Compulsive Behavior: Definition & Symptoms

Instructor: Emily Cummins
This lesson explores compulsive behavior, thought to be a result of the psychological disorder known as obsessive-compulsive disorder. Learn why compulsive behaviors are recurrent, difficult to stop, and often interfere with people's everyday lives.

Defining Compulsive Behavior

Do you ever leave your house, only to turn around and go back because you are convinced you left the stove on? Or gotten up out of bed at night just to double-check that you locked your door? While these might just be little quirks, for some people these behaviors get much worse, and they are examples of compulsive behavior.

A person struggling with compulsive behavior will get up and check the lock 10 or 15 times, constantly worried that the door is open. These behaviors become kind of like daily rituals and are characterized by an overwhelming urge to complete them.

Compulsive behavior happens when someone repeatedly engages in a behavior that does not necessarily provide relief or a reward, but rather repeats the behavior in an effort to make certain obsessions go away. People who engage in compulsive behavior often feel trapped by these behaviors and it is very, very difficult for them to stop.

The difference between a behavior being a habit or a quirk is determined by how much the behavior interferes in a person's life. These behaviors often include a desire to repeatedly touch things in a certain order, or count things, such as the number of steps between your bed and your desk. So, you might go back once in a while and make sure you turned your stove off, but a person suffering from compulsive behavior would go back over and over, even after already learning the stove was off.

It is thought that compulsive behaviors are largely caused by the condition known as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This is a psychological condition where an individual engages in compulsive behaviors in an effort to reduce anxiety. Obsessions refer to the thoughts, ideas, or images that a person cannot stop thinking about. These cause much anxiety. Compulsions are the behaviors a person engages in to try and control these thoughts. So, you can think of compulsive behavior as what results from obsessive thinking.

For many people suffering from this disorder, the thought of discontinuing the behavior is scary because they believe that something bad will happen if they do.

Types of Compulsive Behavior

People suffering from a disorder that leads to compulsive behavior often have a number of symptoms. Often, people have recurring thoughts or fears about things like germs and illness, or something bad happening to their family. People find it very difficult to control or stop these thoughts. For example, a person who engages in compulsive behavior may think many times a day about a family member dying in an accident. He or she is afraid of that happening and believes that somehow the accident can be prevented by engaging in the compulsive behavior.

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