About Compulsive Behaviors
All of us have particular habits and characteristics, so what classifies something as a compulsive behavior that may be harmful to you or others?
Simply put, Psychology Today reports that someone exhibiting compulsive behavior does so “to relieve underlying anxieties or negative emotions. While the behavior doesn’t necessarily lead to any end pleasure or reward, the compulsive person engages in the behavior anyway, for temporary relief.”
Sometimes referred to as urge-driven disorders or process addictions, a person can compulsively:
- Worry about body image to the point of overeating or not eating.
- Play video games.
- Clean to avoid germs.
- Be online or on social media.
- Hoard things.
- Check and recheck items or processes.
- Engage in sexual activity.
Someone may also have a repetitive fixation about his or her body, such as picking at parts of it, hair twisting or pulling, biting nails, or even frequently looking in the mirror. These are characteristics of body dysmorphic disorder.
There’s often a difference between someone diagnosed with compulsive behavior and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The National Institute of Mental Health defines OCD as “a common, chronic and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.”
If you have a particular behavior that’s been a regular action for quite some time, you may not see any harm in it. However, if you hide the behavior in fear of criticism from others, or if it interferes with work, school, home life, relationships, or finances, there may be a need for assessment of and treatment for the condition.
What the Research Says
It’s quite common for compulsive behavior to present as a symptom of a co-occurring disorder, such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, grief, and post-traumatic stress disorder. If these conditions are undiagnosed or not managed properly, they’ll manifest other signs of distress.
Also known as emotional or affect dysregulation, this condition prohibits the proper functioning of metabolic, psychological, or physiological processes. For example:
- If you grew up in a household with adults suffering trauma who couldn’t help you manage emotions, you could adopt certain compulsive behaviors such as sex addiction, body dysmorphic disorder, or body image issues to create a sense of intimacy or self-worth.
- If you experienced bullying in school, you might compulsively play video games as a way to control your environment and feel powerful.
- If you suffered a tragic event that made you feel threatened or with which you had difficulty coping, you could compulsively save or buy items as a means to protect yourself or avoid dealing with the stress of the event.
The term “addiction” is frequently attributed to compulsive behavior because similar neurological changes occur to those of drug or alcohol addiction:
- Acting on impulsive tendencies or participating in risky activities increases dopamine, known as the “pleasure chemical” of the brain.
- Dopamine links with another neurotransmitter, glutamate, to reinforce pleasure-related learning and memory. This doesn’t necessarily mean someone is cognizant of enjoying a behavior or substance, but the brain’s deep-rooted survival mechanism is stimulated by it and becomes dependent on it.
- Continued exposure builds up a tolerance to the substance or behavior, and that’s when compulsivity makes it more difficult to stop. The hippocampus and amygdala have stored information of the sensation provided by the behavior or substance—activating the “wanting.”
Harvard Health provides a brief but insightful series of questions to determine if you have a process addiction/compulsive behavior:
- “Do you use more of the substance or engage in the behavior more often than in the past?”
- “Do you have withdrawal symptoms when you don’t have the substance or engage in the behavior?”
- “Have you ever lied to anyone about your use of the substance or extent of your behavior?”
Answering yes to any of the above questions indicates there’s reason to consult a mental health professional.
Treatment of Compulsive Behaviors
Just as there might not be one conclusive reason for compulsive behaviors, there’s not one simple fix for them. However, therapists in rehabilitation centers have a number of methods to treat particular disorders, recalibrate proper brain function, and help you understand particular circumstances, triggers, and other contributing factors to live your life more healthfully. For example, therapy might first start with an intensive assessment program to identify potential root causes, mood disorders, and co-occurring conditions.
Next, a continuum of care plan is developed to outline specific aspects of treatment for process addictions, such as:
- Group and individual therapy to identify compulsive thoughts and learn to control them, and modify certain behaviors.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing—also referred to as EMDR—somatic experiencing, and specialized therapy to help ease and potentially eliminate trauma reactions.
- Supplemental coping mechanisms, such as yoga, meditation, animal therapy, and improved nutrition.
- 12-Step and other support groups, such as Debtors’ Anonymous, Emotions Anonymous, Gamblers’ Anonymous, Overeaters’ Anonymous, Self-Mutiliators Anonymous, and Sex Addicts Anonymous.
Finally, a network of caring professionals who understand the potential for overlapping issues and can provide any additional resources to establish meaningful treatment goals.
Cottonwood Tucson’s Approach to Wellness
With a combination of medical management, holistic health techniques, sound therapies, and family involvement, our approach to maximizing your health is a full mind-body-spirit effort. You’re not broken, so you don’t need to be “fixed.” Our intent is to make your whole person thrive.