The Difference Between an Addiction and a Compulsion

The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as a complex substance use disorder characterized by positive drug seeking, the continued use of a substance despite the harmful consequences, and changes in the brain that are long-lasting. Addictive substances can include alcohol, drugs, and more. The addiction process creates complex interactions in the brain that cause certain behaviors despite the negative effects.

Addiction, one of many mental disorders, has a full spectrum of substance use disorders with many psychological components.

The concept of temporary satiation is another crucial element of addiction. A person who has an addiction will use the substance expecting it to result in some form of pleasure, such as temporary feelings of self-sufficiency or distraction from the problems they are facing in life. 

Addiction is typically classified as a disease, comparable to a chronic disease, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, since addiction is caused by “a combination of biological, environmental, psychological, and behavioral factors.”

Other factors can increase the risk of addiction, including mental health issues, impulse control problems, exposure to trauma and environmental cues, and factors such as easy access to alcohol or drug or substance use in the home.

Most people suffering from the mental illness of addiction do not realize their addictive behavior can cause them bodily harm due to a lack of voluntary control.


What is Compulsion?

Compulsion is described as the intense urge to engage in a behavior. This can be the urge to engage in repetitive behaviors that may help them achieve temporary relief from anxiety. 

Compulsions are a common symptom of a chronic disorder known as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which is generally characterized by uncontrollable behaviors and repeated thoughts. 

Someone experiencing compulsions may have OCD symptoms such as excessive hand washing or bathing, repeating certain words, or engaging in other rituals. Neurochemical imbalances can play a part in OCD symptoms. Brain circuits are often altered in those dealing with OCD.

Compulsive disorders share similar characteristics with behavioral addiction, and each can have negative consequences on someone’s life. Behavioral addictions can include pathological gambling, excessive eating, non-stop gaming, and more.

Addiction vs Compulsion

The key difference between addiction and compulsion is the individuals’ acceptance and awareness of reality. Someone with OCD may know their obsessions are not realistic. They may understand that their compulsions are excessive. They may be bothered by their thoughts and the need to carry out such compulsive behaviors but must do them to deal with their thoughts and behavior patterns.

A person with an addiction is not normally aware of the logic behind their actions. They likely do not recognize the adverse consequences of their addiction and are in denial that a problem exists or is causing issues in their everyday life. A core component and major distinction between addiction and compulsion is denial.

Treatment for Addiction and Compulsion

Both addiction and compulsion can be treated and managed with the help of a mental health professional and medications. Not everyone will respond to treatments in the same way for obvious reasons, but psychotherapy is key in treating addiction and compulsion disorders. Several appropriate treatments can help people overcome their addictions and may include therapeutic interventions, such as:

Response Prevention Therapy (RPT)

OCD can be treated with this therapy to help you respond to your fears more effectively. Exercises are used to face your smaller fears to work up to bigger fears.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

This therapy, which includes exposure therapy, can help people manage their addictive behavior symptoms. The focus is on the patient recognizing their harmful behaviors and thoughts and working to change how they behave and think. 

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

Addiction medicine combines various medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and therapies, to help people undergoing substance abuse treatment.

Group Therapy

For many people, addiction can feel isolating. Group therapy can help people create bonds to help one another recover from addiction. 

Emotional Regulation and Distress Tolerance

Skills such as emotional regulation and distress tolerance can be learned and implemented to help manage emotional distress. Practicing emotional regulation and improving distress tolerance can help people remain under control during emotional situations.

If you or a loved one are suffering from addiction or compulsion, Synergy Mental Wellness is available to help. We understand that an individual’s life experiences play a huge part in what they are dealing with. Contact us today through our online form to learn how we can provide an accurate diagnosis and aid you in your treatment.