Is Cryptocurrency an Emerging Behavioral Addiction?

By Thomas G. Kimball, PhD | Published 10/8/2018 0

Bitcoins trading

Photo source: David McBee via

Cryptocurrency, the most famous being Bitcoin, has become an intriguing and powerful global phenomenon.  According to a University of Cambridge Study, there are now between 2.9 to 5.8 million active users of cryptocurrency (Hileman & Rauchs, 2017). Some experts have estimated the number of people actively involved being much higher from 13 to 28 million users (BBC News, 2018)

A growing body of research seems to suggest that this rise in the popularity of Cryptocurrencies havw also possibly given rise to a new type of addiction.

What is cryptocurrency?

Instead of physical monetary currency, cryptocurrency is a type of digital currency that can be used to buy a variety of goods and services. For example, people are buying gift cards, airline flights, computer hardware/software, music, furniture, gold, pizza, and legal and accounting services using cryptocurrency just to name a few.

Cryptocurrency makes use of cryptography, monitored by a global network of computers, to not only verify transactions but to also secure transactions and control unit creation.  The advantage of using cryptocurrency is that individuals do not have to use banks to engage in exchange, avoiding the cost associated with most financial transactions (Fiorello, 2018).  In addition, illegal transactions are more easily facilitated by cryptocurrency due to the anonymity naturally built within the system (BBC News, 2018).

Behavioral Addictions Are Destructive

Some experts have identified cryptocurrency, and the processes involved in obtaining it, as an emerging behavioral addiction. Much like the overuse of substances, there are several behaviors that have the power to create short-term rewards sufficient enough to increase the possibility of continuing behaviors even when negative consequences are present.

To this end, there is a growing body of research illustrating that certain types of behavioral addictions (e.g., gambling, gaming, sex, self-harm, etc.) are parallel to substance addictions in many ways (Grant, Potenza, Weinstein, & Gorelick, 2010). According to this research, published in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, these parallels can include:

  • A genetic propensity for developing an addiction
  • Increasing tolerance and withdrawal symptoms
  • Intense cravings
  • Adverse consequences
  • Chronic and relapse patterns
  • Patterns of pleasure and reward

In addition to the above, those who suffer from behavioral addictions, as well as an addiction to substances, often struggle both financially and relationally. Indeed, addiction in any form has the power to impact and destroy each part of a person’s life.

The Symptoms of a Gambling Disorder

The most researched behavioral addiction is pathological gambling now referred to as Gambling Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).  Gambling disorders typically begin early in life much like substance use disorders. Men typically suffer from gambling disorders at a higher rate than women (Grant, Potenza, Weinstein, & Gorelick, 2010).

The DSM-5 identifies symptoms related to those who suffer from a Gambling Disorder. Those who identify with four or more of the following over a 12 month period are often recommended for therapeutic assessment and help. The following symptoms have been taken directly from the DSM-5 modified and shortened for length. They include:

  1. Need to gamble with increasing amounts of money in order to achieve the desired excitement
  2. Is restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop
  3. Has made repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop
  4. Is often preoccupied with gambling
  5. Often gambles when feeling distressed
  6. After losing money gambling, often returns another day to get even
  7. Lies to conceal the extent of involvement
  8. Has jeopardized or lost a significant relationship, job, or educational or career opportunity because of gambling
  9. Relies on others to provide money to relieve desperate financial situations caused by gambling. (DSM-V, 2013)

Addiction to Cryptocurrency?

Much like gambling, the rapid fluctuations of the value of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies create the possibility of a large payday (BBC News, 2018).  These fluctuations in value also increase the possibility of huge losses as well. For example, January 30, 2018, Facebook banned all ads advertising cryptocurrency. At the time of the ban, Bitcoin was worth $11399.32 per unit.  After the announcement and 10 days later, Bitcoin value had dropped to $8211.01 per unit (BITCOINS, 2018). A lot of people lost a lot of money during that 10-day period.

