Compulsions and addictions can lead to dangerous outcomes. Learning how these two forces interact can help you understand the nature of your addiction. A professional treatment center can help you manage compulsive behaviors and curb your addiction.

Compulsion and Addiction: What’s the Difference?

Although often used interchangeably, compulsion and addiction differ in several ways. Addiction can be seen as a subcategory of compulsion; both involve a desire to take a specific action. Below is a comparison of the two:

  • Compulsion is often connected with obsession. For example, an obsession with cleanliness or an irrational fear of bacteria can lead to compulsive bathing and hand-washing. Obsessive thoughts can take on any form and may not be linked to any underlying factors. The purpose of compulsive actions is often to relieve anxiety brought on by the obsession. Man at psychologistHowever, compulsions can also exist without obsessions.
  • Addiction may also relieve anxiety, but its primary purpose is to acquire a reward. These rewards include pain relief, feelings of empowerment, physical or mental stimulation, or thrill. While compulsion can lead to addiction, the latter is defined by an inability to stop despite negative consequences. Smoking, substance abuse, shopping gambling, binge eating, and even exercising can easily become addictions, as they provide some type of gratification.

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The Diminishing Returns of Addiction

After prolonged substance use, the brain “dumbs down” the feeling of pleasure associated with the activity. That’s because the brain is naturally wired to appreciate rewards achieved through hard work. Drugs, alcohol, and addictive behaviors are designed to flood the brain with pleasure in a short amount of time.

Many addictive substances trigger the brain to release up to 10 times the normal amount of dopamine in a shorter span of time than natural reward mechanisms. To avoid being overwhelmed, the brain learns to either cut down on dopamine production or kill off dopamine receptors.

This effect is dangerous for several reasons. First, it encourages a drug user to use higher doses and use more often to achieve that high. This is why long-time users appear to have a higher tolerance.

Doctor and patientSecond, while the pleasure factor of drug use may diminish, the harmful effects on the body do not. Heavy usage can lead to organ failure, heart attack, stroke, and other life-threatening conditions. The brain also becomes wired to seek out the drug and turns everyday situations into cravings. Seeing a plastic bag, for example, can cue the brain into seeking drugs.

When Compulsion Takes Over

Compulsion becomes the driving force when reward no longer factors into addictive behavior. Using the substance becomes a habit, and cravings can be difficult to resist.

You can change the outcome of compulsion by developing new, life-affirming habits. Learn new things – a language, an instrument, a sport; travel to places you’ve never visited; meet new people and build a network of positive influences. Remember that you’re in control of your life, and that you can make a change.

Seek Treatment Today

There is always hope for recovery. Blu By The Sea provides individualized, holistic treatment programs designed to treat the entirety of a person, not just a few symptoms. We combine traditional cognitive behavioral therapy and counseling with yoga, art therapy, and other body-and-mind strengthening endeavors to help you manage compulsions and attack the root cause of your addiction.


  1. Harvard Health, How Addiction Hijacks the Brain,,;
    National Institute on Drug Abuse, Drug Abuse and Addiction,,