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Behavioral Compulsivity

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Dr. John Dyben, DHSc, MCAP, CMHP – Clinical Director, Hanley Center at Origins

Over the past two decades, we have learned through research that when people are addicted to drugs and alcohol, there is a change in their brain that causes the instinct part of the brain (the mid-brain) to take priority over the impulse control, logic, moral part of our brain (the prefrontal cortex). This causes compulsive seeking and use of drugs despite negative consequences.

For a long time, professionals have also noticed that people can develop compulsivity to engage certain behaviors such as gambling, eating, and sex with the same compulsivity that persons addicted to drugs seek out drug use.

Though the research is in very early stages, we know that the “reward pathway” in the brain is impacted by all of these (drugs/alcohol, food, gambling, sex). So, addictions professionals are seeing many persons who have all of the symptoms of addiction but instead of being driven to use a drug, they are compulsively and overwhelmingly driven to engage a certain behavior.

Certainly, not all sexual acting out is an addiction, but there are certainly warning signs that this might be the case. For example: continuing to engage a behavior despite negative consequences; needing more and more of a stimulus to feel satisfied; continuing to do something even when you find little or satisfaction from it; wanting to stop or decrease a behavior but not being able to.

When these signs are present individuals should seek help from professionals to get an accurate picture of what is going on. If a person does have an addictive disorder, they can be helped through treatment but treatment must also be followed by ongoing care and personal work to protect recovery and health.