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Comparing Substance Addictions with Compulsive Behaviors

The distinction between addiction and compulsive behavior may seem trivial, but understanding the difference is crucial for people to get the treatment they need. Although many refer to a wide variety of behavioral and substance habits as “addictions,” the term truly indicates a pleasure-based dependency. If laypeople fully understood this difference, then they might adopt more productive attitudes about addiction, drug treatment, and even psychiatric care. In order for society to become more understanding and helpful towards addicts and compulsives, more people need to understand the reasons for their behaviors.

The Chemical Nature of Addiction

Addictions develop through the repetition of pleasurable, habit-forming behaviors. This process often involves drugs such as heroin, cocaine, amphetamines, and legal opiates. It can also occur with eating, having sex, gambling, and other enjoyable activities. In both types of cases, the addictive activity causes the brain to release large amounts of the pleasure-inducing neurotransmitter called dopamine. When people experience this phenomenon, their neurons undergo physical changes which then compel them to repeat their behaviors.

With enough repetition, people’s bodies can form chemical dependencies – especially in cases of drug abuse. Although their original motivations were pleasurable, they come to require particular substances or activities just to function normally. This is the reason why people will act recklessly and even abusively to feed their addictions. Their problems are not simple matters of willpower, but physical compulsions as strong as healthy people’s needs to eat and sleep.

Understanding Compulsive Behaviors

While some addicts may suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, not all compulsions involve true addiction. The key difference is the lack of dependency on an inherently pleasurable activity. For example, the problem of work “addiction” is actually a compulsive behavior. In most cases, workaholics don’t develop their problems out of enjoyment of their tasks – they work endlessly because they irrationally feel it necessary to do so. They may even hate their jobs, but paranoia, anxiety, and perfectionism drive them to obsess over their work. Similar behavior patterns are seen in hoarders, obsessive hand-washers, and people who are constantly double- and triple-checking everything they do.

Compulsive Drug Abuse

Part of the confusion over addiction and compulsion may stem from the fact that not all drugs habits are addictions. For instance, most people who use marijuana and other psychotropics do not develop chemical dependencies. They may become psychologically reliant on the releases they feel while high, but they can still function normally while sober. Overall, these types of drug habits – while dangerous – are more akin to compulsions.

Finding the Best Treatments

The best treatment options for drug abusers will depend on the nature of their habits. People who are chemically dependent on illegal narcotics or prescription drugs will usually require detoxification. Detox is a short but necessary process of deprivation whereby addicts are weaned of their chemical dependencies on drugs. The neurological changes which have taken place in their brains will continue to cause them cravings, but they will be able to function without getting high. After detox, most rehab patients move on to longer treatment programs designed to address the personal problems which contributed to their addictions in the first place.

Compulsive drug abusers may not need detox, but rehabilitative counseling sessions are still an effective way for them to change their habits. Like chemically-addicted patients, they can work with rehab specialists to identify and mitigate the stressors which compel them to get high. They may also discover and treat co-occurring mental illnesses which have exacerbated their drug problems.

Whether you’re suffering from a crippling drug dependency, or you just can’t shake your bad habits – drug rehab can help. Pick up the phone and call the number above for a toll-free consultation with one of our dedicated addiction specialists. We’ll get you started on a powerful drug treatment program that is customized to fit your individual needs.

About The Contributor
The editorial staff of Recovery First is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed thousands... Read More