Much like playing the slot machines, watching the value of cryptocurrencies fluctuate, with the possibility of trading as the market goes up, creates not only an escape from reality but also a powerful and intoxicating level of excitement; a high akin to an amphetamine response in the brain (Zack, Featherstone, Mathewson, & Fletcher, 2014). An obsession with watching the market and pursuing this feeling creates isolation and withdrawal from what is real, impacting other more important aspects of a person’s life (Koubaridis, 2018).  Over time people caught in the cycle of cryptocurrency-trading, and the associated high, increase the amount of money invested, grow irritable and restless, and deceive others about their level of involvement because of the difficulty of stopping the behavior (DSM-2013). The continued involvement leads to the potential loss of everything including relationships, jobs, and other opportunities.

Help and hope are available

Those who are suffering from a possible addiction to cryptocurrency-trading, or Gambling Disorder, should seek some form of help. In a report by the National Center for Responsible Gaming, on the subject of recovering from gambling addiction, the authors suggest better potential outcomes when combining both cognitive and/or cognitive behavioral therapy as well as participating in self-help fellowships such as Gambling Anonymous (GA). The report is wise to point out that the road to recovery and healing is difficult and many people, up to 80-90% experience relapse along the way (NCFRG, 2009).

In addition to these therapeutic interventions and self-help fellowships, there has also been research conducted on pharmacotherapy when treating gambling disorders.  Pharmacological interventions may be most relevant when there is also the presence of another mental health disorder such as anxiety or depression; called comorbidity. The combination of therapeutic interventions, self-help groups, and pharmacological methods may be most effective (Yip & Potenza, 2014).

Cryptocurrency is most likely here to stay. Just like gambling, cryptocurrency trading has the power to induce a disorder akin to gambling disorder and may be referred to as an addiction. Although the journey may be difficult, help and hope are available for those who seek it!


American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.

BBC News (29, May, 2018).  A new addiction:  Could you be hooked on Bitcoin?  BBC NewsScotland.

BITCOINS (2018).  Bitcoin historical price and events.

Fiorillo, S. (2018). What is Cryptocurrency?  Everything you need to know.  The Street.

Grant, J. E., Potenza, M. N., Weinstein, A., & Gorelick, D. A. (2010). Introduction to Behavioral Addictions. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse36(5), 233–241. httpss://

Hileman, G., & Rauchs, M. (2017).  Global cryptocurrency benchmarking study.  Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance.

Koubaridis, A. (2018). Bitcoin fuels new wave of addicts as doctors warn cryptocurrency isa form of gambling that can spiral out of control.  UK News.

National Center For Responsible Gambling (2009). Increasing the Odds: Roads to recovery from gambling addiction. httpss://

Yip, S. W., & Potenza, M. N. (2014). Treatment of Gambling Disorders. Current TreatmentOptions in Psychiatry1(2), 189–203. httpss://

Zack, M., Featherstone, R. E., Mathewson, S., & Fletcher, P. J. (2014). Chronic exposure to a gambling-like schedule of reward predictive stimuli can promote sensitization to amphetamine in rats. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience8, 36. httpss://

Thomas G. Kimball, PhD


Thomas G. Kimball, Ph.D., LMFT, is the George C. Miller Family Regents Professor at Texas Tech University and the Director of the Center for Collegiate Recovery Communities. Dr. Kimball has been part of the MAP team since 2012 and serves as Clinical Director, where he oversees and consults on the implementation of extended recovery modalities, techniques, and practices on individuals who undergo treatment for Substance Use Disorder (SUD).

He has received numerous teaching awards for his courses on families, addiction, & recovery. He is the author of several peer-reviewed articles on addiction and recovery in respected medical journals, a frequent contributor to leading addiction and recovery publications online, and co-authored the book,
Six Essentials to Achieve Lasting Recovery, by Hazelden Press.

In addition to consulting and presenting on recovery-related issues across the U.S. and internationally, he frequently writes articles pertaining to emerging addiction recovery data, recovery techniques and modalities, the science behind addiction, the addiction crisis, and long term treatment for the chronic disease of addiction.

Dr. Kimball has made the focus of his career studying collegiate and long term addiction recovery by focusing on factors that enhance long term recovery and improve the treatment industry at a local, national, and international level. Follow him @drtomkimball

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