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Obsessive vs. Addictive Behavior

by on June 14, 2020

Helping your clients discern between an obsession and an addition can be quite a challenge. To an untrained eye, the two appear almost exactly the same, meaning a client may believe their behavior is obsessive when in reality it is actually addictive. The distinction between the two is very important, however, because it will determine what type of treatment will be necessary moving forward.

While an obsession and addiction can look the same, as mentioned before, the important difference will be at the root of the problem. Does the client display consistent, almost ritualistic behavior? Or is their desire stemming from an unexplainable lack of satisfaction?

To build a sample scenario, let’s take a look at gambling. A client gambles every week, for instance, spending approximately $10 on lottery tickets regularly. Gambling in this example is the behavior that can be obsessive, addictive, or both. The obsessive part of the behavior is gambling at the same store, on the same day, with the same numbers, and if it is not done in this manner then there is no winning. For the gambler, it does not matter if there is evidence of past wins. The only aspect that matters is that things be done a certain way every single time. The addictive part of the behavior is dreaming of how the money will be spent, what will be bought, and who will benefit from the winnings. This dreaming is active, enticing, exciting, and consuming, usually taking up an entire day simply from thinking about the possibilities.

Obsessive Behavior.  When obsessing, their ritualistic routines become part of everyday life. Perhaps they comb their hair as an adult the same way as they did as a teenager. Or they recheck all of the doors at night several times even though they have been told it is already locked. Or they replay the same conversation over and over again just trying to figure it out. Or they wash their hands after anyone touches them. Or they clean with bleach because that is the only way to get things truly clean. Or they straighten things up and like things in neat rows. Or they count the number of beeps on your car door lock before believing it is locked.

All of these behaviors have roots in fear. Fear that if they don’t follow the routine, they will have a negative consequence. The outcomes themselves can vary, being anything from a headache, to a burnt down house, to missing out on something important, to infection, death, other’s negative opinions, living a disorganized life, or the loss of something they love. Fear, either real or imagined, leads to obsessive behavior.

Addictive Behavior.  When addicted, a person never feels satisfied unless using the substance.  Perhaps they drink alcohol to relax. Or they take prescription drugs to numb the pain. Or they shop for clothing to feel better about appearances. Or they gamble to hopefully earn quick easy money. Or they exercise to get the adrenaline high. Or they look at porn to feel desirable. Or they smoke to unwind. Or they watch soap operas to feel romantic. Or they play video games to feel successful. Or they eat sugar to get energy.

All of these behaviors have roots in escaping from an undesirable place to a desirable place through fantasy living.  Daydreaming about living with less stress, or without pain, what it would mean to have a desirable body, lots of money, a constant feeling of excitement, less anxiety, a romantic relationship, being the best, or possessing limitless energy. This fantasy life, either from real experiences or imagined, leads to addictive behavior.

Combination.  Putting obsessive and addictive behavior together can intensify both the desire to avoid fear and the desire to escape. They may clean with bleach because of fear that something is too dirty and become addicted to the smell of bleach while fantasizing about living dirt free. Or they can fantasize about being the best video game player and insist that no one can be successful until a certain level is reached three times.

This is why it is hard to recover from obsessive and addictive behavior because they can co-mingle rather easily. The key is separating out the behaviors and tracing them back to the root of the problem. By accomplishing this the undesirable behavior can be stopped, but the deeper issue will also be resolved to help prevent the behavior from resurfacing again.

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Posted under: Substance Abuse Writings from Christine

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