Compulsive Behaviors in Recovery

Individuals who have overcome a substance use disorder should be incredibly proud of their accomplishments. However, this doesn’t mean they are out of the woods yet. Research shows that in rare cases, it is possible for people to pick up compulsive behaviors in recovery. These actions may seem healthy or normal on the surface, but it is important to get all compulsive behavior in check for long-term success. Read on to learn more.


How Do Compulsive Behaviors Take Hold?

The cessation of substance use can be a difficult battle for two key reasons:

Addiction Takes Up Time

Those who caught in its throes find themselves fully occupied by the process of obtaining, using and recovering from their drugs of choice. This leaves little time for hobbies, physical activity or even one’s career.

After someone attends a treatment program, they no longer devote entire days to substance abuse. If not properly anticipated and addressed, the resulting boredom can lead individuals to thrill seek in other areas.

Addiction Changes the Brain

Another concern can be best summed up as “brain chemistry.” Ongoing substance use changes the levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain’s reward center. This means that in early recovery, individuals may be unconsciously drawn to activities that create those familiar dopamine bursts.

Exercise, for example, releases feel-good endorphins that create a natural high. Some people may be so excited about this feeling that they neglect to self-regulate. This is the pathway to compulsive behaviors in recovery.


Examples of Compulsive Behaviors in Recovery

Even when a person has put down their drink or drug for good, there is still a possibility that they will develop behaviors that appear addictive in nature. These often include:

  • Working (workaholism)
  • Shopping (shopping addiction)
  • Sexual activity (love addiction)
  • Exercise (exercise addiction)
  • Tech use (video game addiction or internet addiction)
  • Gambling (gambling addiction)

This can be complicated for loved ones to address – while devoting yourself to work or exercise may seem like a good thing, especially after so much struggle, a lack of moderation can indicate real psychological problems. Where is the line between “compulsive” and “normal”?


What is Healthy?

In recovery, there are a few general guidelines about life after treatment.

First, those who have completed a program are encouraged to avoid other addictive substances. This means that a person who received treatment for an alcohol use disorder should steer clear of prescription opioids, marijuana and cocaine. However, there is more that people should be mindful of.

Next, individuals should avoid behaviors that promote the same type of secrecy or “rush” as their addiction did. If they find themselves shopping to cope with a bad performance review, struggling to manage their money or hiding purchases from their spouse, for example, their buying may have become a problem.

Finally, they ought to feel comfortable working with a continuing care counselor. If they are tempted to downplay their exercise regime due to a fear of negative feedback, it’s a sure sign that compulsive behavior is at play.

Recovery is all about balance. In order to successfully avoid a spiral into compulsive behaviors, those who are newly clean and sober are encouraged to seek outside support. Open conversations with one’s sponsor, physician, psychologist and treatment team can prevent healthy behaviors from escalating into disordered behavior.


The Relationship Between OCD and Addiction

No discussion of compulsive behaviors in recovery would be complete without a disclaimer about obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder, often abbreviated as OCD, can co-occur with a substance use disorder. In this case, a compulsion is best defined as an irresistible urge to do something. A person may become fearful and anxious if they are unable to work out, go to the office or spend time online. They may not know exactly what will happen if they aren’t able to do so, but they know that it will be bad.

Those diagnosed with OCD perform specific activities (called rituals) to alleviate anxiety. They continue to behave this way even if they understand that the choices they’re making are irrational. Hand washing, checking doors and cleaning are all common rituals for OCD individuals. It’s not uncommon for them to fixate on concerns like germs, numbers or disorganization.

In many cases, signs of OCD would have appeared earlier in life than the addiction in question. Their symptoms may have been affected by substance use. Some individuals attempt to drink or use drugs in an effort to cope with the constant anxiety and strain of OCD. However, this is different from the actions discussed in this article.

The diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder should be considered distinct from compulsive behaviors that develop only after the treatment of a substance use disorder, especially if the behaviors in question are in pursuit of a rush (and not in an attempt to alleviate anxiety).


Help for Compulsion

Not every person in recovery will deal with compulsive behaviors; however, those who have just completed a treatment program should take proactive steps to avoid them. Cumberland Heights provides proven clinical care to those struggling with mental health conditions and substance use disorders. For more information, contact our admissions coordinators.