Compulsive behavior is a core feature of addiction.
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Understanding Compulsivity and Addiction

Often undiagnosed mental health disorders contribute to addiction or aggravate existing addiction issues.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) note, “Multiple national population surveys have found that about half of those who experience a mental illness during their lives will also experience a substance use disorder and vice versa.” With this in mind, how do mental health disorders like compulsivity and addiction relate to each other?

Compulsive behavior is a core aspect of addiction. In repeatedly returning to a substance, despite the knowledge that it is bad, people are responding to the compulsion to receive a perceived “reward”. Whatever type of high a substance provides, they hope to recreate and satisfy the compulsion. 

Unfortunately with stigma around both mental health and addiction, people are often unable to get the help they need. Further, some disorders are still misunderstood and people fail to recognize something for what it is. This is especially true for compulsive behavior.

Compulsivity and addiction often go hand in hand, though compulsive behavior is itself complex and not always a sign of addiction. 

Compulsivity vs Impulsivity

Impulsive and compulsive are very similar sounding words with similar meanings. It’s understandable that a lot of people tend to mix them up. Both involve involuntary actions often with the awareness that the behavior is not positive or helpful. 

An impulsive action is more often a one-off event that is done without giving much thought to the action or potential consequences. The type of impulsive behaviors varies widely and so do the consequences of course. 

Impulsive behaviors include:

  • Expensive purchases (often well outside of a person’s budget)
  • Yelling at someone
  • Going on a spur of the moment road trip
  • Eating fast food rather than cooking at home
Impulsive behaviors may include expensive purchases, yelling at someone, going on a spur of the moment road trip, eating fast food rather than cooking

Someone impulsively buying an expense they cannot afford might suffer financially or at the least experience regret. In contrast, a person who impulsively decides to harm another person would obviously face more serious consequences.

Compulsive behavior is a repetitive behavior that someone engages in often doing so to try to ease anxiety or unease. Examples include continually checking that doors are closed and/or locked, having to count to a specific number repeatedly, or obsessively cleaning surfaces.

While the consequences vary, and some actions appear harmless, they are often done despite a person wanting to stop their actions. For many this has the potential to cause serious mental distress.

More In-Depth: What is Compulsive Behavior?

There isn’t one definitive explanation for what compulsive behavior is. Like many mental health terms, this is partly due to ongoing research that helps professionals further understand and define disorders. 

To help improve understanding of compulsivity, an NIH study offers this definition, “Compulsive behavior consists of repetitive acts that are characterized by the feeling that one ‘has to’ perform them while one is aware that these acts are not in line with one’s overall goal.”

Quite often with addiction, whatever the substance or action, people are aware that their actions are not good for them. However, addiction and untreated mental health disorders make it difficult (and even impossible) for them to stop on their own. 

As mentioned above, compulsive behavior doesn’t necessarily equal addiction. A heightened fear of germs may lead to compulsive hand washing or cleaning surfaces. It is possible that many people want to ease anxieties and fears and attempt to assert control through compulsive behavior. 

many compulsive behaviors are a result of someone working to ease anxieties and fears

Many people dealing with compulsivity, whatever the behavior, often feel frustration and distress. Without appropriate help, many attempt to self-medicate and do so through substance use.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Most people are familiar with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is an anxiety disorder with a variety of symptoms that also vary in severity for each individual. A person with full-blown OCD will have persistent symptoms in two areas: obsessions and compulsions. Many times compulsivity is a result of obsessive thoughts.

Symptoms of obsession include:

  • Aversion to germs or dirt
  • Repeated unwanted ideas (intrusive thoughts)
  • Aggressive impulses
  • Fixation on symmetry and order
  • Persistent sexual thoughts
  • Thoughts of harming oneself, or harming loved ones

Signs of compulsion include:

  • Constant checking – repeatedly making sure doors are locked, lights are off, appliances are in working order 
  • Counting and recounting everyday objects
  • Repeated hand washing
  • Obsessively arranging items to be in a specific order
  • Hoarding items already used or of little to no value

How Does Compulsivity Relate to Addiction?

To reiterate – compulsive behavior is done repeatedly despite knowledge that the behavior is not helpful and even potentially harmful. 

Most people with compulsive behavior, including full-blown OCD, experience significant mental anguish in regards to actions they want to stop. 

As with many mental health disorders, people frequently lack proper resources for help. Consequently, they often turn to substances to try to cope. Drugs (which includes alcohol) provide a rush of dopamine to the brain and many result in a feeling of euphoria. 

Once someone is at the point where the rush of dopamine starts to decrease they are often unable to stop use of whatever substance(s) they are using. It is much easier than most people realize to reach a point of substance abuse and dependency. This is especially true for legal substances like alcohol.

For someone with compulsive behaviors, the risk of continuing to abuse substances and develop an addiction is serious. Someone already struggling with controlling other behaviors will likely struggle to keep any substance use under control. 

substance abuse is commonly seen in people struggling with untreated mental health disorders

Compulsivity and Addiction: Seeking Help

At Reflections we believe strongly in treating each individual uniquely and as a whole. This means we work to understand all of the causes behind a person’s addiction. Is it genetic? Are their physical ailments they are trying to cope with? Are they trying to cope with untreated mental health disorders?

Whatever the cause, whether one cause or multiple, we are ready to help a person treat each issue for the best chance of lifelong recovery. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with compulsivity and addiction, please reach out today. Reflections Recovery Center is ready to help you or a loved one learn to manage compulsive inclinations in healthy ways while recovering from alcohol or drug abuse.