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The Difference Between an Addiction and a Compulsion



Addiction and compulsion are not synonymous, despite people's tendency to use the terms interchangeably. ‌There is a significant difference in the sense of pleasure produced in the brain when addiction is involved versus compulsions that do not result from an addiction.

It is extremely confusing for everyone when addiction and compulsion are used interchangeably, especially for those dealing with‌ ‌these‌ ‌conditions. Additionally, it causes confusion for health care professionals who are trying to help patients.

What is Addiction?

Addiction is defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) as a “treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.”

It is hard for someone who is addicted to a substance or behavior to stop using the substance or behavior, even if it can cause them physical and mental harm.

Some of the most common addiction symptoms include:

  • Psychological symptoms. An inability to stop using, risky behavior, obsession, and consuming large doses.

  • Social symptoms. Dropping hobbies and sacrifices, solitude, denial, and financial and legal issues.

  • Physical symptoms. Appetite changes, sleeplessness, change in appearance, and withdrawal symptoms.

What is Compulsion?

Addiction is greatly influenced by compulsion, which is much narrower than addiction itself. ‌‌‌In‌ ‌fact,‌ ‌nearly 30% of people with OCD have previously struggled with substance abuse. Compared to the general population, this is nearly twice as high.

Generally, this ‌is a strong urge that can motivate one to do something in a particular way. ‌People with addiction develop a sense of compulsion to take addictive substances or engage in addictive behaviors as their addiction evolves.

Compulsive behavior is a primary symptom‌ ‌of‌ ‌OCD. ‌An individual who has OCD may engage in a compulsion to engage in certain behaviors. ‌Often, people suffer from compulsions associated with obsessions, and repeated thoughts that cause distress. ‌For example, as a way of dealing with their anxiety, someone with OCD may continuously check their door locks or wash their hands.

Symptoms associated with compulsions‌ ‌include:.

  • Excessive hand washing until the‌ ‌skin‌ ‌becomes‌ ‌raw

  • Locking and re-locking doors repeatedly

  • Continually checking that the stove is‌ ‌off

  • Following certain patterns when counting

  • Saying a prayer, saying a word, or repeating a phrase quietly

  • Organizing your canned goods in‌ ‌the‌ ‌same‌ ‌way

Compulsion vs. Addiction

Compulsions and addictions differ largely in how well an individual accepts reality and understands it.

Someone with OCD may realize that their obsessions do not match reality. ‌Although they may know their compulsions are illogical or excessive, they still may not be able to control them. ‌Often, people with OCD have to carry out their compulsive behaviors despite their dissatisfaction with their own thoughts and behavior.

A person suffering from an addiction is often detached from the logic of their behavior. As they may be in denial that there is a problem or that the problem affects their life, they may not realize the negative effects of their addiction. ‌In addiction, denial plays a central role.

How to Treat Addiction and Compulsion

Addiction and compulsive behavior can seriously disrupt lives. ‌There is, however, good news: both conditions can be treated and managed.

Professional medical care and medications can correct the neurochemical imbalances responsible for these behaviors or at least, mitigate their‌ ‌effects.

Moreover, in order to treat either disorder, there is a crucial role for psychotherapy. ‌In both approaches, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is used to alter a patient's thinking and behavior patterns, and to develop better impulse control. ‌Additionally, there are special facilities for treating addiction and compulsive disorders.

Final Words of Advice

The terms addiction and compulsion do share some similarities, but they have very different meanings. ‌While compulsive behaviors play a role in addiction, they differ from compulsive behaviors associated with‌ ‌OCD.

The first step to overcoming compulsions and addictions is to consult your doctor. ‌A health professional can help you by recommending appropriate treatments after obtaining an accurate diagnosis.


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