The Semantics: What Is A Compulsion?
A compulsion is an overwhelming desire to act that is typically accompanied by obsessive thoughts. People who are diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), for instance, are usually plagued by thoughts that are intrusive, irrational, and anxiety-laden: distress about harming oneself or others; panic related to exposure to germs; a fear of upsetting God; or an apprehension about losing control and committing a horrendous crime (such as rape, murder, or pedophilia), etc.
To regulate obsessive thoughts and to diminish anxiety, people with OCD develop ritualistic behaviors:
- Assessing situations for safety: Checking repeatedly to confirm that doors are locked and appliances are shut off
- Numbers: Counting to a designated number or touching an object a specified number of times before permitting yourself to engage in everyday activities
- Perfection: Performing certain actions repetitively until the execution feels satisfactory
- Balance: Rearranging objects to ensure their symmetry
- Religion: Praying compulsively to God (for hours each day) with the belief that doing so will forestall an unknown tragedy
- Cleaning: Excessive handwashing or unremitting housecleaning that alleviates your fear of germs or allows you to exert control when your external situation feels unmanageable
What Is A Behavioral Addiction?
Here’s where things get tricky:
A behavioral addiction develops when a compulsive behavior (unrelated to OCPD or substance abuse) adversely disrupts your life: upheaving your social, familial, or romantic relationships; declining your academic or occupational functioning; and generating an avalanche of financial, legal, or medical repercussions.
Generalized symptoms of behavioral addictions are similar to the psychological indicators associated with substance abuse, and may include:
- Secrecy: Attempting to conceal the behavior from family, friends, or romantic partners
- Denial: Refusing to admit to the severity of your addiction when confronted by others
- Emotional Roller-coastering: Experiencing feelings of euphoria while engaging in the activity, and a subsequent flood of guilt, shame, or embarrassment after having indulged
- Withdrawal symptoms: Anxiety, angry outbursts, or despair when access to the activity is obstructed or cessation from the behavior is attempted
- Tolerance: Requiring ever-increasing amounts of time spent engaging in the behavior in order to feel sated
- Relationships: Suffering interpersonal difficulties in your romantic, familial, or social relationships; or forging mutually destructive, codependent relationships with individuals who enable your addiction
- Performance: Witnessing a reduction in your academic or occupational functioning (including failing assignments or losing your job)
- Financial, Legal, or Medical: Overspending or engaging in illegal activities to support your habit; encountering unforeseen medical consequences (for example: contracting an STD from engaging in risky sexual behaviors, as a component of sexual addiction)
Can Any Behavior Be Considered Habit-Forming?
Some would argue “yes” and others would adamantly maintain “no”. However, the most oft-recognized behavioral addictions include:
7 Common Categories of Behavioral Addictions
- Technology Use: Internet, video games, cell phone use, social media, and television-watching
- Sexual Addictions: Engaging in frequent, anonymous, or risky sexual behavior; excessive consumption of pornography; compulsive masturbation; voyeurism or frotteurism; sadomasochism or other fetishes that generate personal distress, plus more+
- Shopping or unrestrained spending
- Setting fires (Pyromania)
- Food & Exercise: Binge-eating or compulsive exercise
…But, what about hoarding?
Hoarding—or compulsively acquiring animals, worthless items, or trash to the detriment of your health, interpersonal functioning, or employment—is now considered to be its own disorder, distinct from OCD or behavioral addiction. However, as in other compulsive conditions, individuals who hoard suffer from emotional overwhelm when encouraged to alter their living habits (for example: by discarding trash or placing animals for adoption, etc.).
How Can Counseling & Therapy Services For Compulsions & Behavioral Addictions Help Me?
Although compulsive and addictive behaviors can be difficult to kick, just as therapeutic interventions have demonstrated proven effectiveness as treatment options for substance abuse, so too can you use counseling as a means to achieve recovery from your battle with obsessive thoughts and uncontrollable habits. To facilitate your recovery, your therapist may recommend:
- Medical intervention, to rule out the possibility of an underlying cause
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which rewires destructive thought patterns that underlie and maintain your condition and encourages behavioral modification
- Exposure Response Prevention as a treatment for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, in which your therapist exposes you to situations that are known to trigger a cascade of obsessive thoughts and then requires you to abstain from engaging in the accompanying compulsive behavior that is typically employed to alleviate your anxiety. Overtime, your therapist will increase the amount of time that you are required to abstain from participating in the behavior until doing so becomes manageable for you to execute on your own
- Incorporating the principles of 12-Step, which is normally used to treat substance abuse disorders, however as in this instance, can also be generalized to treat behavioral addictions (including sexual addiction, gambling, technology addictions, more+)
- Group Therapy, which enables you to form a support network with other individuals who are actively battling or are managing their recovery from a behavioral addiction
- Alternative Therapies, such as mindfulness, meditation, psychotherapeutic yoga, journaling, equine therapy, or expressive arts as therapy to explore unconventional outlets for self-soothing and stress management
- In rare instances, your therapist may also refer you to a medical doctor, who is capable of prescribing medications to treat your condition, or a residential therapy program that can provide you with around-the-clock care during your time of recovery