Understanding Addiction, Behavior and Compulsion  

What Is Addictive Behavior?

For the non-addicted person, addictive behavior can be hard to understand. Watching someone you care about engage in destructive and unhealthy behaviors seemingly without regard to consequences is frightening and makes no sense.

Understanding addiction and how it works can give a better perspective on the problem.

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, “Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.”

In many ways, addiction is still somewhat of a mystery. Its exact causes are still not known, although there is thought to be a genetic component, as well as environmental factors. It is known that addiction, once it takes hold, affects the reward center of the brain, creating a pattern of using and compulsive behavior in order to continue releasing the chemicals necessary for a sense of well-being.

There are numerous ways in which addictive behavior presents itself, and not all of them involve drugs. For people seeking help for their loved ones, though, drugs are usually the main concern. Your loved one may be displaying any of the following addictive behaviors:

Constant craving or preoccupation for their substance of choice. This obsession with using interferes with daily life, such as school, work, family and friends.

Going to extreme lengths to obtain and use the drug or other substance or behavior, despite negative consequences. For example: Stealing, spending rent money on drugs, going to dangerous places or being around dangerous people, etc.

Erratic behavior. This behavior may come as a result of being without the substance, or it may arise as a result of being under the influence. The person is not “himself” or may display extreme anger, hostility, paranoia or other uncharacteristic behaviors.

Denial. Denial is a hallmark of addictive behavior, and is usually present in one form or another. Despite obvious evidence that your loved one has a problem, they insist that it is “no big deal” or they blame their current situation on anything and everything but the drugs.

Hiding or covering up the behavior. Addicts may isolate themselves from family and friends in an attempt to hide their using.

As frustrating and confusing as these behaviors may be to those who are not addicted, they are almost universally experienced by those who are.

The Difference Between Dependence And Addiction

Drug dependence and drug addiction may be experienced together, but they are not the same thing. A person can be dependent on a drug, but not be addicted. For example, a person who has been prescribed narcotic medication for pain may become physically dependent on it, and experience withdrawals upon stopping its use, but they are not necessarily addicted.

An addicted person may not experience physical withdrawals when stopping their drug of choice, but the psychological withdrawals can be just as powerful, if not more so. It is often the psychological urge that keeps people using, not the physical.

Compulsion vs. Addiction

You may have heard the term “compulsive behaviors” as well as “addictive behaviors” and wondered if they were the same thing. While they have similarities, there are differences.

Compulsion is a part of addictive behavior, in other words, the addict has a compulsion to use. But compulsion isn’t the addiction itself. Likewise, compulsive behavior can occur without addiction. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a separate diagnosis, as is hoarding and other compulsive behaviors.

Understanding addiction isn’t always easy, but it helps to know that it is a real, medical condition that can be treated successfully.


  1. Seyyed Salman Alavi, Masoud Ferdosi, Fereshte Jannatifard, Mehdi Eslami, Hamed Alaghemandan and Mehrdad Setare. Behavioral Addiction versus Substance Addiction: Correspondence of Psychiatric and Psychological Views April 3, 2012, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3354400/
  2. American Society of Addiction Medicine, Definition of Addiction, April 19, 2011, http://www.asam.org/for-the-public/definition-of-addiction

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