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Overcoming Compulsive Behavior

Updated on August 25, 2017
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I became a news reporter for the Marine Corps in the early 70s. I'm now retired and write on a wide variety of subjects in my spare time.

Many Types Of Compulsive Behavior

Many have some form of compulsive behavior. There's many types. For example: shopping, over eating, hoarding and gambling.

Wikipedia defines compulsive behavior as performing an act repetitively without an actual reward. Compulsive behaviors are a need to reduce apprehension caused by internal feelings a person wants to abstain from.

Perhaps the best known is obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). It's classified as both a brain and behavior disorder. Many behaviorists believe compulsive behavior may not be associated with the problem it appears to mimic.

Compulsive behavior is also associated with compulsive sexual behavior, or lack of control over it. Most with compulsions have more than one. For example, compulsive over eaters may also be shopaholics.

The only remedy is insight into the problem. Compulsions aren't necessarily a sign of mental illness or dysfunction. In fact, they are common. Compulsions are usually a way to avoid unpleasant realities.

Compulsions are Irrational Actions

Compulsions are irrational actions people have difficulty controlling. They often act counter to a person's will. Individuals may desire living sober, moral lives, but find themselves in a continuous struggle against compulsions to drink, abuse drugs, or engage in illicit sex. When they lose the battle they're often left feeling guilty with low self-esteem.

Compulsions are irrational because they urge sufferers' to commit harmful acts. The conscious mind is fighting a losing battle. When behavior reaches an uncontrollable level, it's then an addiction.

Big Business

Naturally, big business has taken advantage of the situation making fortunes hawking fad diet books and pills. Unfortunately, most fail to live up to their promises. Compulsive over eating is a response to external pressures and internal urges stimulating food cravings. They're rarely related to physical hunger. Following are the 12 most common reasons:

  • Cultural Pressures

We are surrounded by messages from our environment, especially advertisers. Restaurant chains, and snack food companies encourage over eating. Not to be outdone, gorgeous models sell their products promising physical beauty.

  • Subconscious Desire for Protection Against Intimacy

There is actually a survival instinct working here. We have seen many who build protective barriers of fat around themselves to repulse any intimate advances. In most cases it's a response to a past traumatic event.

  • Craving for Immediate Gratification

We are all born self-centered. But if we grew up with loving, disciplining parents, we usually grow out it. But if not, most likely the pattern will continue.

  • Food as a Tranquilizer

When a person eats, the brain produces endorphins. These are natural painkillers, relaxants, and pleasure stimulants. They were designed to help with pain and stress. Certain activities, such as laughter, eating, and aerobic exercise stimulates their production.

  • Food to Avoid Anxiety and Truths

Anxiety is a generalized sense of unease. Most caused by emotional issues. The anxiety a person feels may be fear of discovering the truth about hidden memories.

Food as Punishment

People sometimes become angry over some mistake or failure. Disgusted, they respond by gaining weight. They find it less painful to hate themselves than confront their true anger.

  • Food to relieve Depression or Stress

Frequently depressed people suffer from repressed anger and an unconscious desire to take revenge against others or themselves. Many are perfectionists. Emotions of resentment and anger cause brain chemicals such as serotonin, to become depleted. These chemicals enable electrical impulses that allows us to feel good. When depleted, we lose energy, our positive mood, and motivation. Therefore, people gain weight because they become less active. At the opposite extreme, many with these chemical losses actually lose their appetites. Some even develop anorexia.

  • Food to Express a Need to Control Circumstances

Control is a major issue for children of dysfunctional families. In families with alcoholic or abusive parents, children grow up scared, wary, and defensive. They have no control. For example, will they be beaten or molested tonight. They seek to have some measure of control. These patterns remain as they grow older. The outcome can vary, such as excessive control of money or hoarding. Many over eaters tell themselves having more will power is the answer. However, attempting to solve problems purely by self-control usually results in defeat.

  • Having a Faulty Body Image

The faulty perception of one's own body can lead a person to over eat. Or in the case of anorexics, eat too little. The degree to which some are able to disregard what they see in a mirror is ludicrous.

  • Feelings Formed in Childhood

Harmful attitudes about food are often picked up at the dinner table. In most families, food in moderation becomes a type of celebration. But for compulsive eaters, virtually anything can become a celebration.

  • Food to Satisfy a Hunger for Love

Most over eaters use food to satisfy their their need for emotional nurturing they never received as children. Others, because of divorce, broken romances, or loss of someone close. Food can never satisfy this need.

  • How to Fill a Hungry Heart

What does your heart truly hunger for? Love and affirmation? Notice, neither of these can be picked up with a fork. But these things are locked in your heart where no one can steal them. You can find love and acceptance from a number of valid, healthy sources.

Find a small Bible study group, where love is unconditionally shown. Or, make a commitment to forgive yourself. Blame and guilt are prime culprits making us feel unloved and unacceptable.

You can restructure your lifestyle to reflect your personal worth. If you have felt inadequate to enjoy an exciting sexual relationship with your spouse, give yourself permission to discuss the issue with them. If you feel you aren't being appropriately paid at work, give yourself permission to ask for a raise.

