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Compulsive Behaviors

What Is a Compulsive Behavior?

Millions of people suffer from at least one compulsive behavior. Compulsive behaviors are actions that are engaged in repeatedly—even when the individual wishes they could stop—despite the fact that they trigger negative outcomes, lead to interpersonal conflicts, or damage mental health.

Common activities that can develop into compulsions include shopping, hoarding, eating, gambling, sex, and exercise. Though some behaviors are easier to over-indulge in than others, in reality, nearly any behavior has the potential to become a compulsion. Some people even talk compulsively.

There are also obsessive compulsions, in which a compulsive person performs certain behaviors to relieve underlying anxiety or other negative emotions. A well-known example is a person who checks and rechecks everything—if the stove is turned off, for instance, or if the door is locked. Related to obsessive compulsions are body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs), such as hair-pulling and skin-picking. In some cases, BFRBs are engaged in to decrease anxiety.

These behaviors rarely decrease anxiety in the long run; in most cases, they only provide temporary relief. In extreme cases, compulsive behaviors start to take over a person's work, home, and social life, at the expense of normal activities.

How to Manage Compulsive Behaviors

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Compulsions may have a genetic component—they are often seen in identical twins, for instance—but they also often arise after stressful events, trauma, or abuse. When people engage in compulsions, they become trapped in a pattern of repetitive actions or senseless thinking from which it can be difficult to break free.

Treatment is often key for overcoming compulsive behaviors. Cognitive behavioral therapy and other counseling approaches have proven particularly effective, especially for managing milder compulsions. In more extreme cases (including instances of obsessive-compulsive disorder or BFRBs), treatment may be augmented with antidepressants or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), medications that are typically used for anxiety and depression.

What Are the Different Kinds of Compulsions?

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Compulsive behaviors come in many forms, all of which can become debilitating or even dangerous.

Hoarders, for instance, are unable to part with even the most worthless possessions. Many hoarders find the act of purging so distressful that they live under extremely crowded and potentially harmful conditions. Compulsive shopping, another debilitating behavior, entails not only making purchases—a compulsive shopper is often preoccupied with the debt they've accrued, or with the next item they hope to purchase.

Some behaviors—even those that can be perfectly healthy when engaged in in moderation—directly put people’s health and lives at risk when engaged in compulsively. Examples include overexercising, overeating, or even compulsively taking selfies. The latter, strange though it may seem, has even resulted in the sudden deaths of people who attempt to capture photographs in hazardous settings.

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