Compulsive Behavior: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

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Compulsive behaviors are actions a person takes that are disruptive to themselves and sometimes others. People who behave compulsively either do so because their brains are wired for such behavior or because they feel an intense urge to do so and cannot simply stop the behavior. Compulsive behaviors are often repetitive and don't make sense within the context of the environment.

This article will provide symptoms and examples of compulsive behavior, causes, treatment options, and information about when to seek professional help.

Someone washing their hands

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Symptoms of Compulsive Behavior

Compulsive behaviors are often associated with mental health disorders, and the behaviors themselves can vary greatly. Still, not all compulsive behavior is concerning. Some daily routines, like eating a meal at the same time or doing the same activity every evening, have compulsive elements but are not signs of an illness.

Related Psychiatric Disorders

Compulsive behaviors can be associated with several mental health-related illnesses or other diseases. Examples of conditions that may include compulsive behaviors include:

Examples of Compulsive Behavior

Compulsive behaviors are usually repetitive, occur habitually, continue in situations where they would be characterized as inappropriate or out of context, and lead to functional impairment.

Nearly any type of behavior can be compulsive. Here are a few examples of more common ones:

  • Compulsive movements, such as tremors or shaking
  • Compulsive actions, like locking and unlocking a door over and over or washing hands immediately after touching a public door handle
  • Compulsive sexual behavior
  • Compulsive buying
  • Compulsive use of smartphones

Causes of Compulsive Behavior

There are different reasons why someone might exhibit compulsive behaviors, either neurological or to avoid some negative consequence. People who behave compulsively are likely to:

  • Have little ability to control or refrain from the behavior
  • Feel that the uncontrollable behaviors are unpleasant
  • Feel like they are losing control if they don't do the behavior
  • Have an internal feeling that they can't stop doing the behavior

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Many compulsive behaviors are caused by obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD mainly affects people between the ages of 15 and 44 and is highly debilitating. OCD can be more disruptive than other non-fatal mental illnesses, including depression.

Neurologically Related Compulsive Behavior

Research indicates that uncontrollable compulsive behaviors are often associated with abnormalities in different brain regions where learning and behavior occur. People who behave compulsively usually have brains that are overly active in habitual learning or underactive in goal-directed control.

Compulsive Behaviors to Avoid Negative Consequences

Some people behave compulsively to avoid feelings of stress or distress and to gain a sense of control. This is common in people with OCD and eating disorders like anorexia nervosa. In these situations, the person usually avoids something fearful or unpleasant.

For example, a person with OCD might compulsively check the locks on their doors to avoid having someone break into their home. A person with anorexia might not eat to avoid the unwanted result of gaining weight.

How to Treat Compulsive Behavior

Compulsive behaviors related to mental illness are most successfully treated through mental health therapy. The specific type of therapy depends on your situation and symptoms. Some of the most effective types of treatment for compulsive behaviors related to mental illness include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): This type of therapy asks you to pay attention to your thoughts and identify any that are unrealistic or unhelpful. Over time, you work with your therapist to learn how to challenge these thoughts and change your behaviors to healthier, better-serving ones.
  • Exposure therapy: This type of therapy exposes you to the thing or event that causes distress, such as touching a public doorknob, to reduce the compulsive behavior. After the exposure, you're asked to refrain from your normal compulsive response, such as washing your hands.
  • Medication: Medication may be a helpful addition to therapy and will depend on your illness. For example, someone with OCD may be prescribed a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), whereas someone with Parkinson's disease may be prescribed beta-blocker medications or dopamine replacements.

When to Seek Professional Help

Anytime someone experiences repetitive behaviors they cannot control, whether it's due to behavioral or neurological reasons, it's essential to see a healthcare provider. Getting a diagnosis is the first step in determining the cause of compulsive behaviors and will help determine an effective treatment plan.

Summary

Compulsive behaviors are actions that are disruptive, often repetitive, and recurring. Many compulsive behaviors are related to a mental illness, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), eating disorders, and substance use disorders. Some compulsive behaviors are neurological and are symptoms of other conditions, such as Parkinson's disease.

People who behave compulsively are likely unable to control the behavior, feel that it's unpleasant, feel a loss of control if they don't do it, and/or feel that they cannot stop doing it. Examples of compulsive behaviors include compulsively buying things, locking and unlocking a door before bed, and compulsive hand-washing after touching something in public.

Treatment for compulsive behaviors depends on their cause but might include psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both. Though not all compulsive behaviors are cause for concern, you should consult a healthcare provider whenever you cannot control your behavior or feel that the behavior is disruptive.

A Word From Verywell

Feeling like you cannot control or stop certain behaviors can feel unpleasant and concerning. Whatever the cause of your behaviors, there are treatment options available. Seeking support from a medical and/or mental health provider can bring comfort and effective treatment to help you cope with and effectively manage your compulsive behaviors.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes compulsive behaviors?

    Compulsive behaviors can result from a disorder, such as Parkinson's disease or autism spectrum disorder, or a mental health disorder, such as a substance use disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or an eating disorder.

  • How can I stop my compulsive behavior?

    Different treatment options are available depending on the cause of your compulsive behavior. Some therapy options include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy. Medication may also be advised, depending on your symptoms and condition.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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