Related to Obsessive Compulsive Personality.

Compulsive behavior is closely related to a obsessive compulsive personality. Those with OCD display an inclination to achieve perfection. They're preoccupied with scheduling, details, and rules. Those prone to OCD are susceptible to a number of compulsions, such as being a workaholic, overspending, hoarding, and extreme religious legalism.

When anxiety and other emotional issues reach a certain point their behavior can become eccentric. Notice there are two components, obsession and compulsion. Obsessions are irrational thinking patterns; compulsions are irrational patterns of actions.

OCD is a form of mental illness requiring professional treatment. Most can identify with one or another. Compulsive people avoid dealing with conflicts like guilt, or painful childhood memories. However, once faced they usually disappear.

Compulsive Over Eating

One can't quit eating like a smoker quits smoking, or a drinker quits drinking. A person's need for food is highly individualized. How can one know if a certain amount of food is just right or too much? It's difficult to ascertain if one has an over eating compulsion.

Many obese people say “Yes I'm overweight, but not because I over eat. I'm just big boned.” Or “I have a slow metabolism.” Another common statement is, “It's genetic.” True, there are some with biological reasons for being overweight, but they represent a small minority. The vast majority have an over eating disorder. Compulsive over eaters need insight to gain control.

Compulsive over eating comes from deep emotional issues of pain and guilt. More often than not it's connected to a past traumatic event. The issue isn't how much someone weighs, but why they over eat. Are they physically hungry or trying to satisfy an emotional need. Compulsive over eaters are usually not aware themselves. For them food is an addiction. Just as their alcoholic counterparts are emotionally dependent upon alcohol, compulsive over eaters also become dependent. This is why diet books, drinks, pills and other programs usually fail. They attack symptoms, not the root cause.

Role of Denial

Denial is an inability to see the truth. The more serious the addiction, the stronger the denial. A common denial is having unrealistic beliefs, such as a “magic pill.” It's impossible to take control of eating habits until the truth is admitted. See if you recognize any of the following:

  • I can lose weight anytime I want to.

  • I eat like everyone else. My metabolism is just slow.

  • I can't lose weight after a pregnancy.

  • I don't see any value in dieting. If my weight doesn't get me, cancer or something else will.

Such statements keep addictions going.

Freedom From Compulsive Over Eating

There are 10 basic steps to freedom from compulsive overeating:

  1. Identify Addictions

Most who behave compulsively are poly-addicted. They may also be a shopaholic or aggression prone. Take stock of your compulsions and addictions By getting in touch with various substances and behaviors you use to cover emotional issues.

  1. Break the Denial Habit

Denial is a valid defense mechanism to help us through grief and loss. But denial becomes unhealthy when it's used to whitewash guilt obscuring pain You must face your addictions.

  1. Identify Trigger Foods and Situations

What foods do you use for emotional comfort, relaxation, and covering up pain? Every addiction has triggers. Once you have identified these “triggers,” avoid them. Plan trips to avoid going near restaurants. Instead of going to a theater, rent movies and view them at home, avoiding the tempting smell of popcorn . It's also advisable not to grocery shop on an empty stomach.

  1. Enlist Family Support

One of the most common causes of diet failure is family sabotage: the husband who brings home his wife's favorite ice cream, children who beg for fresh-baked cookies, the mother who prepares the dieter's favorite fattening foods.

  1. Dieting for the Right Motive Don't start a diet to win love or approval. Don't diet for your husband, your mother, or boyfriend. You must do it for yourself. Otherwise you may subconsciously become angry and resentful toward the one you are dieting for.

  2. Set Reasonable Goals

Some surveys suggest as many as 90% of Americans consider themselves overweight. In fact, only about 25% are considered significantly obese.

  1. Get Prior Doctor Approval

A diet is a lifestyle change. And any lifestyle change, even a healthy one, puts stress on a body. Therefore it's important to have a physical examination before starting any diet. Risk factors to watch for include previous heart attacks, stroke history, blood clotting history, liver or kidney disease, cancer, acute psychiatric disorder, and diabetes. Although being overweight is less healthy than weight-loss, these disorders subject patients to a much greater risk. It's important such patients be closely monitored to avoid dangerous nutritional imbalances.

  1. Understanding Why Past Diets Failed

Some popular diet programs have been unbalanced, unhealthy, or simply outrageous. For example, the Beverly Hills Diet suggested: “Don't eat potatoes; they turn to vodka in your stomach.” On the other hand, others such as Weight Watchers offer a sensible, reduced-calorie method of losing weight.

  1. Be Certain You want to be Free

In order to achieve long-term mastery over your weight, you must want it bad enough to to break emotional and spiritual bonds keeping you captive.

  1. Understanding Medical Risks

Medical complications of obesity include:

  • Cardiovascular problems

  • Heart attack, and heart failure

  • Colon, breast and uterine cancer

  • Joint, tendon, and back problems

  • Gallbladder and pancreas problems

  • Diabetes

  • Pregnancy complications

  • Increased surgical risks and premature aging.

Understanding these medical risks can enhance your motivation to lose weight.


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