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Out of Control: When A Fun Pursuit Turns Into Compulsive Behavior

Do you shop to feel better, or surf the web when you know you should sleep? How to recognize the signs of addictive behavior.
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Whether it is shopping, surfing the Internet, or watching TV, a seemingly harmless indulgence can turn habit-forming faster than you think. While everyone overindulges occasionally, trouble strikes when the habit turns into an all-consuming need that must be met at the cost of everything else, including family, friends, and a career.

Jerrold Pollak, PhD, a psychologist specializing in compulsive behavior, says, "Many behaviors can become compulsive. People can't stop doing them and they do them too much."

The more you give in to the compulsion, the worse it gets until what started as a pastime has become an addiction. And that addiction comes with serious consequences for your physical, mental, and, sometimes, fiscal health.

Luckily, there are warning signs that can alert you to when a habit is becoming a compulsion. Here are the most important signs to watch for. Here, too, are tips from the experts on what to do when you realize your compulsive behavior has gone too far.

The difference between fun and compulsion: Too much of a good thing

"Behaviors like shopping and surfing the Internet meet certain needs," says Pollak. "But there is a difference between a bad habit and a compulsion when it comes to engaging in these behaviors." Bad habits, Pollak tells WebMD, can be controlled. While the behavior might be a nuisance and undesirable, he says, it is not destructive to you and the people around you. Compulsive behavior is similar to addiction -- we reach a point where we cannot stop even though we know our behavior isn't serving us well.

Enjoyable activities like web surfing and shopping can become compulsive behaviors because we use them to decompress and to wash away feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. "With a compulsion like shopping," says April Benson, PhD, "people rely on it to make them feel better or help them to avoid dealing with something." Benson is author of I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self. She says, "It [shopping] can start innocently, but build because it's self medication."

You buy something new to feel better for a while, Benson says, but then you feel remorse. And you feel ashamed. The next thing you know, in order to make those feelings go away, you have to shop again and it starts all over.

Think of it as an increased tolerance. It is similar to what happens with addiction to alcohol or to drugs. The problem behavior starts to increase because the compulsion becomes harder to satisfy. You need more shopping, more Internet, more TV to make you feel satisfied. But as your tolerance continues to rise, you feel less satisfied, and the need comes on even stronger than before. Like any other addiction, it is a vicious circle.

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