Compulsion and Addiction

Compulsion and Addiction

Although understanding compulsion and compulsive behavior is key to understanding addiction, compulsive behavior is not present in all patients who suffer from substance use disorder. Addiction is sometimes defined as the most severe form of a substance use disorder, and in those cases, there is more likely to be compulsive behavior in the background of the patient. Some of the research that we will look at in this article outlines two separate types of compulsivity in addiction. Those two types of compulsion are compulsive drug-taking behavior, and compulsive drug-seeking behavior, and the authors of one study that I looked at argue that each has a separate chemical mechanism in the brain that is underlying the behavior. In order to understand what the researchers are talking about; it is valuable to understand what compulsive behavior looks like in the context of alcoholism and drug addiction. In Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and other medical interventions unrelated to AA, compulsion is defined as the act of continuing to seek or take drugs in the face of serious negative consequences. Earlier this year I wrote an article about how a person can decide if they themselves or a loved one may be an alcoholic, and this idea of compulsion is central in defining addiction itself, as negative consequences will deter those people who do not have any unhealthy drive to use drugs and alcohol. As an example, a health crisis that is caused by drinking would cause most people to give up alcohol, but for an alcoholic that may not be the case. The same pattern can appear with more or less serious consequences, and the pattern can play out again and again, as people with serious substance use disorder may repeatedly face negative side effects from drinking and/or using drugs. If you or a loved one is experiencing substance use disorder, you can contact us today to speak with a professional about our many treatment options at Florida Springs, one of the best drug rehabs in Florida, with both inpatient and outpatient options available. 

Compulsive drug-seeking behavior is the process of a person trying to procure drugs or alcohol despite having faced negative consequences from past drug-seeking behavior. A person who is in debt or does not have the money to pay the bills for essential services, including rent or mortgage payment, would be someone who should not be seeking out expensive drugs or alcohol. That is, however, the type of behavior we see in those with compulsive drug-seeking tendencies. Notice that this scenario differs slightly from someone who might have easy access to drugs or alcohol, or even have those substances on hand, as drug-seeking and drug-taking are different things. The research that I looked at for today explains that the “neural systems that underlie habitual behavior dominate goal-directed behavioral systems” in those who suffer from compulsive drug-seeking. In other words, the compulsion to act on a habit becomes more powerful than underlying thoughts that seek to avoid negative behavior. 

Compulsive drug-taking behavior is, of course, the other side of the coin then. If a person has had a health scare, like in the example I gave before, and continues to use a harmful drug, this is a problem of compulsive drug-taking. It is important to note that people with serious substance use disorder can suffer from both of these compulsions, or in some cases neither, but the researchers are clear to make distinctions between each regardless. The study suggests people with compulsive drug-taking issues have an imbalance in frontostriatal brain circuits that encode reward and aversion. This is a breakdown in proper reward system functioning, similar to what we see in rats that are given cocaine and then starve to death while using the cocaine. While we see breakdowns in the proper function of the brain in both cases of addiction and compulsion, the actual areas and processes of the brain that fail are different. The authors explain that understanding the different areas of the brain and their relationship to addiction and compulsion can lead to further breakthroughs in substance abuse treatment. As always, if you or a loved one is seeking treatment options, the best drug rehab and outpatient treatment center in Florida is Florida Springs Wellness and Recovery Center, and you can contact them by calling the number on this website.

By T.A. Cannon (Contact me at



LÜSCHER, C.; ROBBINS, T. W.; EVERITT, B. J. The transition to compulsion in addiction. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, [s. l.], v. 21, n. 5, p. 247–263, 2020. DOI 10.1038/s41583-020-0289-z. Disponível em: Acesso em: 29 dez. 2020.