Compulsive BehaviorsCompulsive Disorders: Causes, Symptoms, Types, Stages and Treatments

Commonly asked questions about compulsive behaviors:

What are Compulsive Behaviors?

Compulsions are repetitive behaviors or thoughts that a person engages in to neutralize, counteract, or diminish obsessions altogether. This can eventually lead to an obsessive compulsive disorder, where these gradual obsessions become overwhelming and can get in the way of important activities the person values.

People with OCD realize compulsions are a temporary solution, but without a better way to cope, they rely on them as a temporary escape. Compulsions can also involve situations that trigger obsessions such as gambling, spending or binge-eating.

What are the Symptoms of Compulsive Behaviors?

Compulsions arise in order to reduce or prevent anxiety caused by obsessive thought, although the compulsive behavior is excessive.
Signs of compulsion can increase in intensity and repetitiveness. These often include but are not limited to:

  • Constant checking
  • Constant counting
  • The repeated cleaning of one or more items
  • Repeatedly washing your hands
  • Constantly checking stove or door locks
  • Arranging items symmetrically or wanting everything in order
  • Hoarding

At the beginning stages of a disorder, these compulsive behaviors may not be as obvious or noticeable to other people.

What are the Risk Factors of Compulsive Behaviors?

Risk factors that contribute to compulsive behavior include:

Heredity (genetics)

A person with a compulsive or obsessive-compulsive behavior has a 25 percent chance that a blood relative also has the disorder. It is also more prevalent among identical (70%) rather than fraternal twins (50%).

Pregnancy and Postpartum

Studies have shown that compulsions can exist in 30 percent of women observed. Women may also experience worsening of symptoms during pregnancy and postpartum.

Fluctuating hormones may trigger symptoms during pregnancy. Postpartum compulsions often feature disturbing thoughts and excessive behavior regarding the baby’s well-being.

Environmental Stressors

Environmental stressors that can worsen compulsion symptoms include:

  • Abuse
  • Changes in living situation
  • Illness
  • Occupational changes/problems
  • Relationship concerns
  • School-related problems


Abilify is a top-selling drug prescribed to treat depression and symptoms of psychotic conditions, including schizophrenia and manic depression.

However, many consumers are unaware that Abilify could trigger the development of several destructive compulsive behaviors. While the drug label warns consumers of a compulsive gambling risk, there is no warning on the product indicating that there are other compulsive behavior risks, such as binge eating and shopping compulsions.

What is the Cause of Compulsive Behaviors?

Compulsive behaviors are often the cause of obsessive compulsive disorders, otherwise known as OCD. OCD is considered to have a neurobiological basis, as neuroimaging studies have found that the brain functions differently in people containing that disorder.

Compulsive behaviors don’t have a direct cause, but patients have been found to associate certain objects or situations with fear, which they learn to avoid or reduce by performing rituals. This fear or avoidance cycle may commence during a period of intense stress (starting a new job or a relationship ending, for example). Rather than confronting the real fear this situation generates, they begin to avoid it via compulsions.

What are the Types of Compulsive Behaviors?

Many types of excessive actions develop into compulsive behaviors. These may include shopping, hoarding, eating, gambling, sexual behavior, and talking. Three of the major types of compulsive behaviors are:

Compulsive buying

Compulsive buying, otherwise known as shopaholism, retail therapy, or overspending, is generally characterized as excessive, impulsive, and uncontrollable consumption.

Although there are economic, psychological, and utilitarian benefits in most consumer purchases, compulsive buying is specifically based on psychological factors concerning approval and recognition. There are also sociological and cultural forces that encourage this type of behavior.

Advertisements, sales, and new seasons of clothing and objects all encourage constant purchases as a way of “reinventing yourself” and replacing a feeling of emptiness — a benefit that a relationship would usually provide.

Excessive gambling

Gambling is a diverse activity and it is not always obvious when someone is addicted to it. Contrary to popular belief, gambling is not restricted to slot machines, cards and casinos.

Many factors contribute to gambling addiction such as desperation for money, the desire of experiencing highs and thrills, and the social status associated with being a successful gambler. Gambling addiction mainly involves the need for betting large amounts of money in hopes for more in return. Although this rarely ever happens, it is easy for someone to grasp onto this illusion, and constantly long for more.

Binge eating disorder

Binge eating is characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food. Usually a person feels as though they have lost control of themselves during the binge, leading to feelings of shame, distress, or guilt afterwards.

Some common behavioral characteristics of binge eating include:

  • Disappearance of large amounts of food in short periods of time
  • Secretive food behaviors
  • Disruption in normal eating behaviors
  • Extreme restrictions with food and periodic dieting and/or fasting
  • Periods of uncontrolled, impulsive, or continuous eating beyond the point of feeling uncomfortably full, but does not purge.
  • Creating lifestyle schedules or rituals for binge eating sessions.

What is the Treatment for Compulsive Behaviors?

Compulsive behaviors can advance into obsessive-compulsive disorder. Treatment may not always result in a cure, but it can help bring symptoms under control.

Two main treatments for OCD are psychotherapy and medications. Treatment is often most effective with a combination of the two.


Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of psychotherapy that is effective for many people with OCD. Exposure and response prevention is a type of CBT therapy that involves gradually exposing the person to a feared object or obsession, and then teaching them healthy ways to cope with it. ERP takes effort, practice, and time, but there may be better quality of life once obsessions and compulsions are learned to be managed.

This may take place in individual, family, or group sessions.


Certain psychiatric medications can help control typical obsessions and compulsions. Antidepressants are often the first medication prescribed.

Antidepressants approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat OCD and compulsive behaviors include:

  • Clomipramine (anafranil) for ages 10 years and older
  • Fluoxetine (Prozac) for ages 7 years and older
  • Fluvoxamine for ages 8 years and older
  • Paroxetine (Paxil, Pexeva) for adults only
  • Sertraline (Zoloft) for adults and children 6 years and older

How do I Control Compulsive Behaviors?

Plenty of compulsive eaters, shoppers, and gamblers may wreak havoc on their health, relationships, and/or financial security. Once compulsive behaviors advance past the “addiction” phase, it becomes increasingly difficult to stop and these burdens can begin to take a toll on someone’s life.

According to, there are 5 steps to control, and possibly overcome, compulsions. However, if this isn’t a method that proves successful for your type of compulsion, it may be best to see a psychotherapist.

  1. Postpone compulsion to a later time
  2. Think and act in slow motion during time of compulsion
  3. Change some aspect of your compulsion
  4. Choose not to act upon your compulsion

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