The Fine Line Between Compulsion and Addiction

Content reviewed by Karen Rubenstein, LMFT, Chief Clinical Officer at Cliffside Malibu

If you have ever battled addiction or compulsions, you know how challenging it can be to live with these conditions and watch them take over your life. The desire to achieve the “high” or to calm anxiety becomes your main focus with addiction or compulsive disorders.

Many people use the words “addiction” and “compulsion” interchangeably, but it is important to note that they are not the same thing. If you experience these conditions, highlighting the difference between the two will help you be able to seek proper treatment.

Addiction Activates Your Brain’s Reward System

Addiction describes the state in which you have become dependent on either a substance or behavior. This action becomes harmful because it disrupts your everyday life. The dependence on the substance or action becomes so important that you engage in it even when it harms you or those you are in contact with.

Addiction also changes the way that your brain operates. Your brain has a reward system that is triggered when it experience’s something pleasurable like food, exercise, or being around people who make you feel good. Drugs and alcohol also activate the same reward system in your brain.

Compulsions Can Also Be a Sign of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Compulsions are described as an intense urge leading to a specific behavior. It is a repetitive or habitual action that has no real motivation, even though you may not recognize this. The behavior may relieve anxiety, which can cause you to continually use this action as a coping mechanism for your feelings. Compulsions can often be displayed as habitual or ritualistic behaviors. However, compulsive or addictive behaviors can start to interfere with your day-to-day functioning. Compulsion can potentially lead to the process of addiction, due to the ritualistic and consistent need for you to act on these behaviors.

Examples of common compulsive behaviors:

  • Repeatedly washing hands (skin may become raw)
  • Repeatedly rearranging or ordering things in a specific manner
  • Constantly checking if a door is locked
  • Stereotypy or repeating words, actions, or postures

Compulsions are one of the most prominent symptoms of OCD.

What Makes OCD and Addiction Different?

Both addiction and compulsions have biological and psychological components, making it hard for you to control the urge to complete these actions. Initially, the goal of substance use is to achieve a sense of pleasure. You may prioritize pleasure-seeking even if you experience negative consequences. As substance use becomes more frequent with more dangerous drugs, your brain’s reward system is activated. Your brain starts to associate the substance as pleasurable causing the body to gradually crave it.

If you have OCD and compulsive behaviors, getting relief is the main drive behind your behaviors. You won’t get a sense of pleasure from the behavior because your actions are rooted in relieving anxiety and intrusive thoughts.

There Are Multiple Treatment Options Available for OCD and Addiction

A mental health professional will be able to properly assess you and get you started on the recovery process for addiction, and develop a treatment plan for your compulsive behaviors. Recovery from substance addiction often requires professional help using evidence-based treatment programs. If you have a co-occurring disorder, you may need to complete the detox process for addiction and later receive therapy for your compulsive behaviors. There are many forms of effective treatment to help relieve symptoms of both conditions.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)  is a form of psychological treatment that has proven to be one of the most effective for mental disorders including depression, addiction, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and other severe mental diagnoses. This form of therapy allows therapists to work with you to identify negative thoughts linked to depression and anxiety, which may be an underlying root of the addiction.

Exposure therapy is a specific treatment predominantly used for OCD. This therapy exposes you to the situations or thoughts that trigger your compulsive behaviors. Initially, this should only be conducted by a licensed therapist to properly help you work through your anxiety. Eventually, you should no longer need a therapist while you are exposed to your triggers. Your anxiety should lessen over time and you should become more comfortable functioning without compulsive behaviors.

Medication may be a useful aspect of treatment. Medications for OCD and addiction are different, so an accurate diagnosis is crucial.  For OCD,  antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications may be used to tackle the underlying cause of your compulsions. Medications may be used to ease you through addiction withdrawal and to decrease your cravings.

Although addiction and OCD or compulsive behaviors can be uncomfortable and interfere with your daily living, there is treatment available to help relieve your symptoms. Cliffside Malibu specializes in providing professional assistance during your recovery process from addiction. Our staff can help you complete the stages of detox and offer both outpatient and inpatient programs. Your circumstances will be recognized and your co-occurring disorders will be appropriately treated.  Having assistance from mental health professionals to guide you through addiction recovery and treatment for co-occurring disorders is essential for receiving the best quality and safest care. You will experience options including residential care, outpatient care as well as holistic approaches such as massage therapy and acupuncture. Your experience with your diagnosis is unique to you and your circumstance, meaning your recovery should be as well. Call Cliffside Malibu at (855) 680-1645 to find out more about how our programs are created to fit your recovery needs.