Many people assume that addiction ends the moment we stop using alcohol and drugs, but addiction isn’t just a physical ailment. Addiction is a compulsive behavioral pattern that often continues into sobriety, beyond the use of alcohol and drugs. Normal behaviors that seem harmless at first can spiral out of control, rapidly becoming compulsions that are as harmful as addiction to alcohol and drugs.

As addicts in recovery, our addiction can manifest in a variety of ways, compelling us to act out on addictive behaviors, sometimes without realizing it. There are many recovery fellowships that deal specifically with non-substance-based compulsive behaviors, such as Gamblers Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Co-dependents Anonymous, and more. Just because an addiction or compulsion doesn’t involve alcohol or drugs doesn’t mean it’s harmless.


Finding the line between harm reduction and self-harm

In active addiction we had a crippling, life threatening addiction to drugs and alcohol. Now in sobriety, we are free from substances, but may find ourselves acting out through compulsive eating, shopping, tv watching, phone use, sex, relationships, and more. Some of these behaviors can be labeled as harmless, or at least less harmful than past addictions, but where do we draw the line between harm reduction and self-destructive behavior?

How do we define what is addiction and what is a harmless habit? As addicts we tend to be accidental hedonists, participating in multiple pleasure seeking behaviors. We are attached to the dopamine and serotonin accessed by alcohol and drug use. In sobriety, we seek that same blissful feeling through exercise, sex, shopping, eating, and even screen time in front of the TV or mobile devices. This compulsion to seek immediate gratification and dopamine/serotonin release may seem harmless compared to a years-long heroin addiction or alcohol dependence, but the root cause may not be so harmless.


Mental health and addiction: co-occurring disorders and dual diagnosis

Many Alcoholics and Addicts suffer from what is called dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders. Dual diagnosis can have a variety of meanings, but the idea is that the sufferer is battling some form of addiction fueled by some form of mental health disorder. A chemical imbalance in the brain causes us to seek increased levels of joy by drinking, using drugs, or acting out on harmful behaviors, often setting us up to crave the feeling that comes from a release of dopamine and serotonin that comes from participating in addictive behaviors.  Manic episodes caused by mental illnesses such as depression or bipolar disorder can drive us to further act out on this desire for joy, creating compulsive patterns that feel impossible to stop.

A harmless habit becomes an addictive behavior when it begins to negatively affect our lives. Enjoying a favorite TV show can quickly grow to ignoring important responsibilities to watch an entire season. Casual dating and seeking true romance can become lying to cover up sex with multiple partners. A “treat yo self” day of shopping can soon become massive amounts of credit card debt. Ultimately, addiction of any kind can lead to lying, stealing, and cheating in order to get to that feeling of joy which we  impulsively crave.


Treating compulsive behavior with impulse control

So how do we battle impulse and compulsive behaviors? The long answer involves a program of recovery dedicated to changing the neural pathways created by our brain’s reward system. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), psychotherapy, and mindfulness techniques are all viable long term treatments for compulsive behavior and impulse control issues. But, such as it is with alcohol and drug addiction, we can’t treat the disease until we treat the symptom. A program of recovery doesn’t work if we keep using alcohol and drugs, and so recovery from compulsive behaviors isn’t possible without removing the vehicle by which the compulsion travels. In short, cut up the credit card, put the phone away, delete Tinder, and stop buying junk food.

For long term treatment of compulsive behaviors, the best treatment is a combination of therapy, support groups, and altered behaviors. For those struggling with a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder, therapy and medication will level the chemical imbalances in the brain which may be triggering impulsive episodes. Joining a 12-step group, support group, or other recovery fellowship that deals with compulsive behavior has shown tremendous benefit for sufferers. Practicing meditation and mindfulness helps our brains to re-learn how to control the release of endorphins and help us maintain long term happiness, rather than a high and a crash that comes from the cycle of drug use or compulsive behavior. By treating our compulsion and impulse control issues in the same way we treat addiction, we can begin once again on the path to true recovery.


— Emily Ash for Avenues NYC, 2018




If you are struggling with Mental Illness please contact your local behavioral health center or call 911 in the case of an emergency. If you are struggling with addiction to any behavior reach out to your health care provider. If you are experiencing withdrawal from drugs or alcohol call 911. You can not do it alone.

For more information about helpful recovery services like sober living, recovery coaching, sober companionship, interventions, and more, contact Avenues. We’ve got your back.