cognitive-behavioral approaches, psychodynamic approaches, acceptance and commitment therapy, motivational interviewing, art therapy, group counseling, couple and family counseling, and even psychopharmacology, are appropriate for work with sex addiction. It is important to note that recovery from sex addiction often spans years rather than months. Clients, family members and partners may erroneously believe that recovery occurs within a matter of weeks and can become disheartened when initial attempts to change behavior are unsuccessful. Providing psychoeducation about the neurobiology of sex addiction can offer a more accurate perspective and create realistic expectations. Clients can find hope in the fact that, in time, the brain can heal and resolve dysregulation in the reward circuitry. This healing process takes time, however, and the completion of specific tasks such as those outlined in Patrick Carnes’ 30 tasks of recovery.

Additionally, sex addiction may not be the only concern addressed in treatment. Given the common mechanisms underlying addiction, it is not surprising that coaddictions to gambling, food, gaming, the internet or substances often exist among those with sex addiction. Furthermore, research supports the prevalence of comorbid mental health problems, including bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, among those with sex addiction. Finally, a trauma-informed perspective may be necessary to help clients resolve trauma to improve emotion regulation.

Clinicians should take an integrated approach to address all addictive and mental health concerns in treatment. Integrated care may be more complex than addressing one concern at a time, but diverse treatment teams, supplemental or adjunct resources, and holistic recovery plans can best help clients reach long-term health and wholeness.

Advocating for clients

One of the most necessary forms of advocacy for this population is increased awareness related to sex addiction. During the Masters Tournament in 2010, roughly six months after the story broke concerning Tiger Woods’ sexual behavior and treatment for sex addiction, someone flew a plane over the Augusta National Golf Club with a banner reading, “Sex addict? Yeah. Right. Sure. Me too.”

It is inappropriate for anyone outside of Woods’ personal and professional circle to try to determine a clinical diagnosis for his case, but the plane and banner reflect a popular public sentiment: Sex addiction is not real. Advocates can work to increase public knowledge relating to sex addiction and dispense critical research about the condition.

Additionally, mental health professionals can take several practical steps to advocate for clients who are sexually addicted. Currently, many counseling centers do not include information about sex addiction on their websites or relevant items on their intake forms. This lack of acknowledgment may inadvertently communicate to clients that sex addiction is not an appropriate topic for counseling. Thus, one of the simplest forms of advocacy is to include the experience of compulsive sexual behavior on websites, advertisements and client intake forms.

Another important advocacy effort is to acknowledge that individuals of all genders can have sex addiction. Specifically, when community groups, media spokespeople or well-meaning educators leave women out of the conversation about addiction to sex or pornography, they add a layer of stigma for these individuals. Although prevalence rates may differ among genders (about 1 in 7 of those with sex addiction are women), it does not discount the salience of sex addiction among female populations.

Finally, the most recent standards of the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs require educators to teach students about theory and etiology of addictive behaviors. Therefore, counselor training programs can advocate for future clients by infusing relevant, up-to-date information regarding sex (and other behavioral) addictions in the counseling curriculum.

Conclusion

Much work is needed to decrease the stigma and shame associated with sex addiction. Although stigma exists with any addiction, it seems particularly poignant with regard to compulsive sexual behavior. In the cycle of sex addiction, shame serves as both a precursor and a consequence of sexual acting out. Raising public awareness regarding the nature of sex addiction can help combat this shame.

Rather than conceptualizing compulsive sexuality as a moral failing, the addiction model provides a framework to empower clients to manage their condition while offering effective tools for recovery. Controversy may always exist regarding the conceptualization of sex addiction, but it is imperative to continue the conversation, increase empirical evidence and engage in advocacy efforts to serve and support this population.

 

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Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

Amanda L. Giordano is an assistant professor at the University of Georgia. A licensed professional counselor, she specializes in addictions counseling and multiculturalism. Giordano serves on the executive board for the Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling and the editorial review boards for the Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling and Counseling and Values. Contact her at amandaleegiordano@gmail.com.

Craig S. Cashwell, a professor in the Department of Counseling and Educational Development at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, is an American Counseling Association fellow. Additionally, he maintains a part-time private practice focusing on couple counseling and addictions counseling. He serves as editor-in-chief of Counseling and Values.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Online gambling addictions up, despite absence from DSM

Heather Rudow December 5, 2012

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The number of online gamblers who exhibit problem gambling behaviors has increased dramatically in the past decade, according to reports. However, online gambling addiction did not find its way into the soon-to-be published fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), and future editions don’t seem to have plans to feature it any time soon — which troubles some addictions counselors and problem gambling specialists.

