When Avoidance Rules Your Life

Researchers are beginning to distinguish between compulsions (which we often confuse with addictions) and seeking behaviors. One is about avoidance, and the other is about seeking. 

Bianca is compelled to maintain her three-story home so neat, clean, and organized that she must keep certain chairs in certain places, bathroom towels arranged and folded precisely, the dishwasher loaded with a rigid, unwavering system, and tall glasses stored on the left of a cabinet.

On the other hand, Suzanne’s home was so cluttered with her hoarding over decades that city officials threatened to condemn it.

The two women appear to be opposed on the surface. But if you look deeper, they’re not that different. Their stories shed light on a mystery that has long puzzled students of the brain and that recent science is now shedding some light on. What are the origins of compulsive behaviors, and how are they different from behavior addictions which we usually associate with excessive drinking, drug abuse, or gambling?

Bianca was a young child who had very little control over her life. Her mother picked out her clothes, furniture, friends, and activities. Her moods fluctuated from white-hot anger to warm care to cool aloofness. It was stressful enough to have her fate in another’s hands, but she was even more stressed that she never knew “which mother” would be with her each morning.

Bianca developed a strategy to cope with her summer home. It crystallized when she and her family arrived one year ago. Bianca told her mother she didn’t need to finish all the dusting, cob-webbing, and other tasks immediately. She recalled, “Let’s clean up a small part of the lawn and set out some chairs and tables so we can create a nice sanctuary.” “That’s when I realized that even if I couldn’t fix it all, as long as I had a little space where I could think clearly, I was OK.”

This drive to create an oasis of calm and order in a sea full of chaos and turmoil grew more robust as Bianca, now a divorced single mother, struggled to find her way to the United States after she immigrated from Switzerland. She had to “have things where they belonged and do things in a particular way, even small things like arranging coffee cups or hanging them in the correct place,” said Bianca. Her compulsions give her a “sense of peace and control.”

Suzanne felt trapped by the time she had five children in school in a marriage that brought her little happiness and caused her many bruises. She said, “I remember thinking I didn’t want to live anymore.” She put her interests aside and devoted herself to her children: “I thought, ‘Someday I’ll read this book.'” Someday I’ll go back to knitting. Her husband would bring home empty boxes (the only gifts he gave her), and she slowly filled them with all her unfulfilled dreams. She had magazines about home improvement projects she wanted to undertake, newspaper clippings of wonderful places she wanted to visit, and materials for Boy Scout projects or reupholstering furniture.

She can avoid the stress of facing the realities of her life by hoarding. Suzanne, pointing at the boxes filled with magazine and newspaper clippings and other items she cannot identify, told me: “I dreamed that my life would be wonderful and that we would go on vacation or that I’d have an attractive garden or room like those in magazines. It didn’t happen. Instead of the things I dreamed of, I only have pieces of paper. “That’s all I have.”

Compulsion vs. Compulsion

Both women could be described as addicted to their respective activities: Bianca, to order and tidiness; Suzanne, to hoarding. Both terms are used interchangeably, not just in casual conversations (compulsive buying is synonymous with addiction to shopping) but also by experts. James Hansell is a clinical psychologist from George Washington University. He told me there was a scientific debate about whether or not compulsive behavior and addiction are similar.

Recent research in neuroscience and psychology is beginning to settle this controversy.

Addictions can be pleasurable, but they also develop a tolerance as addicts need to do more of a behavior (or substance) to achieve the same high.

The emerging understanding is that addiction begins with a moment of pleasure, but a desire for danger accompanies it. It’s exciting for you to drink or gamble, but it puts you in trouble (for not paying your rent, for being an idiot). Addictions can be pleasurable, but they also lead to a build-up of tolerance, where the addict needs more substance or behavior to feel the same high.

Compulsions are about avoiding undesirable outcomes. These compulsions are born of anxiety, and they remain opposed to joy. We repeat these behaviors repeatedly to relieve the stress brought on by the potential of negative consequences. I will miss an urgent request from my boss if I do not check my phone continuously. I may also feel as if I am clueless. My home will be in chaos if I don’t organize my closets. If I don’t buy nice things, I will look like I’m going to be homeless. The goal of compulsive behaviors is to reduce anxiety. This was stated by Jeff Szymanski, executive director of the International OCD Foundation. Compulsions are roote in the brain circuit, which detects threats. This circuit is abnormally active for people with OCD.

Compulsions differ from addictions because they’re primarily motivate by anxiety relief, not pleasure. Compulsive behavior is a form of self-reassurance–Everything’s OK now that I’ve checked my phone 15 seconds after I checked the email on my desktop. Maybe a new one is on its way …. her compulsions rule Bianca, and so is Suzanne.

An Age of Anxiety

Understanding that addictions and compulsions stem from anxiety and joy is essential. This also explains the prevalence of compulsions such as Bianca and Suzanne’s. Since the 1947 publication of W. H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety, ours has been defined by personal and societal dread. In any 12 months, 18.1% of US adults experience anxiety severe enough to qualify as a disorder. This compares to only 6.9% of US adults who suffer from depression.

In any given year, 18.1% of US adults experience anxiety severe enough to qualify as a disorder. This compares to the 6.9% of US adults who suffer from depression.

In this age of anxiety, it’s unsurprising that many people are compell to do things. We can’t stop bomb-toting fans driving to Times Square. Forcing our perfect online date to find us. control what we can by cleaning, checking, shopping, or surfing

The web to relieve our anxiety. We grab hold of anything that gives us a sense of control, especially when faced with tectonic economic. Social forces that can feel overwhelming and uncontrollable. Compulsions can compared to steering into a skid. Although it may seem counterintuitive, many people find that, on their terms, this is the best way to go.

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