How to Identify and Stop Compulsive Behavior

At times, we all may find ourselves engaging in behaviors that we know are unhealthy for us. Maybe it is over-indulging in comfort food when feeling stressed, or making impulsive purchases online to dull the boredom. Sometimes we may choose to turn to ways of coping that have negative consequences- and perhaps over time, we feel like we no longer have a choice.

So how do we know when a behavior has become compulsive, and what do we do when we feel like we may be losing control? Let’s take a look at the signs of compulsive behavior and what steps to take to break the cycle of compulsion in your life.

How Do I Know if a Behavior is Compulsive?

Compulsion can be thought of as an uncontrollable urge to repeatedly engage in a behavior, despite the negative consequences. Though a person typically does not want to keep carrying out the behavior, they feel a sense of powerlessness over it. Several examples of compulsive behaviors are gambling, eating, shopping, sexual behavior, and exercise.

Some compulsive behavior (such as counting, cleaning, or checking) may be linked with a mental health condition called obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

In this mental health condition, compulsive behaviors are used to mitigate anxiety brought on by obsessive thoughts. Substance dependency can be classified as a compulsive behavior as well, as it involves continuing to use a substance repeatedly and feeling unable to stop despite the harmful impact.

Some questions that may help you to identify if a behavior is compulsive include:

  • Do you find that your day is organized around planning/engaging in the behavior?
  • Does this behavior have negative consequences on any area of your life? (such as work, relationships, etc.)
  • Do you engage in this behavior in secret?
  • Do you find yourself unable to stop the behavior despite numerous attempts to stop or cut back?

If a behavior is negatively impacting your life, yet you feel out of control to stop it, it may be an indication of compulsive behavior. Know that this doesn’t mean you will be stuck in this pattern forever– there are steps you can take to overcome compulsive behavior and take back control of your life.

5 Steps towards Stopping a Compulsive Behavior

1. Explore what is driving the behavior. It can be helpful to spend some time reflecting on what emotions could be underlying the behavior. Is it a distraction from feelings of anxiety, depression, or loneliness? Looking at the roots of the behavior will help you to face what is going on beneath the surface and address these issues.

2. Practice mindfulness. Next time you feel the overwhelming urge to engage in the behavior, be intentional to tune into the present moment. Are there particular emotions or thought patterns that are triggering the need to carry out the behavior? What sensations are you experiencing in your body? Practicing mindfulness before, during, and after engaging in the behavior can help to increase your understanding of what is going on internally and perhaps feel a bit more in control.

3. Try to interrupt the ritual of the behavior. Instead of attempting to quit the behavior entirely, which can feel intimidating, try switching up the time of day in which you do it. Or when the compulsion hits, you might attempt to postpone the behavior for a bit. While you are still engaging in the behavior, interrupting the ritualistic aspect helps you to re-exert some sense of control.

4. Engage in a replacement behavior. It can be very difficult to try to stop a harmful behavior without having anything in place of it. You might identify other behaviors that provide something similar without as many negative consequences.

5. Seek out support. Working with a therapist can be extremely beneficial for helping you to identify what is driving compulsive behavior and addressing the underlying issues.

A therapist can guide you through developing healthy tools for coping with difficult emotions and circumstances, and moving away from behavior that is harmful to you and/or others. Through BetterHelp, you can connect with a licensed professional therapist who is trained to help you work through your challenges with compulsive behavior.

Many people also find healing in support groups that provide a safe space for openly discussing difficulties with compulsive behavior, and connecting with others who experience similar challenges. Support groups such as the 12 Steps are available for many different kinds of addictive behaviors, including Overeaters Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, and Gamblers Anonymous.

The takeaway

It may feel impossible to break away from a compulsive behavior; at times, you may feel like it is hopeless. It is important to remember that it is possible to overcome compulsive behavior and regain a sense of control over your life. Though it takes time and effort to get to the root of the behavior and move towards healing, there is always hope.