Julie Hynes, the problem gambling prevention coordinator at Lane County Public Health in Eugene, Ore., believes the reason online gambling has yet to be recognized by DSM-V is because it is still a relatively new problem on the radar of mental health professionals. InterCasino, the first online casino, launched in 1996.

What Hynes says she finds more controversial, however, is actually the classification of problem gambling itself in the DSM-IV.

“Many experts do not consider problem/pathological gambling as an impulse control disorder as it is currently classified,” Hynes says. “Many consider problem gambling to be a behavioral addiction.”

Proposed drafts of the DSM-V would categorize problem gambling as a behavioral addiction instead.

Pathological gambling was officially recognized as a disorder in 1980 when it was included in the DSM-III. The DSM-V, set to publish in May 2013, includes “Munchausen by Internet” and has Internet addiction listed under the category for “future study.”

Hynes is not a member of the American Counseling Association, but she delivered the keynote speech on online gambling at the Midwest Leadership Institute and Nebraska Counseling Association Annual Conference in October.

Doyle Daiss, an alcohol and drug counselor and current president of the Nebraska Counseling Association, believes online gambling addiction should be included as a part of the pathological gambling diagnosis in the DSM.

“I am hopeful that future research will focus on online gambling issues to identify what, if any, differences exist between traditional and online gambling addictions, as well as different interventions that can create a best clinical practice guideline when addressing online gambling behaviors,” says Daiss, a member of ACA.

Daiss has personally noticed an increase in online gambling behavior among his clients over the past five years. “Gambling behavior is an area that has largely been under-assessed during the pretreatment assessment, in my opinion, and yet it is often present in clients whose presenting problems are not gambling in nature.”

Because of this increased awareness of gambling being a possible secondary issue to mental health and substance abuse problems, Daiss began screening for it more earnestly and has found it to be present in many of his clients and in situations that he might previously have missed.

Hynes says gambling addictions in the U.S. have increased substantially due to the increase in online gambling sites.

“In the mid-1990s, there were only about 15 online gambling sites,” she notes. “Today, there are over 2,600 sites and, despite its illegality in the United States until 2012, over $4 billion a year has been spent on online gambling by Americans [according to 2011 statistics by the American Gaming Association]. It is expected that with the recent legalization of online gambling in the U.S., the amount of money spent will rise significantly — global revenue for online gambling in 2010 was $30 billion.”

Hynes has found online gambling to be most prevalent among the young adult population — especially among college students. She cites their tech savviness, newfound freedom from their families and “access to discretionary money” as key factors.

“I’ve seen and heard from many youth and young adults who’ve grown up with online gambling around them, whether it’s seeing ads for online sports books, playing at  ‘free’ online casinos or other ways of engaging, online gambling has become an ingrained part of the Internet culture,” Hynes says. “I’ve talked with kids who play with their parents’ credit cards, often even together, as it’s seen as a way to bond. All too often, parents don’t even realize that online gambling can be very risky.”

Daiss echoes Hynes’ observation. “I have personally noticed online gambling becoming more prevalent among males, 21 to 30, who are also struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues in which isolation is an issue,” Daiss says.  “Those individuals with whom I have worked have isolated themselves in their house with their computer and initially begin participating in online gambling in which token money is utilized. Within a short period of time, however, they begin utilizing sites in which real money is exchanged via a credit or debit card.”

Hynes says counselors often stereotype gambling addicts based upon general risk factors, which can be problematic.

“We need to remember that there are people from all walks of life that can and do develop addictions to electronic forms of gambling,” she says. “For example, the mom who stays at home might escape from her stress with some online games, and she develops a gambling problem. The disabled veteran who finds that gambling online gives him an outlet and connection to the outside world, and he finds himself borrowing money and against his mortgage payments to gamble.  And so on.  Counselors should be aware that gambling addiction can move quickly and can easily be hidden behind other addictions. Counselors need to screen for pathological gambling in their assessments and throughout the therapeutic process —particularly if there are warning signs [such as] suicidal ideation, mentions of debt, bankruptcy, relationship problems, etc.”

Daiss agrees, saying he believes that gambling behaviors as a whole often go undetected and that addictive gambling behaviors go undiagnosed due to counselors’ personal assumptions or lack of knowledge.

“Good, bad or indifferent, gambling is a prevalent activity in our culture that in recent times has experienced a perception that it is a legitimate form of entertainment,” he says. “Because of this ‘legitimacy,’ I believe counselors may be inclined to overlook online gambling behavior or may fail to educate themselves in the process of online gambling behavior. If the symptoms are missed, the addiction is allowed to continue toward the inevitable outcome that ruins lives.”

