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Is a Compulsive Behavior the Same as an Addiction?

Does your loved one compulsively play video games, shop, spend too much time on social media or online? What does it mean for a compulsive behavior to be an addiction? Is this the same as being addicted to drugs or alcohol? Understanding what drives compulsive behaviors – and how these behaviors become addictions – can be confusing and difficult at first. Learning more about compulsive behavior and addiction is an important first step for helping your loved one seek treatment and get healthy.

Habits, Compulsions, and Addictions: What is the Difference?

It’s natural to feel confused about the difference between “habits,” “compulsions” and “addictions.” A habit is an automatic sequence of actions; even though we notice we are behaving a certain way, we enact this behavior without questioning why or thinking twice about it. For example, you might have a habit of brushing your teeth every morning or biting your nails. Habits are formed through repetitive conscious action; over time, the behavior becomes unconscious and we may find ourselves engaging in this behavior without even realizing it.

How Is Compulsive Behavior Different from a Habit?

Compulsive behavior is a more extreme version of a habit. For example, someone who washes their hands for 10 minutes after eating is not doing so merely out of habit. There is psychological pressure associated with this behavior and the conscious nature of the behavior makes it a compulsion. Some compulsive behaviors may stimulate the brain’s reward system much like drugs and alcohol do, leading to addiction. For example, if your loved one is a compulsive gambler, they may constantly chase bets, accumulate debt, deplete their savings, or even resort to fraud or deception in order to continue gambling. Even if they know that gambling is risky, dangerous, and destroying their life, they cannot simply “stop” this behavior. This may mean that your loved one is addicted to this behavior.

Negative Consequences Don’t Always Stop Addiction

The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as a “primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry.” In plain and simple terms, this means that if your loved one is addicted to drugs or alcohol, they will continue to seek out and use these substances despite the negative consequences to relationships and health. Addiction changes how the brain learns, experiences pleasure, and motivates. Certain compulsive behaviors, like gambling, shopping, or playing video games, can trigger similar changes in the brain’s motivate/reward/pleasure circuits. While your loved one may not be physically addicted to drugs or alcohol, these compulsive behaviors may still be classified as “addictions” by a psychiatrist.

Treatment for Compulsive Behaviors

Treating compulsive behaviors like video gaming obsessively can be challenging. The first step is for your loved one to admit that they have a problem and are willing to seek treatment. Treatment typically involves three parts:

  • Psychotherapy (such as cognitive behavioral therapy)
  • Medication (such as antidepressants or mood stabilizers to address emotional issues underpinning your loved one’s addiction)
  • Self-help groups

Just like treatment for substance abuse, treatment for compulsive behaviors is not an overnight cure-all. With the right treatment program, your loved one can take the first steps towards living a healthy life without this damaging behavior. Call us at 877-466-0620 to learn more.


  1. American Society of Addiction Medicine. “Definition of Addiction.” ASAM: The Voice of Addiction Medicine.
  2. Henden, Edmund, Hans Olav Melberg, Ole Jorgen Rogeberg. “Addiction: Choice or Compulsion?” Frontiers in Psychiatry. 7 Aug 2013.
  3. Mayo Clinic Staff. “Compulsive Gambling: Treatments and Drugs.” Compulsive Gambling. 12 Feb 2014.