“Why can’t you just stop?”
“It’s just a bad habit, right?”
If you struggle with compulsive behavior, you might hear these kinds of questions from others. To an outsider, it may seem like “just a bad habit” or something you can choose to stop. But internally, coping with a compulsive behavior can feel extremely challenging and feel out of control.
What is a Compulsive Behavior
A compulsive behavior is a repeated action that a person feels little control over. Often, it has a negative impact on a person’s physical or mental health and interpersonal relationships. Some of the most common compulsive behaviors are body-focused, such as nail-biting, skin picking, scratching, or hair pulling. Others may compulsively shop, gamble, eat, exercise, masturbate, or something else.
Compulsive behaviors aren’t just habits. You may be in the habit of brushing your teeth twice a day or watching the news every night, but that’s different from a compulsion. Habits are usually easier to stop if you want to, and you don’t necessarily feel a strong urge (read: compulsion) to do them. If you aren’t sure whether your habit is a compulsion, ask yourself: how strong is the urge to do it? How hard would it feel to stop? Does engaging in it sometimes, or all the time, feel out of your control?
Fortunately, as much as these behaviors can feel out of our control, there are many ways to cope.
Know Your Triggers
Before knowing how best to cope with your compulsive behavior, you need to understand it. Start by asking yourself, “When do I engage in this behavior?”
Consider the following questions:
- Is there a certain time of day I tend to do this behavior?
- What kind of environments are most likely to trigger my behavior? (when I’m working; when I’m alone; when I’m with certain people)
- Are there body sensations that trigger my behavior? (My hands feel too still, I need to pick; my stomach feels bloated, I need to exercise; etc.)
- Is there a pattern to how I usually feel before doing this behavior? (when I’m anxious; stressed; bored; lonely; sad)
- Do certain kinds of thoughts trigger my behavior? (thinking negatively about my body; thinking I’m a failure; thinking about a particular upsetting memory or situation)
Many people who struggle with compulsive behaviors say things like, “I didn’t even realize I was doing it!” or “It’s like an out-of-body experience.” This contributes to the feeling that the behavior is out of your control.
Practicing mindfulness before, during, and after engaging in a compulsive behavior can mitigate this experience. It also allows you to practice the tip above — noticing what is triggering the behavior. You may even find that doing the behavior while focusing on your sensations, feelings, thoughts, and environment may help you feel more in control.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of mindfulness, it is a practice of engaging your attention on one or many aspects of the present moment — your senses, emotions, thoughts, physical environment, or anything else about your current state.
Practicing mindfulness around a compulsive behavior might look something like this: If you are a compulsive nail biter, the next time you notice the urge to bite your nails, bring your attention to the present moment. You might notice your body: how do your hands and mouth feel? How does the rest of your body feel? Is there tension or heaviness? You might check in with your senses, noticing what you see, hear, smell, feel, and taste, drawing you back to your body and to your environment. The goal here isn’t necessarily to stop you from biting your nails, rather to practice noticing the feelings and sensations that accompany the behavior.
You can also try continuing this mindfulness after you’ve stopped doing the behavior. After you’re done biting your nails, how do your body and emotions feel? Any different? Perhaps you feel like you’ve released some energy or anxiety, or maybe a new emotion crops up, like shame or guilt or sadness. Your system is giving you many clues through this process as to how to cope with the behavior, so just practice listening.
Change The Time
Compulsive behaviors are very hard to quit cold turkey, so rather than trying to stop yours completely, increase your sense of control by scheduling the behavior at a specific time. For example, you might allow yourself to clean from 9:30-9:35 am. To avoid this set time from becoming routine in your mind, change it every day. If you compulsively exercise, do it in the morning one day, the evening the next, and the afternoon the day after that. Give yourself 5 minutes for the behavior one day, then 15 the next, then 2 the next. By engaging in the behavior within a set time frame, you are regaining some control over it, without the pressure to stop it completely.
Replace With a Less Harmful Behavior
Some compulsive behaviors can be harmful or even dangerous to our bodies or to other people. It may be helpful to identify a replacement behavior that is less harmful in these cases. Once you know your triggers and what about your compulsive behavior feels good or helpful, you can try to find a similar but different replacement.
For example, if you want to stop picking your skin, is it the sensation in your fingers you are drawn to? You can try playing with putty, or put a sticker on a surface and pick it off to simulate a similar feeling. Or if it’s the feeling of the skin that gets picked that motivates the compulsion, what’s something less harmful you can do to your skin instead? How would it feel to tap your skin with your fingernails, massage your skin, or draw on your skin with a washable marker? By finding a replacement behavior, you are trying to satisfy the urge with fewer negative consequences.
Lift Up The Rug
As mentioned above, knowing what triggers your compulsion is key to understanding it. But if you know what feelings, thoughts, or environments trigger your behavior and are still finding it hard to disengage, there may be more layers to explore. These behaviors may come from attempts to feel “more alive,” loved, to be perfect, to punish oneself, or something else. Sometimes trauma is at the root.
Working with a psychotherapist can help you to lift up the rug on your compulsive behavior and see what’s underneath. They can help you explore your triggering thoughts and feelings, draw new connections, and address the root cause, all in a compassionate, judgment-free zone.
If you’re looking for a therapist to help you address a compulsive behavior, please reach out to us. You don’t have to do it alone.