 In one specific instance, the wife of a client Daiss treated made note of the manner in which her husband’s online gambling was done “right under her nose. She stated her husband would spend extended episodes of time on the computer gambling,” Daiss recalls, “but she was unaware of it because each time she approached him on the computer he would minimize the window of gambling and maximize a ‘legitimate’ window. She did not find out until several months later — when he was unable to pick up the mail ahead of her to secure the credit card bills — what was actually occurring.”

Hynes says that there are a multitude of side effects from gambling, impacting both the gambler and those close to them:

  •  Suicide attempts and ideation: This is one of the most harmful effects of problem gambling in general. In Oregon, almost half (48 percent) of all problem gamblers entering into treatment reported suicidal ideation within six months of entering treatment; 9 percent actually attempted suicide. (Oregon Health Authority, 2012)
  • Increased withdrawal from family, friends and usual interests as greater amounts of time are spent gambling.
  • Mood changes and swings: The gambler can be excited about wins, dejected and/or angry after losses and exhausted from hours of being engaged in gambling.
  • Debt: The average problem gambler in Oregon owes $30,000 in gambling-related debts. (Oregon Health Authority, 2012)
  • Criminal behavior: It could be crimes of theft but often is “white collar” crime, i.e., writing bad checks, embezzling from employers, etc.
  • Concurrent addictions: Problem gamblers have high rates of co-occurrence with other mental health and addictions issues.

Daiss believes the harmful effects of online gambling are similar to other addictions, “inasmuch as the person becomes preoccupied with the behavior and begins to lose control over the activity and how much is spent,” he says. “Those with whom I have worked state that they did not begin experiencing financial problems immediately due to the nature in which credit cards can be repaid, thus the financial amount that is repaid is a fraction of that which is actually borrowed. Within a short period of time, however, they begin applying for and receiving new credit cards, causing a financial  ‘house of cards.’ Eventually, the financial burden impacts their life and their family’s life, as monies set aside for staples in life have to be used to repay credit cards. Unfortunately, the addiction remains in place and becomes secondary to the financial turmoil, so the cycle continues. Before ‘rock bottom’ eventually occurs, the addict and their family are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars in debt, with no legal way to repay it.”

Hynes says online gambling and electronic gambling, however, differ from other kinds of gambling because of the time it takes to become addicted.

“Where ‘analog’ problem gambling [such as] sports bets, horse track betting, etc. often takes years from onset to [become] pathological behavior,” she says, “electronic gambling addiction has the tendency to develop rapidly.”

Hynes attributes this to a variety of factors, including:

  • Easy access.
  •  The isolative, anonymous nature of the medium and the ability for individuals to hide their behavior.
  • Rapid rate of play (e.g., casino card games have an average rate of play of about 30 hands per hour, compared to online poker, which can average 60 to 80 hands per hour, and many players play more than one hand at a time).
  • Decreased perception of the value of cash (i.e., players are forgetting that they are spending real money).

“The above factors can all too easily create a perfect storm for addiction,” Hynes continues. “Add in other risk factors, such as ADHD or concurrent substance addiction, and [it] is easy to see how electronic gambling can be highly addictive and very difficult to manage.”

In the clients Daiss treats — primarily people suffering from drug and alcohol addiction — who eventually disclose having an online gambling addiction, many “[indicate] that the primary difference is how the gambling can occur from the safety of the home,” he says, “thereby allowing them to participate in gambling behavior without requiring them to enter the traditional gambling world of casinos or other public venues. Again, this is a lucrative element to those individuals who are struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues in which public interaction is problematic.”

Daiss believes the best approach for professional counselors in helping clients with a gambling addiction is to ensure that pretreatment assessments include a gambling screening instrument and that they continue to screen for gambling behaviors throughout the treatment session. “Once an online or traditional gambling addiction is identified, the best approach is for that therapist to make a referral to a qualified counselor,” he says, if they don’t already specialize in that area.

Hynes says counselors “can and should” screen for problem gambling with a two-question test called the Lie/Bet Questionnaire for Screening Pathological Gamblers. Visit preventionlane.org/lie-bet for more information and to download the screening tool. Hynes says it is also important for counselors to get connected with problem gambling resources and specialists in their region.

“If counselors are unsure about resources, they might start with contacting the National Council on Problem Gambling for information about local resources,” she says. “The council’s website, ncpgambling.org, provides a ‘counselor search’ resource for all states. While there are many similarities between problem gambling and other addiction and mental health disorders, there are also distinct differences in problem gambling that are important to address. Access to money is one example.”

Additionally, the National Council on Problem Gambling operates a 24-hour helpline, 800.522.4700, and Gamblers Anonymous (gamblersanonymous.org) provides information about problem gambling and locations of groups around the country.

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at hrudow@counseling.org.